In Memoriam

Karl Lagerfeld (1933-2019): The Icon

Karl Lagerfeld (1933-2019)
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The last eccentric genius in fashion

THIS MUST BE the golden age of internet cat videos. Funny cat videos, grumpy cat videos; cats on Facebook, on YouTube—as far as our eyes can turn, they appear in the digital landscape. Who then is the most famous? There is Grumpy Cat, often called the most pessimistic feline, whose unimpressed visage has garnered it 2.4 million followers on Instagram. There is Samson or Catstradamus, a four-foot-long Maine Coon Cat, larger than most dogs. These are very popular cats appearing in movies and TV shows.

Then there is Choupette, a white Birman cat who if not the most famous is certainly the most pampered, glimpsed occasionally on the parody Twitter and Instagram accounts ‘ChoupettesDiary’. She has two maids, a bodyguard and a private medical consultant, travels by private jet, and has a taste for caviar and chicken en gelee with asparagus. How did she manage this? Courtesy her master, of course. But Choupette is now bereaved because he, the legendary fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, is dead.

Lagerfeld is believed to have met her late in his life, in 2011. Unmarried and childless (he was last known to be in love with Jacques de Bascher, who died from AIDS in 1989) and with a fiendish reputation for little time outside work (he told the New Yorker mockingly, “This is another cliché—the loneliness... I have to fight to be alone... Loneliness is a luxury for people like me”), Lagerfeld is believed to have fallen in love with her when the original master, model Baptiste Giabiconi, had him cat-sit her for two weeks. When Giabiconi returned, Lagerfeld refused to part with her. He told Numéro magazine the cat stole his heart because “she is pretty to look at and has good poise, but her main quality is that she doesn’t talk”. By 2013, he proclaimed he would marry her if it were legal.

An eccentric with outsize influence over fashion, Lagerfeld was always in a uniform, if one could call it that, ever since early 2000s. He gave himself the look, consisting of a razor-thin black suit, white shirt, fingerless black biker gloves and sunglasses, after a drastic weight loss of 40 kg. His preternaturally white hair—as white as Choupette’s fur—pulled into a pony tail and his large belt buckle encrusted with diamonds. He told the New Yorker he didn’t wear t-shirts and jeans like other male designers because “I don’t think I’m too good for what I’m doing”.

Nobody helmed so many labels for so long. He headed Chanel, Fendi and intermittently his own- name brand. Before him, Chanel meant dignity and restraint. Lagerfeld gave a bad-girl dash to it, slashing hemlines and adding glitz to dull tweed suits, changing the direction of fashion itself. Vanity Fair wrote, ‘He injected an industry once famously fusty and white-gloved with daring, youth and irreverence.’

He was also something of a caricature. Endlessly quotable, known for put-downs. On Paul McCartney’s designer daughter Stella’s appointment at Chloé he said, “I think they should have taken a big name. They did—but in music, not fashion.” He called his friend and rival Yves Saint Laurent “very middle-of-the-road French, very pied-noir, very provincial”. Lagerfeld was also reviled—by animal rights activists for unapologetically working with fur (PETA UK director Mimi Bekhechi called him “an undertaker”); and for his ‘sexist’ comments, like calling Adele “a little too fat”.

Even his early life story was an invention. He lied about his birth date. September 10th, 1933, is deemed most reliable. He claimed his father was a Swede who made a fortune importing condensed milk, and his mother, a German ‘of culture’. Others said his father was just another businessman and mother a lingerie saleswoman. In one version, his family suffered deprivations under Hitler.

Who will take care of Choupette now? On ‘ChoupettesDiary’, that is a far more pressing issue than who will take care of Chanel.