“Iconic” is a little word tossed off in discussions of fashion to indicate that a person or an object has been successful for a long time, so that they or it no longer need to be thought about. The designer Karl Lagerfeld, who died in Paris today at the age of 85, had an iconic image—two, in fact, drawn on the public consciousness in the severe black and white of pen-and-ink caricatures: the Stout Lagerfeld he grew into during the ’80s and ’90s, and then, subsisting on Diet Coke for the sake of being able to wear the new century’s slim-cut suits, Petite Lagerfeld. Certain Japanese monks used to withdraw from the world of the living by starving themselves and drinking resin until they transformed into lacquered mummies; the process of Karl Lagerfeld maintaining Karl Lagerfeld required instead that he continue producing industrial-scale high fashion and photography, involving immense quantities of labor and activity and money. Last year he showed up wearing a beard! It took a lot of dynamism to hold a fixed position in the world’s mind.
Some of what it took was on display in 2015, when Irina Aleksander traveled from Paris to Dubai on Lagerfeld’s private jet to profile his longtime muse, the model Brad Kroenig, in an extraordinary article for the New York Times:
He has been photographed with Lagerfeld so often that gossip blogs have mistakenly identified him as the designer’s boyfriend, but their relationship is not romantic. Lagerfeld refers to Brad and the other models that travel with him as his family, albeit a self-selected, genetically ideal one. “I hate ugly people,” Lagerfeld told me. “Very depressing.”
The mood throughout the piece was of rococo austerity, or chilling hilarity, or luxurious struggle. Lagerfeld was an aphorist—even his gestures were aphoristic—so that everything seemed an inescapably settled judgment, until the next aphorism. The airplane had only one bed, for Lagerfeld, and he slept upright in his seat, “still wearing his sunglasses, and the stiff collar of his shirt seemed to dig in uncomfortably at his neck.” In Dubai, a $2.5 million structure, “its walls a grid of interlocked double Cs, representing Chanel’s logo” stood on a man-made island, waiting for the show of Lagerfeld’s resort collection, after which it would be removed. That was fashion: everything put deliberately in place, and everyone frantically trying to keep up.