Fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld is the undisputed star of this year’s Met Gala – but there are some loose threads.
The German-born couturier, who died at 85 in 2019, is the theme for this year’s star-studded annual benefit for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute and its corresponding exhibit. The dress code, “in honor of Karl,” pays tribute to his decades-long work as creative director of many fashion houses, including Chanel, Fendi and Chloé.
While Lagerfeld is known for his signature style – white hair, black sunglasses and 19th-century-style shirt collars – he is also remembered for his polemical tendencies, having offered unfiltered commentary on migrants, sexual assault survivors, the #MeToo movement and gay men who want to adopt children.
“He offended people right and left, making as much of an art out of the cutting aside as the perfectly cut double-face gown,” New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman wrote soon after Lagerfeld’s death.
Here’s everything you need to know about the style sage and his polarizing legacy.
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Who is Karl Lagerfeld?
Born Karl Otto Lagerfeldtin Hamburg, Germany, Lagerfeld took a strong interest in fashion during his teen years. After moving to Paris at age 14, Lagerfeld – who dropped the “t” from his surname to make it sound “more commercial” – worked under French designer Pierre Balmain as a junior assistant and later as an apprentice.
Following stints with Balmain and Jean Patou’s fashion house, Lagerfeld began designing collections for luxury brands including Chloé, Fendi, Valentino and shoemaker Charles Jourdan. His sartorial stature soared to new heights in the ’80s when he revitalized French fashion house Chanel with zeitgeisty looks and launched his own eponymous label.
Lagerfeld became a darling of the celebrity world, gaining the admiration of high-profile stars such as Lady Gaga, Kristen Stewart and Beyoncé. Some of these stars, including Kendall Jenner and Naomi Campbell, paid tribute to the designer’s legacy by appearing on a commemorative May cover of Vogue alongside other models he “loved most.”
Lagerfeld was also interested in photography and illustration. His photography work was featured in major outlets such as British Vogue and Interview magazine, as well as Chanel’s ads.
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Is Karl Lagerfeld a designer brand?
Lagerfeld launched his label in 1984, and the brand “combines Parisian classics with a rock-chic attitude and tailored silhouettes,” according to its official website. Collections feature ready-to-wear looks for men, women and children. The brand also offers an assortment of accessories including watches, bags, eyewear, perfumes and jewelry.
Inspired equally by the cerebral and the carnal, Lagerfeld set out to create designs that reflected his self-coined concept of “intellectual sexiness.” The label went on to open more than 200 stores across the world, including in Paris, London and New York.
In 2005, Lagerfeld sold the brand to American fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger.
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How did Karl Lagerfeld die?
Lagerfeld died Feb. 19, 2019, around the age of 85 (he reportedly had two birth certificates, one dated 1933 and the other 1938). A cause of death was not given. Lagerfeld had looked increasingly frail in recent seasons, worrying fans. He did not come out to take a bow at Chanel’s couture show in Paris in January 2019, which the company attributed to fatigue.
Several stars and industry colleagues mourned the loss of Lagerfeld and his influence in fashion, including then-Chanel CEO Alain Wertheimer.
“Thanks to his creative genius, generosity and exceptional intuition, Karl Lagerfeld was ahead of his time,” Wertheimer said in a release at the time.
From 2019:Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, creative director for Chanel and Fendi, dies
Karl Lagerfeld’s cat became a viral sensation
Lagerfeld’s cat, a white Siamese named Choupette, gave the designer a run for his money in the fame department. The feline amassed over 45,000 followers on Twitter and over 200,000 on Instagram thanks to a pair of fan accounts that featured snarky commentary written from the cat’s imagined point of view.
Ahead of the Met Gala on Monday, Kim Kardashian posted a series of selfies of her hanging out with Choupette. “Had a date with (Choupette) in Paris,” she wrote Wednesday.
Lagerfeld’s love for Choupette, who he stole from a friend when he was on vacation, ran so deep that he told CNN in a 2013 interview that he wanted to marry his furry companion. “I never thought I would fall in love like this with a cat,” he said.
In a March 2015 interview with The Cut, Lagerfeld revealed Choupette had a pair of personal maids that looked after her, as well as underwent beauty treatments for her eyes.
“There is something unforgettable about her, the way she moves, the way she plays,” Lagerfeld told the outlet. “She’s an inspiration for elegance. For attitude.”
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While Lagerfeld became a fashion heavyweight for his cutting-edge looks, he also had a controversial track record of making statements that were not in vogue.
During a 2018 interview with French fashion magazine Numéro, Lagerfeld criticized the #MeToo movement and its impact on the fashion and modeling industries.
“What shocks me most in all of this are the starlets who have taken 20 years to remember what happened. Not to mention the fact there are no prosecution witnesses,” Lagerfeld told the outlet. “I read somewhere that now you must ask a model if she is comfortable with posing. It’s simply too much, from now on, as a designer, you can’t do anything.”
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In the same interview, Lagerfeld insulted models as being “stupid,” “toxic” and overall “sordid creatures.” Sara Ziff, founder of fashion-industry group Model Alliance, called his comments a “flippant dismissal” of sexual harassment and abuse in the industry.
Lagerfeld, who co-authored a diet book after losing 92 pounds in 13 months, was vocally critical throughout his career of women larger than size 0 or 2. That included his defense of designers exclusively hiring rail-thin runway models. “Fashion is the healthiest motivation for losing weight,” he said, according to the book “The World According to Karl,” a collection of Lagerfeld quotes.
Asked in a 2009 Focus interview about German women’s magazine Brigitte declaring it would only publish photographs of “real women,” as opposed to professional models, Lagerfeld said, “You’ve got fat mothers with their bags of chips sitting in front of the television and saying that thin models are ugly. The world of beautiful clothing is about ‘dreams and illusions.'”
Lagerfeld also publicly shared critiques of certain celebrities. In 2009, he called supermodel Heidi Klum “insignificant” in the fashion world because she was “too glamorous”; he criticized singer Adele as “a little too fat” in 2012; and later that year he dissed Pippa Middleton’s face, suggesting she only show her backside.
He even got into a fracas with Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep when he claimed in 2017 that she dropped out of wearing a Chanel dress to that year’s Academy Awards in favor of a brand that would pay her.
Karl Lagerfeld criticized immigration, same-sex marriage
A self-professed “big mouth,” Lagerfeld sounded off on sociopolitical issues, including immigration and same-sex marriage.
In 2017, Lagerfeld sniped at Angela Merkel, then the German chancellor, for opening Germany’s borders to migrants during the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe two years prior.
In some English translations of his appearance on French talk show “Salut les Terriens!” Lagerfeld offered this anecdote: “I know someone in Germany who took (in) a young Syrian and after four days said: ‘The greatest thing Germany invented was the Holocaust.'”
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Lagerfeld rebuked same-sex marriage in a 2010 interview with Vice magazine, particularly as it pertains to two men.
“For me it’s difficult to imagine – one of the papas at work and the other at home with the baby. How would that be, for the baby? I don’t know,” Lagerfeld said. “I see more lesbians married with babies than I see boys married with babies. And I also believe more in the relationship between mother and child than in that between father and child.”
In a seeming about-face, Lagerfeld sent two brides in identical wedding dresses down the runway for the finale of his spring 2013 Chanel haute couture show in Paris, telling The Guardian it was a show of support for the French same-sex marriage law. However, he also said he was “less keen” on same-sex couples being allowed to adopt.
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Contributing: Maria Puente, Jayme Deerwester and Cindy Clark Kramer, USA TODAY; Leanne Italie, The Associated Press