The biggest icon of fashion celebrated his birthday yesterday – the 81st, 79th or 76th depending on which story you believe. ‘Der Kaiser’ has always been notoriously vague about his exact age, even claiming that no one knows for sure. Although official records state 1933 as his birth year I for one is willing to give him the benefit of doubt and tentatively believe his claim from last year, when he said he was born in 1935.
There are several uncertainties about his early life, but how he got his start in the fashion industry is well established. At an age somewhere between 14 and 19 he moved to Paris, by himself, and in 1955 he won a coat designing competition. This got him hired as assistant and later apprentice to the legendary Pierre Balmain. He spent nearly thirty years jumping between different fashion houses, learning and designing haute couture collections, and even costumes for theatre.
In 1981 he was persuaded to join Chanel and two years later he took over as their chief designer, earning him international fame and setting him on the path to become the well-known icon he is today. Over the years he has had countless side projects, working with Diesel, H&M, Orrefors, Coca Cola and Steiff, to name but a few. In my opinion, he has done some of his best work at Chanel, but he also shines brightly under his own label. Apart from his career in fashion design Karl Lagerfeld is also an accomplished photographer, designer, illustrator, director and publisher. To quote the man himself: “What I really like is what I’ve never done before.”
I can’t remember when Lagerfeld first appeared on my radar, but I must’ve been fairly young. It seems to me as if his influence has been constant throughout my life, and perhaps it has. I have always been influenced by his sense of style, combining the traditional with the modern and edgy, and I can say with absolute certainty that my personal style would have been quite different if it weren’t for him. However, his influence reaches well beyond clothes and fashion. Karl Lagerfeld has carefully crafted a myth and persona, becoming his own personal brand and enhancing it even further with numerous memorable quotes. He does his own thing, even if it’s controversial, and rarely makes excuses for himself. When he received critique for his weight after an offhand comment that he made clothes for thin people, he matter-of-factly lost over 40 kilos in 13 months.
The portrait is white pencil and white sketching crayon on black paper, size A4. It is the first time ever I attempt a ‘reverse’ portrait, drawing in the light areas instead of the dark, and while I would have preferred a more evenly covering white I’m still happy with the end result.
He is certainly his own man – self-made, eccentric and noticeable – rising above himself and the mundane to become an icon, a brand and a legend in his own time – something only a handful of people have managed in this day and age. To me, he is an excellent example of what hard work, dedication and vision can achieve.
Happy birthday, Karl.