Karl Lagerfeld was a standard unto himself. He defined what it means to be a twenty-first-century designer, and he did it with humor and joy. It’s doubly painful to have lost him because he never fell out of love with his work or with the world, and his death marks the end of the era of craftspeople who could do it all. Karl was the living soul of fashion: restless, forward-looking, and voraciously attentive to our changing culture. He recognized earlier than most that ready-to-wear wasn’t just couture-lite but the vibrant center of the new, accomplished woman’s lifestyle. And at a time when his peers were seeking shelter in fashion houses, he branched out alone as perhaps the world’s most dazzling freelancer, designing multiple labels with electric energy. I’ve joked that Karl was a one-man superbrand, as distinctive as the Chanel suit he imbued with a second life. To me, however, he was something more. Through decades of adventures and misadventures, he was a true and loyal friend.
We were often in touch, but Karl prized his solitude and working hours, which would regularly run to 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. He was not a morning person. He loved parties and could be counted on to rise to any social occasion, often with a startling display of unexpected skills. I can recall one evening, many years ago, when Karl neatly rolled up the exquisite carpet from the Salon de la Paix, pulled the dauntingly debonair Oscar de la Renta onto the floor, and danced a perfect tango in the classic style. Karl and I kept a standing dinner date in Paris on the first Sunday of every Fashion Week, often joined by our great friend Amanda Harlech, but we never spoke of our work during those evenings. He was witty and winsome, and seemed to have an endless supply of risqué jokes—in other words, the world’s best dinner companion. The hours I spent with him at the table make me feel luckier than any stroke of fortune I’ve had at my editing desk.
Because Karl had a natural eye for style and beauty, because he dressed like no one else, and because he (and his extremely pampered cat) took to the glitter of social media better than any other octogenarian I know, it was often assumed that he worked in the realm of surfaces. In truth, his private passions ran deep. Karl loved nothing more than reading alone, and books used to pile madly around his workplace: At one point, a table laden with them collapsed from its own weight through the floor. It sometimes wasn’t clear, until one talked with him, that he had found inspiration in everything from the week’s news to eighteenth-century decorative arts and the philosophy of David Hume. No designer had more esoteric references, or such varied ones. Karl was a renaissance man who, by virtue of his interests and background, devoured the world. He was a linguist, a photographer, an interior decorator, a collector, a filmmaker, and a philanthropist—among many other things.
That openness and energy always showed. If fashion is the personal expression of a world in transformation, design is the practice of noticing those changes a moment ahead of everyone else, and embodying them in clothes that help people find their sense of self. That was Karl, not just in his taste but in his soul. He hated to be called an artist. He was “working class,” he insisted—a commercial craftsman doing his best to fill the stores with new and interesting wares. For all his prolificacy and professionalism, though, what made Karl Karl was something far more intimate and squarely in the artist’s realm: a hidden thread of love, and maybe loss, that drew him to reach out, in life and work, and try to connect with the singular person hiding in the fashionable crowd.
Speaking personally, I want to say the connection was real. I’ve worn Karl’s beautiful clothes during the most important, emotional moments of my life: at my wedding, at my children’s weddings, when I received a damehood from the queen, at Franca Sozzani’s memorial service. Partly it was because of how much I loved his designs, how well they expressed who I was and what I hoped to be. But partly it was because of Karl. Putting on his exquisite dresses or perfect suits made me feel close to him, and secure in crucial moments in the comfort of a friend. What helps me now is knowing I’ll still find him there when he’s gone.
If the most joyful part of my work is discovering new talents, the most heartbreaking is watching those I’ve known and loved depart the world. I was always thrilled to celebrate Karl’s incredible creativity in Vogue, yet it’s as a person, not as a designer, that I will miss him most. My colorful compatriot. My brilliant friend. Karl would want us to think only of the future, but today I’m leaving a place for sadness at what has passed.