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The global fashion business journal

Jun 15, 20245:18pm

Karl Lagerfeld, the last star designer

The German creative contributed to turn an historic brand into a global luxury business, he was who awoke with greater success the sleeping beauty and the only creative director that stood in his post for more than three decades.

Feb 20, 2019 — 10:01am
S. Riera

Karl Lagerfeld, the last star designer



Karl Lagerfeld was the last fashion star designer. At the helm of Chanel’s creative direction since 1983, Lagerfeld contributed to turn a historic brand into a global luxury business. The creative was the one who awoke the sleeping beauty of fashion, besides being the one who lasted the most at the head of a creative management: 54 years in Fendi and 36 in Chanel.


The designer started working at Chanel a decade after the decease of the founder of the group. Its signing was the bet of the Wertheimer family, owner of the company, to place the brand again among the great names of French luxury. Lagerfeld was already known for having boosted the business of Fendi and Chloé in the seventies, in full boom prêt-à-porter.


On one occasion, Lagerfeld reminded that people tend to forget that Chanel was once “an old hat that only the ladies of Parisian doctors wore.” “He was the one who took Chanel to the 21st century, who modernized the brand: he introduced denim, elastic fabrics, sneakers, leather or miniskirts into the brand,” explains the consultant Inmaculada Urrea, author of the book Coco Chanel, the revolution of a style.





While the brand was already powerful thanks to its founder’s legacy, Lagerfeld ensured its continuity over time and strengthen it in order to face its global expansion. Under his leadership, the myth of Chanel was reinforced, by positioning it in the top of luxury and forging one of the most internationalized groups in the sector.


“None other sleeping beauty had the power in luxury and fashion that Chanel has today, not even Dior,” emphasizes Urrea, who points out that one of Lagerfeld’s achievements was to build a stable, reliable and enduring brand in an ever-changing business. “He was a wise man, he was crazy about culture, and he knew how to evolve the legacy of one of the most defined brands,” adds the expert.


“His death represents the end of an era,” notes María Eugenia Girón, executive director at IE Premium&Prestige Business Observatory, who also affirms that what Lagerfeld knew was to resurrect and revive brands. “He reinvented Chanel, which was a sleeping brand, and he also did it with Fendi, however, he did leave his own brand quite aside,” points out the expert. “He knew how to understand the essence of brands,” claims.





Girón explains that Lagerfeld will go down in the history of fashion, not only for having managed to recover the splendour that Chanel had, but also for making his message relevant to the whole world. According to Girón, it also benefited in this sense that the brand was still in hands of the Wertheimer family, resisting to be part of luxury holdings and dodging the stock market and its public exposure.


Thus, while Dior has had seven creative directors since the death of its founder (two in the last two years), only Lagerfeld has been in charge of Chanel’s creativity after its founder. Other historical brands that remain in the fashion business, such as Balenciaga, Lanvin, Poiret or Schiaparelli have never had the rise that Chanel had. “He made an inclusive brand, meaning that everyone wants it, captivates young people and crosses boundaries,” says Girón.


In this same sense, Silvia Ortega, consultant in luxury strategies and customer experience, affirms that “no current luxury firm can boast of having two icons as powerful as its creator, Coco Chanel, and Karl Lagerfeld, the man who knew how to reinterpret legacies and codes with audacity and daring.”





Last year, for the first time in its history, Chanel disclosed its accounts. The company had closed 2017 with a revenue of around 10 billion dollars, a figure that climbed into the top positions among the world’s largest luxury brands, tied with Louis Vuitton, whose revenue is estimated between 9 and 10 billion dollars, and ahead of Gucci, with sales valued in 7.1 billion euros.


The group registered a growth of 11% in 2017, mainly due to its advance in Asia-Pacific and Europe. The company increased by 15% its investment on “brand support activities” such as runways and advertising, up to 1.46 billion dollars. Chanel concluded the year with an operating profit of 2.69 billion euros.


Lagerfeld experienced the pressure of the markets and of being part of a holding in LVMH, where he was in charge of the creative direction of Fendi, another historical one, in this case of Italian luxury. The designer entered the house in 1965 and took the reins of its creative direction in 1977, when the company launched its first prêt-à-porter collections.





In 2001, when Fendi entered the brand portfolio of the conglomerate piloted by Bernard Arnaud, Lagerfeld remained in his post. Like he did with Chanel, the German designer naturally perpetuated the Roman brand by emphasizing craftsmanship.


Lagerfeld was also the first meeting point between luxury and the mass market with a collaboration, in 2004, with H&M. That event gave him popularity in a segment of consumers that perhaps did not know him and also raised the positioning of a business model considered then as low cost.


And beyond what that experiment meant for Karl Lagerfeld and H&M, it was somehow the trigger for a new stage in the fashion business in which the borders between luxury and mass market began to fade, and the merger began to prevail.


“We will all remember where we were when we heard about his departure,” says Silvia Ortega. “I think there has never been or will be another creative director who embodies so well the values of a firm and knows how to decline and make a profit with such regularity and success,” she concludes.

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