How do you hold a memorial for someone who in his lifetime detested looking in the past? Perhaps it is to distill from his legacy a message for the future. And this evening such a sentiment fittingly pervaded over the ‘Karl For Ever’ memorial held in honour of the late designer Karl Lagefeld.
Along the width of the Grand Palais, where Chanel has held its runway shows since 2006, hung the most iconic photographs of Karl from every era. On stage, Tilda Swinton, Helen Mirren, Cara Delevigne, Lil Buck, Pharrell Williams and others performed tributes. On screens, those that knew him best told his stories. Among these were Carla Bruni Sarkozy, Carine Roitfeld, Monica Berlucci, Gigi Hadid, Baz Lurhmanm, and even Françoise, Choupette’s (Karl’s famous Berman cat) favourite carer.
These stories were like fables: that Karl worked 18 hour days; that he shot with Claudia Schiffer until 3 in the morning, that he had a different place on his desk for writing English, French and Italian; that he epitomised French style without even being French. However, the one fable that resonated was Karl’s infatuation with the present and the new.
“It was essential to reinvent himself”, recalled LVMH Chairman and CEO, Bernard Arnault, and Karl’s bigger than life career over 5 decades was characterized by reinventions. Silvia Venturini Fendi watched Karl cut up precious furs into strips to piece these back together in new ways. It was almost sacrilegious, but that, as she realised, was how to be modern. Like the Fendi double F, all this seems obvious now, maybe even inevitable. But Karl really paved the way for the concept of reinvention and reinvigoration of stagnant houses, which even those around Karl told him would never work – they warned him off tackling Chanel.
Karl’s dislike for looking backward was infamous. He was not interested in the archives of the houses he lead, or even at his own past work. As Arnault remarked, Karl was never happy with what he has done before. He only wanted to do what was new – to be the first. Karl always seemed to know what would be the next hot thing, recalled Charlotte Stockdale, who consulted at Fendi. He didn’t just sit behind a desk in his own world, he was always watching everything.
The memorial for Karl was not a retelling of all his worldly achievements. Indeed, some of Karl’s most memorable designs for the houses of Chanel, Fendi and Karl Lagerfeld walked the stage for all of 10 minutes, accompanied by a monologue by iconic French actress, Fanny Ardant. Karl’s most important legacy may outweigh even the fashion houses he built, the books he published, or the sub-cultures that he inspired. It is perhaps a distillation from his life, a message for the future, or rather, for surviving a future that seems to arrive ever faster in our times of oversaturation. Karl looked forward and not backward, not by trying to predict the future, but by being fully present in his times and thriving in it with instinct, creativity and playfulness.
The memorial for Karl certainly felt like a joyous celebration rather than a sombre farewell, as was intended by director Robert Carsen. In a moment when the crowd of some 2,500 rose up in standing ovation in honour of the legend, it almost felt possible that Karl himself may appear on stage as he always did at the finale. Fendi encapsulated it so perfectly: ‘since he’s always late, I think he will still show up.’
These images originally appeared on Harper’s BAZAAR UK. Words by Jiawa Liu.