By Givhan, Robin
Newsweek , Vol. 159, No. 06
Byline: Robin Givhan
Lagerfeld is brilliant at Chanel. But have his other ventures run amok to the detriment of his creative genius?
Karl Lagerfeld is overrated.
Such a statement rings like heresy within a fashion universe where the highly acclaimed designer struts upon his lofty stage as the creative director of Chanel--but it's true.
This pronouncement is not meant to imply that the German-born Lagerfeld isn't supremely talented and culturally influential. Through his work at Chanel, it's clear he is all those things. But fashion aficionados idolize Lagerfeld not merely for the great skill with which he has maintained the Chanel image. He has been feted for the quantity of his catholic pursuits--though not necessarily the quality of them. At one time he divided his services among three brands: Chanel, Chloe, and Fendi, where he continues to work. He has launched half a dozen versions of an eponymous collection--each to great anticipation--and even though most have been disappointing, he persists. On Jan. 25, he debuted the latest iteration, "KARL by Karl Lagerfeld," on Net-a-Porter.com.
He has been celebrated as a voracious photographer and applauded for accumulating a teetering stack of iPods. He has published books and collaborated on books, thus being deemed, if not an intellectual, at least a man of letters. He has developed a magnetic and highly memorable personal style that blends Madame de Pompadour hair with a Mick Jagger strut. He has been flat out called "a genius," a "Renaissance man," and "the Kaiser."
To be fair, the fashion industry tends to go weak and breathless at the slightest provocation. Perhaps Tom Ford comes closest to equaling Lagerfeld for the excitement his mere presence stirs. Ford has caused ebullient madness during department-store promotions for his cosmetics line. He, too, has shown a willingness to try his hand in other fields, like a Michael Jordan wanting to indulge a dream to play baseball. And unlike the basketball legend's mortifying stint in the dugout, Ford showed his skills quite nicely with A Single Man, his first outing as a director. With Ford, however, there always seems to be someone ready to suggest that he isn't so much a great designer as a brilliant marketer and stylist--someone for whom the sum of his work is greater than the individual parts. Whether or not that is true is moot. The point is that Ford's work is critically considered. His success during his years at Gucci did not lead to assumptions about his brilliance elsewhere.
Meanwhile, a designer such as Miuccia Prada, the subject of an upcoming exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has wide-ranging interests, from architecture to film, but her fans relate to her like grad students hovering around a particularly favored professor.
Lagerfeld, then, is a peculiarity within a peculiar industry. Indiscriminate praise drips off him in thick, opaque globs. Performing a kind of fashion sludge test just might provide insight into the workings of a tightly wound business fueled by money, personality, artistry, and sleight of hand.
Lagerfeld has been at Chanel since 1983, arriving more than a decade after its founder's death, at a time when the brand had faded into a dusty purveyor of perfume. Lagerfeld resurrected the house to such a degree that now the upcoming Academy Award red carpet will not be complete without a starlet or two wafting along its camera-lined expanse in a custom Chanel confection of tulle and embroidery. And he has won the affections of fashion's greatest power broker, Vogue editor Anna Wintour. She regularly turns to Chanel for her business wardrobe, but more than that, her signature sunglasses are Chanel and she wore a white haute-couture Chanel suit when she attended the state dinner for China at the White House in 2011.
For every classic Chanel handbag or fanciful riff on the little black dress inciting lust in the hearts of style-savvy women, there have been equally mortifying examples of pandering and buffoonery: a tweed jacket transformed into a circus costume, menswear that would make a drag queen flinch, handbags that reek of self-conscious status climbing. …