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The cultural legacy of Karl Lagerfeld

"Music gives color to the air of the moment"

  • Lily Moayeri
  • 21 February 2019

Karl Lagerfeld’s passing away this week has brought much reflection on the iconic fashion designer’s 65+ year career. The perennially eye-shaded and stiff-collared Lagerfeld was infamous for his viper-tongued controversial statements, but revered for his flawless creative direction for the houses of Chanel and Fendi, not to mention his own eponymous fashion line.

The “Kaiser” as he was sometimes called, in reference to his German roots, had numerous overlaps with the music world, which is not unusual for fashion. As he has been known to say, “Music is part of the life of fashion, too.”

Celebrity stylist Dave Thomas, who dresses John Legend, Calvin Harris and Kane Brown, among many others says, “When I was the fashion editor at British Esquire in the early ‘90s, the magazine had a no models policy. Musicians are natural performers so I was putting them into fashion and onto the fashion pages.

Thomas continues, “What was interesting about Karl was, he didn’t wait for a musician to become popular or well-known. He was one of those people—and they’re rare—that decide on their own. He liked what he liked and was into what he was into. He was more inclined to search out what was new and exciting, and put them in the front row of his shows. That was an indicator of taste and talent.”

Case in point is Janelle Monáe, who caught Lagerfeld’s eye prior to them meeting in 2010. She became his muse, their black-and-white uniforms complimentary to each other. He chose Lily Allen as the face for his Coco Cocoon bag collection and shot the images himself. He also designed Allen’s wedding dress. Chan Marshall aka Cat Power had her time as the spokesperson for a line of jewellery from Chanel. She soundtracked his spring 2007 collected and he photographed her for French publication, Purple Fashion Magazine. A regular photographer for V Magazine, he shot the Mariah Carey cover story, photographed and interviewed Justin Bieber for the cover of the Music Issue, and did multiple covers shoots with Miley Cyrus including her provocative nude images.

Pharrell Williams, himself a formidable fashion icon, starred in one of Lagerfeld’s Chanel minifeatures, entitled “Reincarnation.” Williams also walked the runway for Chanel and modeled Chanel’s Gabrielle handbag, the first man ever to do so. Who can forget Florence Welch’s performance at Chanel’s Spring/Summer 2012 show? And while Daft Punk may not have been there in person, their inspiration was felt at the Chanel show at Paris Fashion Week 2016, as well as when their song 'Contact' was included in Lagerfeld’s Fall/Winter 2017/2018 show.

The outpouring of social media sentiments from high profile musicians, for which Lagerfeld was a darling, is overwhelming. Among these, the aforementioned Allen and Cyrus, are Frank Ocean, Katy Perry, Courtney Love, Swizz Beatz, Kylie Minogue, to name a few. For years Lagerfeld has been seen flanked by everyone from Madonna to Cher to Victoria Beckham to Rihanna, Lady Gaga, and on and on. Many of whom he designed outfits for and who are expressing their admiration and their grief via timeless images with the man himself.

There’s a delightful ode from 2012, 'Karl Lagerfeld', by quirky Italian electropop duo, Fujiyamabit. And Rae Sremmurd’s 'Chanel' featuring Pharrell commands, “Take her to Chanel, ‘cause she fine.” Plus, Lagerfeld made a cameo appearance in Jean-Roch’s video for 'St. Tropez' alongside Snoop Dogg.

But Lagerfeld had some musical output of his own. 'My Favorite Songs' is a two-disc compilation of 23 songs released in 2007. Featuring a wide range of artists, among these: Stereolab, Super Furry Animals, Lindstrom & Prinz Thomas, as well as Devendra Banhart. Banhart also contributed a song to Lagerfeld’s 'Room Service', a multimedia product that includes book, photographs, short film and Banhart’s cover of 'Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend'.

A year later, Lagerfeld was one of the DJs on Grand Theft Auto IV radio stations, K109 The Studio as "DJ Karl". His selections include Cerrone 'Supernature', The Fatback Band '(Are You Ready) Do The Bus Stop', Chic’s 'Everybody Dance', and Sister Sledge 'He’s The Greatest Dancer'. He reprised this role on Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City in 2009 where he spun the likes of Crème D’Cocoa 'Doing the Dog' and Peaches & Herb 'Shake Your Groove Thing'.

More recently, Apple Music offers Chanel Show Soundtracks, curated playlists straight from the Chanel runway. The signature playlist is put together by the house’s longtime sound designer Michel Gaubert. Gaubert has been the man behind the sound of most of fashion for over two decades and a fixture with Lagerfeld since 1990. In addition, Lagerfeld’s friends, Pharrell Williams, Sébastien Tellier, Ibeyi, and Caroline de Maigret have put together their own Chanel playlists for Chanel Show Soundtracks.

Among Lagerfeld’s famous quotes is: “Music gives color to the air of the moment.” And there have been reports of a position in Lagerfeld’s employ as “iPod nanny” where the job description involved transferring his hefty collection of CDs to his 70+ iPods, as well as keeping him abreast of the freshest sounds.

“He told me, ‘You could be inspired by anything, you can take it, and make it your own’,” remembers Thomas from the second time he met Lagerfeld, at a British Vogue fashion shoot in Paris. “The first time I met him was at an art exhibit in 1989. I was an intern at Tatler. He showed interest in me and dragged me by the hand and introduced me to everyone he could. He was generous. The first time with his introductions, the second time with his knowledge of the process.”

Lily Moayeri is a music journalist who also covered television, art, fashion, and other facets of pop culture. She is a major contributor to the textbook The Guerrilla Guide to the Music Business. Find her work aggregated at Pictures of Lily and follow here on Twitter here.

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