By Cary O’dell
Cary O’Dell’s work has appeared on PopMatters.com, Thoughtcatalog.com and Wornthrough.com. His book, “June Cleaver Was a Feminist! Reconsidering the Female Character of Early Television,” will be published in the fall by McFarland. He works for the Library of Congress and lives in Culpeper, VA.
As of this writing, designer Karl Lagerfeld has been at the helm of the House of Chanel for 29 years. That’s a lot of brass buttons. And camellias. And gold necklaces. And tweeds, jackets, and quilted bags, not to mention strand upon strand of white pearls, real and faux. This means that for three decades, in now hundreds of collections, Lagerfeld has found new (or, at least, “newer”) ways to incorporate, combine and “modernize” the most iconic elements of Mademoiselle Chanel’s trademark designs.
Before his long tenure with Chanel (and sometimes concurrently), Lagerfeld has also designed for the Fendi and Chloe labels as well as his own eponymous fashion firm. It is as much his design adaptability as his stunning work ethic and drive that has made him a consistent name in fashion for the past half century. Yet now, at (a surprising) 79 years of age, and after three decades with Chanel, this very same fluidity and chameleon-like ability has, perhaps, forever undermined whatever long-term legacy Lagerfeld might have at one time promised. After 30 plus years of beautiful, stylish clothes, for a variety of labels, remarkably, one is still hard-pressed to name or describe a signature Lagerfeld style. For Lagerfeld–when striped of his Chanel details–there is no immediate look or mode that comes to mind in connection with his name: not the punk romanticism that Vivienne Westwood has, nor the hard-edged glamour ala Versace, or the over-the-top, Watteau-at-the-Ballet fantasies that are Lacroix. While during his tenure, Lagerfeld has successfully revived Chanel and raised it to be, arguably, THE preeminent brand in the industry, his financial and branding expertise (expert as they are) won’t necessarily place him alongside the greats within the annals of fashion history.
Actually, looking back, there might even now be some debate whether Lagerfeld’s design sensibility at Chanel has actually done more to enhance or distort the original vision of the House and its founder. Though she loved to pile on the (fake) jewels, a review of her oeuvre shows that Coco Chanel was anything but a frou-frou designer. “Always take away, always pare down,” the designer has been quoted as saying. And though her designs sometimes had busy details (like jacket linings matching the blouses worn underneath), her actual aesthetic was usually geared towards minimalism. Let us not forget that Chanel drew much of her inspiration from the simple lines and tailoring of menswear. Her streamlined sensibility is even reflected in her classic logo, her company’s typeface and the simple, iconic shape of her No. 5 perfume bottle.
In contrast, Lagerfeld’s Chanel has largely been built around excesses of adornment and a designer-y “busy-ness” that its originator would probably have loathed. His couture clothes especially often feature cascades of ruffles as well as sumptuous amounts of petals, jewels, and a thousand other bits of “bling.” Yet, styled for the runway with enough logos, quilted clutches and swinging chain belts, a link to the Chanel ethos remains—however perilously—in place.
Prophetically, esteemed fashion writer Holly Brubach worried about this tendency of Lagerfeld’s early in his tenure with the House of Chanel. In the early 1980s, in “The Atlantic,” she wrote, “You can’t help but wonder whether the people at Chanel got the wrong man for the job…. In the collections he has designed for Chanel, it’s as if Lagerfeld can’t make up his mind whether to carry on the tradition [of the label] or send it up.”
Perhaps in some ways, Lagerfeld has worked too hard to constantly pay tribute to the iconography–if not necessarily the philosophy–of Chanel. Is he drowning in his gold chains and “little suits”? During his spectacular run at Dior (followed by his spectacular, sad exit from the same), John Galliano, showed only a marginal references to his house’s founder; he did not spend his decade at the Dior endlessly revamping the New Look or paying endless homage to other hallmarks of the house. Other designers talking over established houses have equally kept their founding forbearers’s visions at an arms length; McQueen did little to reinterpret the look of Givenchy during his time at that legendary label.
But, then again, few styles are as easily identifiable as Chanel’s. Christian Dior was only in business for a decade before his early death in 1954, seven years after the launch of the “New Look.” In contrast, Chanel, all tolled, designed for over 45 years. Even those who are only passingly interested in fashion, know the tenets of the Chanel style, and breaking with those touchstones has the veneer of breaking with (or even destroying) a grand and important tradition. And breaking with tradition is not what one seeks out a Chanel suit or handbag for.
One also has to wonder if Lagerfeld, in fact, even has the desire to cultivate a design style of his own. When asked about the subject once in 1979, the designer replied, “My style is more: Another Spring, Another Love.” And adding later, “I have no opinion whatsoever about my influence, who cares?”
All of this is not to say that Lagerfeld is not an excellent designer. He is. He knows fabric; he knows cut. His clothes are never dowdy or dated, and Lagerfeld can be innovative. Certainly his ability to work within the idiom of Chanel’s most popular iconography for the past 30 years bespeaks of a creativity and resourcefulness that many designers could only hope for. One only wishes though that, over the years, Lagerfeld had harnessed and synthesized those instincts of his into a design philosophy he could fully call his own. As Lagerfeld is still in good health and shows no indication of retiring or slowing down, the question now is: could he do it and does he want to?
In the meantime, for both the House of Chanel and Lagerfeld, the weight of the Chanel name and what it stands for has become like a pair of golden handcuffs, beautiful and embossed with interlocking C’s, but unbearably restricting nonetheless.