In an industry that rarely rewards longevity, it seemed like Karl Lagerfeld would live forever. Thus it’s with a sense of bewilderment that the fashion world mourns the death of Chanel’s creative director on Tuesday, at the age of 85 (ish). Like his famed predecessor, Coco Chanel, Lagerfeld habitually lied about his age, and he seemed to stop time by adopting a personal uniform that was instantly recognizable and endlessly parodied—by Ashton Kutcher, by Neil Patrick Harris as Gunther in Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, and, frequently, by Lagerfeld himself, who created Fendi fur key chains in his likeness, employed a phalanx of Karl look-alikes as waiters at the launch of his limited-edition Diet Coke bottles, and voiced the male model turned villain Fabu in the animated film Totally Spies! The Movie.
Born—by most accounts—in Hamburg, Germany, in 1933, Lagerfeld moved to Paris as a teenager. At the tender age of 21, he won the International Wool Secretariat award in the coat category, sharing the podium with another fashion prodigy, Yves Saint Laurent, who won for his dress design. (It was the beginning of a fierce personal and professional rivalry, rivetingly chronicled in Alicia Drake’s The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius, and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris.) The accolade led to an apprenticeship with the couturier Pierre Balmain, after which Lagerfeld was named head designer at the now-defunct couture house Jean Patou. In 1963, he began freelancing for the ready-to-wear label Chloé, becoming its artistic director in 1974, while also serving as creative director for the Italian fur company Fendi.