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-- by James Sanders
On Tuesday (Feb. 19), fashion mourned the loss of one of its greatest figures. Designer, writer, photographer, publisher, filmmaker, actor Karl Lagerfeld has died. He was 85.
It was under Lagerfeld that Chanel became one of hip hop's greatest status symbols.
This was especially evident in 1991 when he presented a collection of patchwork, oversized denim, gold chains hanging from miniskirts -– and on necks -- fitted hats to the back (just like the TLC song), and bodysuits with big belts for Chanel's fall/winter collection.
He was inspired by hip hop. "Rappers tell the truth -- that's what's needed now," he said in an interview after the fashion show.
Almost 26 years later, the brand made history with Pharrell becoming the official face for Chanel's "Gabriel" bags.
When looking at the House of Chanel (and Lagerfeld by extension) as a trailblazer in diversity, Pharrell's collaboration with the brand isn't hard to believe with other muses including Beyoncé, Rihanna, Willow Smith, Theophilus London, Kanye West, and Frank Ocean.
Before that, Mary J. Blige, Lil' Kim, Foxy Brown, Missy Elliott, and countless other singers and rappers referenced the brand in their music and wore the collections to, well, everything.
The differences between Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld got smaller as time went on. Born in 1933, Lagerfeld branded himself as an influencer at a time when the word didn't exist in the '60s and '70s. This was, of course, years before he would design a single dress for Chanel.
Like Gabrielle Chanel, and her little black dress and strands of pearls; the designer had a signature look. Replicated on tee shirts, dolls, and charms; a tailored skinny suit with a crisp white shirt and black extra-wide tie made up his uniform. Accessories and fingerless gloves completed the look along with his gray-white hair tied in low-ponytail and big sunglasses covering most of his face.
Designing over 14 collections a year between Chanel, Fendi, and his namesake label -- at 85 -- he worked harder than most designers a quarter of his age.
Lagerfeld was inspired by youth and newness, while paying homage to those who came before him.
He began his fashion career in 1955 studying under famed French couturier Pierre Balmain after winning a coat design contest. Just three years later, Lagerfeld joined another French designer, Jean Patou, where he designed 10 haute couture (which in French, means High Fashion) collections each under the name Roland Karl. Then, in 1964, he joined Chloe where he would take the helm as creative director until the '70s when he became the creative director of Fendi.
Finally, in 1982, the designer debuted his first haute couture collection to mixed reviews. One critic for Women's Wear Daily wrote, "No one can replace Coco Chanel — not even Kaiser Karl — nor should anyone — not even KK — make the attempt." A year after his haute couture debut for Chanel, he was made creative director for the brand.
Last year, when Chanel (a privately-owned company) released its financials, it revealed that the brand made €9.6 billion ($10.89 billion USD) in 2017.
Hip hop's infatuation with Chanel went beyond lyrics and bars, and Lagerfeld's popularity in the culture went with it. Last year, when he shot Nicki Minaj for the cover of Elle Magazine, or when he shot Kanye West for the cover of VMan magazine, or when he directed and produced the fashion film with Pharrell for Chanel's bag campaign; the designer helped create epic moments in both fashion and music.
Lagerfeld's greatest talent is in seeing a trend and creating fashion stories around it long before anyone else. This was especially apparent in his collections for Chanel, but also for Fendi – another beloved brand in hip hop.
For Fendi's fall/winter 2018 collection, Lagerfeld collaborated with Reilly, a graphic designer who had become known for his collaborations with fashion brands and pop art. The result? A brilliant and accessible collection of clothing that perfectly blended Fila's iconic street legacy and Fendi's luxury fashion persona. That collection is still doing well.
Lagerfeld's Chanel and Fendi were like big cousins to hip hop that made borrowing clothes accessible and enjoyable. Here are just a few of the big moments when the designer and hip hop joined forces:
Chanel x Pharrell
No other collaborator from hip hop had a more poignant relationship with Lagerfeld than Pharrell Williams. The producer/recording artist had been a front row staple during Chanel's shows. But, history was made when Pharrell was cast as lead in the brand's bag campaign – the first time a male had been the star. In addition, the two collaborated on a sneaker and Pharrell walked in Chanel's 2017 pre-fall collection.
Chanel x Lil' Kim (and Beyoncé)
Lil' Kim's influence in hip hop and fashion is undeniable. Her love for Chanel was made evident early on in her career. From the iconic blue wig with the Chanel Cs on the bang to the suspender look that she wore for a cameo in Missy Elliott's iconic "The Rain" music video (which Beyonce recreated for Halloween), Chanel and Lil' Kim have a storied history.
Chanel x Willow Smith
When Willow Smith became an official brand ambassador for Chanel, she had only been known for her hit single "Whip my Hair." It said a lot for Lagerfeld to champion the young artist. Like with hip hop in 1991, he saw a wave and since then, the artist has paid tribute to the house of Chanel by appearing on countless best dressed lists.
Lagerfeld x Nicki Minaj
For her "Chun-Li" single photo, she wore a jacket and panties from Fendi, but the two had been acquainted when Nicki's team began branding her as a fashion girl. Then, the designer photographed the rapper for the cover of Elle Magazine last year. Under the tutelage of creative director Nina Garcia, the designer shot the rapper in an intimate series showing a vulnerability that hadn't been seen from the artist.
Lagerfeld the Rapper
In print and in person, the designer has long been vocal about his love of hip hop. In an exclusive shoot with Harper's Bazaar, the designer ditched his signature look for some urban influence in a way that didn't bother with misappropriation and instead, paid homage to the trendsetters he celebrated on runways. The designer is quoted in that same spread as saying, "Believe it or not, I love hip hop."
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