Karl Lagerfeld's Career Timeline, from Chloé to Chanel

Ahead of the 2023 Met Gala in the late designer's honor, we look back at his long — and complicated — legacy.

Designer Karl Lagerfeld and actress Blake Lively attend the "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" Costume Institute Gala at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 2, 2011 in New York City

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When Vogue announced Karl Lagerfeld would be honored at the 2023 Met Gala, the fashion industry was abuzz. The late designer was always vocal about his opinions — which included that “fashion doesn’t belong in a museum.” But despite his assertive take, the designer regularly attended the Met Gala (as he did in 2011 with Blake Lively, above), which is set to showcase his singular legacy in an exhibit called “Karl Lagerfeld: A line of Beauty."

From May 5 to July 16, Met attendees can revisit Lagerfeld’s world through 150 original sketches and creations. Yet his mark on the industry went beyond the haute couture about to flood our social feeds. 

Born in Germany in 1933, Lagerfeld established himself as a fashion visionary at a young age. He was most known a creative director and designer, though he was also a photographer, painter, and all-around artist who pushed the boundaries of creativity. While his persona was adored by journalists, designers, and celebrities alike, he was no stranger to controversy. The designer made many offensive comments throughout his career, about models' weight and the Me Too era, for instance, that have some questioning whether he should be recognized by the Costume Institute at all.

Over the years, many attempted to depict who the real Karl Lagerfeld was, both on film and in print. But perhaps those who truly knew him were the ones who could find the meaning behind every line of his artistic sketches. The Met understands that well, and promises to deliver an unconventional art exhibition. Until then, here are 10 of the most memorable moments that have defined Lagerfeld’s multifaceted career.

1949: Lagerfeld Falls in Love With Fashion

Karl Lagerfeld showing his Fall 1969 collection for Chloe

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With a German upbringing marked by World War II, Lagerfeld spent his early life in Hamburg. It is there that he first discovered the industry set to make him an icon. As shared in the biography Paradise Now: The Extraordinary Life of Karl Lagerfeld by William Middleton, it was in 1949 that Christian Dior hosted a couture show in a luxurious Hamburg hotel in which a teenage Lagerfeld happened to live at the time. According to Middleton, the event ultimately galvanized Lagerfeld to move to Paris and pursue design three years later.

1955: Prized Debuts for Balmain and Patou

German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld after winning the coats category in a design competition sponsored by the International Wool Secretariat, Paris, 14th December 1954.

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A polished and avant-garde coat creation was what officially started his career. In 1954, Lagerfeld was awarded first prize from the French International Wool Secretariat, which put his name in front of prominent fashion houses in France. In 1955, this recognition led him to Balmain, where he would work as an assistant before holding his first prominent role as art director for Jean Patou in 1957. 

1960: Embarking on a Freelance Career

Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld next to a model in a pleated dress from Lagerfeld's Chloe collection.

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Lagerfeld always prided himself on being forward-thinking, and as such, became one of the first designers to work freelance. In the early '60s, the designer created signature pieces for the likes of Valentino, Tiziani, Charles Jourdan, and Chloé, among others. Around the same time, he dove head-first into other forms of creative pursuit, including photography and paintings, giving him recognition as being a multifaceted artist.

1965: The Beginning of His History with Fendi

Designers Silvia Fendi (L) and Karl Lagerfeld walk the runway at the Fendi Fashion Show on the Great Wall of China at Badaling

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While Lagerfeld’s work is primarily associated with Chanel, he was an integral part of Fendi from 1965 up until his death. Starting as the creative director of the brand’s ready-to-wear collection, the designer produced over 100 shows. But perhaps the most noteworthy contribution within his Fendi era was the iconic “Baguette” bag, which was invented by Silvia Venturini Fendi, and featured Lagerfeld's signature inverted-F logo.

1966: On-and-Off Collaboration with Chloé

Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld (C) poses backstage with models (L-R) Karen Mulder, Carla Bruni, Nadja Auermann, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Claudia Schiffer and Helena Christensen

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Lagerfeld’s time at Chloé started in 1964 and blurred into his freelancing and Fendi commitments. It wasn’t until 1966 that he took on sole creative control of the French house — a role he would keep on and off until 1997. At Chloé, his most prominent contributions included daring patterns and bohemian silhouettes still celebrated today. 

1983: Reinvigorating the House of Chanel

Supermodels Linda Evangelista (left) and Claudia Schiffer (right) model dresses by German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld for French fashion house Chanel at the 1996 Spring-Summer fashion show.

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When Lagerfeld stepped into the role of creative director at Chanel, the storied fashion house was on the brink of bankruptcy. By modernizing the interlocking CC logo and altering the house’s signature aesthetic, the designer established Chanel as a timeless, iconic, and revenue-generating brand around the world. Whether it was through the tweed suit or quilted-chain bag, Lagerfeld spent his Chanel years revisiting classic designs with each collection he sent down the runway, cementing his legacy along the way.

1984: Lagerfeld, the Label

Karl Lagerfeld Fall 1984 Ready to Wear Runway Show

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With the desire to bring a sexier and more intellectual spin to his current work, Lagerfeld launched his namesake label in 1984. Unlike the creations he was producing for both Fendi and Chanel at the time, the Karl Lagerfeld brand offered an up-close look to his personality and style. Monochrome figures, boyfriend cuts, and regular homages to his cat Choupette were at the heart of the brand, where he kept the title of chief creative director until his death.

2004: Lagerfeld Goes Mainstream

Karl Lagerfeld for H&M window display

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Before Lagerfeld, merging luxury with fast fashion was hardly a thought in the fashion industry. But while controversy amused the designer, pushing the boundaries fueled him. In 2004, Lagerfeld once again made history by being one of the first designers to collaborate with a fast-fashion brand. For H&M, he created a series of elegant tuxedo and minimalist shirts. Unsurprisingly, they instantly sold out.

2010: A Series of Spectacles

Designer Silvia Venturini Fendi and designer Karl Lagerfeld walk the runway at the Fendi Roma 90 Years Anniversary fashion show at the Fontana di Trevi on July 7, 2016

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In the last decade of his life, Lagerfeld offered more than just stunning creations to the fashion industry. With each collection he produced came a grandiose spectacle that often stole the show. For Chanel, he regularly transformed Paris’s Grand Palais into a scenic production, whether that was a decked-out airport for Spring/Summer 2016 or the Tour Eiffel, for Fall/Winter 2018. With Fendi, Lagerfeld pushed the boundaries even further, using heritage landmarks — like the great wall of China and the Trevi fountain —  as its backdrop. 

2019: Lagerfeld’s Final Show

Karl Lagerfeld final Chanel collection finale

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Lagerfeld passed away on February 19, 2019. The following month, the Grand Palais was transformed one last time into a luxury Alpine Resort. Much like other Chanel shows, celebrities such as Cara Delevingne, Kaia Gerber, and Penelope Cruz walked the Fall/Winter 2019 runway to present what would be Lagerfeld’s final, posthumous collection. The collection was filled with the designer’s signature twists with black and white hues, quilted tweeds, and revisited pearls, signatures that would forever be integrated with Chanel’s aesthetic. The show’s teary finale would be remembered as a celebration of Lagerfeld’s legacy. 

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