House of Karl
Thomas, Dana, Newsweek
Byline: Dana Thomas
How much longer can Chanel's indefatigable designer keep going?
Karl Lagerfeld presented his 55rd ready-to-wear collection for Chanel in March in typical over-the-top fashion. Staged at the mammoth Grand Palais in Paris, the show featured models dressed in fur-trimmed tweed minidresses and fur moon boots, sloshing around a giant iceberg that Chanel had shipped in from Sweden. The fashion press howled that Chanel was tone-deaf when it came to the environment--especially after Lagerfeld told reporters backstage that global warming might be "nonsense." If the controversy was a planned exercise in media hype, it worked.
But some wondered if the stunt wasn't also Lagerfeld's commentary on the instability at Chanel, one of fashion's oldest and most venerable houses. The obvious issue is who will helm the brand once Lagerfeld ends his long reign (now at 27 years and counting)? The unseen: industry talk that Lagerfeld and Maureen Chiquet, Chanel's American-born global CEO since 2007 and former head of Banana Republic, are at odds. Rumors of Lagerfeld's looming departure even aired during the March show. The Australian edition of Grazia magazine posted on its Web site, "Karl Lagerfeld's tenure at Chanel is coming to an end." Chanel immediately denied it. "Karl Lagerfeld has a long-term contract with the company," an official statement said. "Replacing him is not an issue."
But it likely will be sooner rather than later. Lagerfeld is not young--he admits to 73, but his biographer Alicia Drake contends that he's actually 77--and he's been at Chanel since 1983, an eternity in fashion. For now he shows no signs of slowing down. In May, he exhibited his Chanel resort collection in Saint-Tropez, followed by a lavish party at the VIP Room nightclub. In July he presented his Chanel couture collection at the Grand Palais. On Sept. 10--his birthday--Lagerfeld received the Couture Council Fashion Visionary Award from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, an award FIT created exclusively for him. "Retirement is not one of the topics with which I deal," he said last fall.
Even so, Chiquet and Chanel's owners, the Wertheimer family, must at least be contemplating a succession plan. They'd rather not let the brand stagnate while they search for a new designer, as happened when the house's founder, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, died at 87 in 1971. "Karl has been the greatest steward for the Chanel brand and has kept it up-to-date," says Rita Clifton, chairman of Interbrand, a global brand consultancy in London. "But this is a hypercompetitive marketplace. Great brands can fade, and it can happen quickly if you are not careful."
Following Coco's death, the house burned through a series of designers who replicated the Chanel style with middling success. …