Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel’s Creative Force, Dies


Karl Lagerfeld, the German designer who dominated high fashion for decades and reinvigorated French couture house Chanel SA as creative director, has died. He was 85, but he long refused to confirm his age.

His death removes the long-running creative force behind two fashion behemoths: Chanel, one of the luxury industry’s biggest brands, and Fendi, the Italian fashion house owned by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE where he had been a creative director since 1965.

“We have lost a creative genius who helped to make Paris the fashion capital of the world,” said Bernard Arnault, the French billionaire who leads LVMH. “Fashion and culture has lost a great inspiration.”

Virginie Viard, Mr. Lagerfeld’s longtime collaborator at Chanel, will take over his creative duties, Chanel said.

With his dark sunglasses and white hair pulled into a ponytail, Mr. Lagerfeld stood out as one of the fashion world’s most indefatigable figures. While peers like Yves Saint Laurent burned out under the spotlight of the catwalk, Mr. Lagerfeld managed to straddle the fashion meccas of Paris and Milan for decades.

He was a voracious collector of everything from music to jewelry, a penchant that fueled his uncanny ability to stay ahead of the design curve as trends—from 1970s polyester to 1990s grunge—came and went.

The sheer scale of Mr. Lagerfeld’s reach—designing for two top fashion houses as well as his own namesake label—also made him an archetype for a generation of designers that followed in his footsteps. Long before designers came under pressure to expand their followings on social media, Mr. Lagerfeld pioneered the practice of keeping the world riveted with his knack for bon mots.

“I’m a kind of fashion nymphomaniac who never gets an orgasm,” Mr. Lagerfeld once said when asked how he feels after a fashion show.

Mr. Lagerfeld breathed new life into Chanel when he became creative director in 1983, transforming the brand from an elite, if fusty, fashion house focused on haute couture into a globe-spanning luxury empire with nearly $10 billion in annual sales.

He expanded Chanel’s ready-to-wear offering and designed modern interpretations of the brand’s classic items, such as its tweeds and the little black dress.

“When I took over Chanel, she was a sleeping beauty—not even a beautiful one; she snored,” Mr. Lagerfeld said in a 2007 documentary.

“Today, not only have I lost a friend, but we have all lost an extraordinary creative mind to whom I gave carte blanche in the early 1980s to reinvent the brand,” said Chanel’s chief executive and co-owner, Alain Wertheimer.

Born Karl Otto Lagerfeld in Hamburg, he was the son of a businessman and a lingerie saleswoman-turned-housewife. Mr. Lagerfeld once claimed he was born in 1935, but amateur historians discovered a birth announcement for him dated Sept. 10, 1933.

As a child, Mr. Lagerfeld had little interest for playing with other children, preferring instead to sketch.

“My childhood was very simple. I only wanted one thing: to get out of there,” he said in 2017.

He came to Paris as a teenager. Walking in the street, he happened upon a billboard announcing a design competition from the International Wool Association. Mr. Lagerfeld submitted a sketch for a coat and won, launching his career in fashion.