couture: noun \kü-ˈtu̇r, -ˈtuer\
1. : the business of designing, making, and selling fashionable custom-made women's clothing
2. : the designers and establishments engaged in couture
3. : the clothes created by couture
1. of clothing : ready-made
2. : dealing in ready-made clothes <ready–to–wear stores>
— ready–to–wear noun
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Karl Lagerfeld is one of the most famous fashion designers of all time. He has worked with pretty much every notable clothing company, ranging from the new, hip, and cheap (H&M) to the old, expensive institutions (Chanel) and beyond, and designed several of his own lines as well. He is often described as an “icon” and an “enigma,” and far be it from me to write otherwise. Lagerfeld himself, I am reasonably certain, would approve of such a description: rarely can he be seen in public or caught on film without his eyes hiding behind his signature sunglasses, his hair done up white and blocky, and a crisp, high-collared suit, looking like the ponytailed offspring of Andy Warhol and Jim Jarmusch (with all the cool that implies and more). After all, life imitates art imitates life, and the respectable fashionistas must be fashionable as well.
Lagerfeld was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1930-something (Lagerfeld dubiously claims that no one knows his exact birthdate) and emigrated to Paris as a young teenager. Lagerfeld's first significant foray into design occurred in 1955, when the seventeen-year-old (to twenty-two-year-old, depending on which birth-year claim you believe) entered a coat design into the International Wool Secretariat-sponsored design contest and came in second (Yves Saint Laurent's came in first – not bad company to keep for an aspiring fashion designer)#. Pierre Balmain picked him up as an assistant, beginning Karl's slow, steady, and inevitable progression to couturier extraordinaire.
He bounced around the Parisian fashion world for years: couture for Balmain, then for Patou, freelance design (which he preferred) for Jourdan and Valentino. In 1964, he even quit fashion for what he thought was once and for all to find himself and took up the study of art in Italy (which he also quit to, as he puts it, “[study] life”). Of course, his retirement from the fashion world turned out, after all, to just be a long vacation. As early as the late sixties, Lagerfeld returned: first, designing for Fendi, before presciently switching from the haute couture of his younger days to the ready-to-wear stylings of Chloe.
Arguably, the greatest chapter of his career begin in 1982, when he was appointed the head designer of Chanel. Lagerfeld reinvigorated the line, which had been struggling, with daring sensibilities and a confident approach worthy of Coco herself. Vogue has described his style as a “minimal clean aesthetic,#” but the man himself describes it as “intellectual sexiness,” which is an impressive phrase no matter which language you speak. Under his leadership, Chanel was right back in the forefront of the fashion world, where they belonged.
Though, if you'll forgive the incidental rhyme, fashion is his passion, Lagerfeld has always had his fingers in a multitude of pies. His design has extended beyond clothing to glassware, jewelry, and even Diet Coke bottles. He went to school for drawing and has illustrated books. He voiced a DJ in a Grand Theft Auto game! He took up photography later in his career, becoming a notable photographer in his own right and even dabbling in filmmaking. He owns a chic book store in Paris. He speaks several languages. In fact, after years of literally having his fingers in too many pies, Lagerfeld proved himself an impressively successful loser of weight and published The Karl Lagerfeld Diet! Truly, he is a jack of all trades, if ever there was one#.
Besides his obvious and rare creative talent, Lagerfeld is notable for his audacity in both his work and his personality. He has never shied from controversy. His designs tend to be provocative for their revealing cuts and their bizarre qualities. As a high-profile collaborator with a diverse group of artists including Madonna, Shu Uemura, and Cee-Lo Green he has quite a public figure. Lagerfeld himself tends to speak his mind, which is provocative in and of itself, and tends to get him in trouble with the media#.
We can't all accessorize ourselves from a bowlful of jewelry before we leave for work in the morning, but that doesn't mean we can't learn a little something from Karl Lagerfeld, whether we're inspired by his work ethic, his confidence, or his clarity of vision. The world needs prominent characters like him to remind us that weird is good, weird is important, and weird can even be lucrative. In that respect, maybe it does make sense that I first heard his name in a Cam'ron song.
1. “Karl Lagerfeld actin' like Gargamel,” which doesn't even begin to make any sense, from Soap Opera, track 12 of Cam'ron's 2004 magnum opus Purple Haze.
4. For a seemingly comprehensive list of Lagerfeld collaborations, check out this GQ gallery: http://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/style/articles/2011-04/07/gq-style-news-karl-lagerfeld-collaborations-team-ups/
5. As much as I hate to be part of the machine that blows these unimportant things out of proportion, Lagerfeld recently got into hot water when he called Adele “a little too fat.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/09/adele-responds-to-karl-lagerfelds-fat-remark_n_1265252.html