By Ewa Pospieszyńska

On 19th February 2019, the death of Karl Lagerfeld shook the fashion world. Lagerfeld was a significant figurehead within the fashion world, having been the Creative Director of iconic brands such as Chanel from 1983,  and Fendi since 1965. Lagerfeld’s name, outlook, and distinct silhouette in a powdered ponytail, starched collar, and dark glasses were all emblematic of his unique brand. As he said of his public image, “it’s me and it’s not me. It’s me from outside myself…I turned myself into a cartoon”.

Shortly after his death, Chanel announced Virginia Viard as their new Creative Director, known for having been Lagerfeld’s “right-hand woman” for over three decades, therefore indicating a  direct line of succession. . Just this April, Lagerfeld’s namesake label announced Carine Roitfeld as their new style adviser , and a Florida auction is expecting to sell some of Lagerfeld’s  earliest design sketches for thousands of dollars a piece. As of yet, Fendi has not declared Lagerfeld’s successor, though Silvia Venturini Fendi, who is Creative Director for Fendi’s accessories and men’s collections, seems to be a likely candidate.

Through his unmistakable style, Lagerfeld will surely join the likes of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, Christian Dior, and Yves Saint Laurent in the pantheon of great designers. More importantly, Lagerfeld’s passing raises questions about the peculiar continuity fashion creators enjoy long after their mortal lives. Does Lagerfeld’s creative spirit lives on in whatever he touched? If so, how? What should we infer from this almost religious faith in not only the designer, but also in the value of everything they have created?

Although it is difficult to believe today, back in 1954, Karl Lagerfeld was still an anonymous figure entering the fashion world through what is now known as the Woolmark Prize. He later became  an assistant to Pierre Balmain after winning the “best coat” category. In 1983, he was entrusted with a French national monument by becoming chief artistic director of Chanel, taking on this role barely a decade after the death of Coco Chanel herself.

People in the industry feared that Lagerfeld’s lack of appreciation for couture would undermine the status of the brand. Indeed, in a 2007 interview for The New Yorker, he admitted that he took the role at Chanel precisely because so many people discouraged him not too. He stated in the interview:”Everybody said, ‘Don’t touch it, it’s dead, it will never come back.’ But by then I thought it was a challenge”. Nevertheless, his unconventional approach carried Chanel into the modern era as a global megabrand.

His role at Chanel is crucial for understanding the deeper points I want to present about designer continuity, and the aura of “the creator” in fashion. In his 1974 lecture “Haute Couture and Haute Culture”, Pierre Bourdieu draws attention to the curious symbolic power that designer labels possess, which he analogises to rituals of consecration in religion and magic. To Bourdieu, the name on the label preserves the collective belief in the “sacredness” of individual expertise: that only the named designer could produce such objects. As he puts it, “[t]he creator’s signature is a mark that changes not the material nature but the social nature of the object”.

One can see the power of this mechanism in the spike of sales that occur after the death of a remarkable designer, when customers fear to forever lose the chance to acquire a genius’s creations. One also sees it in how the status of the brand persists long after the original designer’s death, even though the original designer never came up with many of the objects that now bear their name in the form of a fashion label.

Bourdieu encapsulates his fundamental point in a simple, powerful question he saw in the title of a then-recent Marie-Claire article which questioned “Can anyone replace Chanel?”. While they are unlikely to have known much, if anything, about Bourdieu, his question was certainly on the minds of the people at Chanel when Lagerfeld took the creative reins.

As it happens, Lagerfeld’s tenure at Chanel was lucrative and influential. By 2017, the fashion house had reached $9.6 billion in annual sales and an operating profit of $2.7 billion. Just hours after Lagerfeld’s passing, Chanel became the eleventh most popular search term in the second-hand market, jumping up by more than thirty rankings. The sale of Chanel products also saw a surge, which were up by 34% in comparison to February 2018.

As Bourdieu would put it, all this is a “fashion field” ritualised by the actors within it. It presents the branded good as something more than the product of earthly human labour in the fashion house, or the  longer chain of assembly that brings the garment to the shop or runway. It is calculated into a public performance to those who believe in fashion and its pantheon of creators. If Coco Chanel is now venerated as an ancient god of fashion, then one could say that Lagerfeld served as Chanel’s high priest.

This is what lies behind the aura of the fashion label: the image of the genius designer whose creation cannot be reproduced. It falls to subsequent designers in the fashion houses to continue the founder’s legacy, producing items that bear the name and sustain the aura of their first predecessor. Remarkably, Lagerfeld not only continued Coco Chanel’s legacy, but also achieved a status that is almost equal to the legend herself, thereby reinforcing the position of the other fashion houses to which he also contributed.

Even in the message Chanel published upon Lagerfeld’s death, the designer’s mythic continuity is visible:

“An extraordinary creative individual, Karl Lagerfeld reinvented the brand’s codes created by Gabrielle Chanel: the CHANEL jacket and suit, the little black dress, the precious tweeds, the two-tone shoes, the quilted handbags, the pearls, and costume jewelry. Regarding Gabrielle Chanel, he said, ‘My job is not to do what she did, but what she would have done. The good thing about Chanel is it is an idea you can adapt to many things.”

It appears once more in Chanel’s announcement of Lagerfeld’s successor:

“Virginie Viard, Director of CHANEL’s Fashion Creation Studio and Karl Lagerfeld’s closest collaborator for more than 30 years, has been entrusted by Alain Wertheimer with the creative work for the collections, so that the legacy of Gabrielle Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld can live on.”

The symbolic production of fashion labels mythologises the figures of Chanel and Lagerfeld long after the mortal humans who bore those names have passed. So, whenever we reach for a garment bearing a famous label, we should ask ourselves whether it is the distinctiveness of the garment itself or the laboriously crafted image of the unique genius behind the garment’s creation that pulls us towards it.

Ewa Pospieszyńska is a third year Law student at the University of Surrey.

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