How Karl Saved Chanel

Karl Lagerfeld passed away yesterday after a life dedicated to fashion. The notorious workaholic started his career as Pierre Balmain’s assistant at the mere age of 22 and refused to rest since, going on to work at Jean Patou, Chloe, Fendi and most famously, become the creative director of Chanel. Today, Karl and Chanel are practically synonymous with each other but behind this iconic partnership is a rather interesting story.

Let’s go back to 1954 when Coco Chanel reopened her fashion house after 15 years of retirement. Furious at the very restricting “new look” Christian Dior popularised, she designed box-cut tweed jackets and skirts. Though the suits became classics, most of her designs from this era were strictly designed for mature women like her. Times had changed and her designs no longer resonated with younger audiences. Karl himself once said, “No one wanted to be told by an old lady that miniskirts and jeans weren't chic. The result was that she lost her power and, in the end, no one cared about what she did.” When Coco passed away 17 years later, Chanel continued to produce different variations of her designs from her last years. Refusing to move with the times left the label stuck in a stagnant space in a fast-moving world and its power and popularity slowly withered off.

It was at this time that Chanel approached Karl to become its creative director. According to WWD Chanel was so desperate to turn things around that they offered him an annual salary of $1 million and an additional $100,000 in dresses for his friends and editors. But Karl did not accept the offer immediately. He had two demands; the first of which was to get full creative control of the brand. He wanted control over every division from couture to ready-to-wear in order to execute a successful revamp. Secondly, he wanted to bring his own team with him. This included his former assistants Herve Leger & Eva Campocasso, who would head the ready-to-wear division, and former model Mercedes Robirosa, who would work in the press division. Later, Karl told WWD “I’m working like the Communist party, bringing in my own people and placing them everywhere.”

Chanel Haute Couture, 1983; Karl’s first Haute Couture collection for Chanel.

Chanel Haute Couture, 1983; Karl’s first Haute Couture collection for Chanel.

This was a huge risk on Chanel’s part but perhaps out of desperation, the company agreed to let him in on a trial run which soon evolved into three decades in which he’d become synonymous with the brand. Karl did not design from Coco’s perspective. He designed what he thought the woman of that time would want then “Chanel-ified” it. He took elements from Coco’s work and played with them, in his words, like a musician. The result was a Chanel that was young, chic and elegantly sexy. He broke new ground at Chanel by incorporating denim in his collections. While Coco was notoriously conservative, Karl celebrated the sexiness of a woman with sheer garments, miniskirts and cutouts. Even Chanel classics were re-imagined in unconventional mixes of fabrics. As time passed, he slowly expanded into other sectors like swimwear and fine jewellery. The Chanel that was stuck in time was now a thing of the past. Under Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel became cool again.


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