Is the legacy of Karl Lagerfeld a triumphant success story of steering past into present? Or a disastrous precedent for a generation of young designers obliged to use their energy and originality to prop up established brands?
‘King Karl’ was an undisputed genius at morphing into another designer’s mind. For 36 years, from 1983 until his death last month, he played Coco, breathing fresh life into Chanel. For his other day job at Fendi, he proved himself a master of reinvention and spent an unbelievable 51 years at the helm.
Only his own KL label lagged hopelessly behind. I once got up the courage to ask him how he felt in his soul about Karl Lagerfeld, the brand. He replied, “This is a very strange thing; it’s me and it’s not me. It’s me from outside myself. It’s very strange.”
Indeed. But now that Karl has finally left the stage, it should be admitted that the Lagerfeld story had long ago turned out to be a tough act to follow. Almost no fashion company has had the same success as Chanel, with designers struggling to resuscitate brands after the founder has gone and often a stream of replacements having already tried to take over.
The most potent and recent debacle has been at Calvin Klein, where, after letting go designer Raf Simons before his three-year contract was up, the New York company announced that the Belgian designer would not be replaced. Giving up on high fashion, the brand is now planning to focus on jeans and underwear. The founder, whose streamlined style defined an epoch of American fashion, was long off the stage. Simons, with his skill at men’s tailoring and experience at Dior, might have seemed a wise choice. But it was not to be.https://www.instagram.com/p/BuYNVHKHpZC/?utm_source=ig_embedNew York fashion has seen other designers, like Donna Karan, fall out of sight. Meanwhile, new designers at Carolina Herrera and Oscar de la Renta (after a couple of false starts) are trying to keep alive the American dream.
With fashion schools, especially in the UK, turning out well-educated students who can easily find jobs as part of a brand’s team, why is it so complicated to find replacements at the top?
The answer is obvious. There are few hired hands who can produce interesting and dynamic collections in the style of a founder. If they are exceptionally creative, they have their own personalities and find it tough to mimic an existing style. The clearest example of this is John Galliano, chastened by his bad behaviour at Dior, who took over at Maison Margiela in 2014 and is only now, five years later and at age 58, reaching a fashion equilibrium with that brand.