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World-class designer Karl Lagerfeld at 85 (probably)

He's been designing collections for Chanel for 30 years, photographing fashion, devising advertising campaigns and collecting masses of books. It's nearly impossible to capture icon Karl Lagerfeld in words.

So how old is Karl Lagerfeld? Is he 80, or perhaps 83 years old? Or maybe 85? Was he even born on September 10?

He once told a reporter he hadn't a clue about his actual birth date because his birth certificate was destroyed in the bombing of the Altona neighborhood of Hamburg in World War II. That aside, questions about his age annoy him. He simply couldn't care less. "I feel young anyway," he says.

Currently, Lagerfeld says 1935 is his year of birth – for a long time, he declared it was 1938 – but a look at the Hamburg baptism register reveals the year 1933.

Well-heeled roots

Karl Lagerfeld was born into a wealthy family. His father was a canned milk manufacturer and together with his wife, young Karl and his sister lived in Hamburg's Blankenese district, home to aristocrats, pretty villas and well-kept parks.

All that changed for Lagerfeld when Hamburg was bombed in July 1944, as the family moved to their estate in Schleswig-Holstein. It was there, in the countryside, that he spent half of his childhood, though his urban origins, affinity to unusual clothing and his long hair made him stand out among the country kids.

Little Karl was quite unusual in other ways as well. Even before starting school, he learned English and French and spent hours up in the attic drawing. He preferred going to museums rather than school, and was fascinated by French painters. "I loved everything that was French ... that's where I wanted to go and that's why I learned French as a child," he told filmmaker Gero von Boehm in the 2014 documentary Deutschland, deine Künstler – Karl Lagerfeld (Germany, Your Artists – Karl Lagerfeld).

DW video: Karl Lagerfeld Retrospective in Essen (2014)

Paris: Paradise for a young designer

Over the years, the desire to move to Paris grew. After attending a Dior show in Hamburg in 1950, his mind was made up and in 1953 he and his mother moved to the fashion capital. He quickly made a name for himself: at just 20 years of age, he took first place in a fashion competition with a coat design. Yves Saint Laurent also participated, but only finished third.

Just a few years later, he was working with Pierre Balmain and Jean Patou. By 1963, he became artistic director for the first time. At Chloé he set trends himself, founding the Total Look in 1967, the unity of clothing and accessories. Fendi in Rome was also impressed with the young designer from Germany, hiring him in the mid-1960s for his fur and leather collection.

By 1976, Lagerfeld had acquired his famous dandy look, complete with a distinctive 18th-century-inspired clothing style, ponytail, which he powders himself, and the dark sunglasses that remain his trademark today.

Makeover for Chanel

Lagerfeld's landmark career move was in 1983 when then behind-the-times Chanel appointed him creative director. The designer was able to make the label appear more modern and appealing to young women, integrating new colors, modified cuts and other fabrics. Chanel without Lagerfeld? It now seems impossible.

But Lagerfeld was not content with Chanel alone. In 1984, he established his own label, aptly called Karl Lagerfeld, which offers everything from men's and women's fashion to children's clothes and accessories.

DW video: Chanel fashion at the Elbphilharmonie (2017)


Yet fashion isn't everything for Lagerfeld. A passionate reader and book collector, he also takes photographs, creates advertising campaigns, makes short movies for various fashion companies, designs hotels around the world, founded a publishing company and established his own art gallery.

Immersing himself in work might be linked to having lost his life companion Jacques de Bascher to AIDS in 1989. But it's also typical of Lagerfeld to never be content with the status quo. "You might as well just throw in the towel if you're just going to rest on your laurels," he says dryly in the documentary Germany, Your Artists – Karl Lagerfeld.

So, here's to you, Karl Lagerfeld, on your 85th birthday. Presumably.

Author: Bettina Baumann

The article was originally published by Deutsche Welle.

September 2018

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