The death of Karl Lagerfeld of Chanel (and so many other brands) was foreshadowed by an impending sense of doom in the world of fashion and clothing.
Lagerfeld’s mind and imagination were pure magic. He took on brands with no reputation and cachet and turned them to gold. He recaptured, redefined, and forged a new and aspirational path. His every flash of virtuosic insight concerned the marketing of elegance. He did it with an uncanny sense of making the past live in better ways than it ever had. In this way, he made the world a more beautiful place to live.
(Also, so far as I know, he was the last surviving high-end designer to personally sport a high detachable collar, which tells you how much he knew that no one else seemed to know.)
Think of all the old brands that have died the death. His, in contrast, came to new life. His insight was that an old brand is a moat that no newcomer can cross. The trick is to market it. Owning it roots you. Wearing it immortalizes you. Flashing the brand gives you an edge over everyone else.
With this message, he tapped into the driving force that has given fashion its life for 500 years: one’s desire to send a social signal that you occupy an ever-higher station in life. Which is to say: you are valuable.
Because of this insight, and his incredible gift of applying it, the very name Lagerfeld itself is immortal.
The Last of His Kind?
Two weeks before the news of his death, Business of Fashion announced the death of clothing:
The apparel industry seems to have no solution to the dwindling dollars Americans devote to their closets. Many upstarts promising to revolutionize the industry drift away with barely a whimper. Who needs fashion these days when you can express yourself through social media? Why buy that pricey new dress when you could fund a weekend getaway instead?
Apparel has simply lost its appeal. And there doesn’t seem to be a savior in sight. As a result, more and more apparel companies — from big-name department stores to trendy online startups — are folding.
There are economic factors. Contrary to the article, that Americans are spending ever less of their household budgets on clothing reflects a dramatic fall in clothing prices due to labor outsourcing, online competition, and the rise of large retailers and their ability to produce knockoffs at a fraction of the price of exclusive brands. There’s more going on than merely a change of taste.
That said, the change of taste is strikingly obvious. I just attended a 2,500-person event, and I and one other person were the only two who wore a tie for the entire week. Perhaps two other people wore anything like a suit or sportcoat. Everyone else was wearing the modern uniform, which I would describe (without trying to sound disparaging) as a random assembly of loose-fitting cotton items that cover your body.
True, this was a casual event. But the same is true in professional life. People don’t dress up. The less they dress up, the more they reflect the sense of the moment. Tech billionaires wear sneakers, sweats, and tees. It’s not quite grunge wear; it’s whatever wear. There is this presumption that clothing doesn’t matter in the slightest. I’ve seen lecturers on stage at professional events sitting on stools danging their bare feet, something that would have been a career killer just 15 years ago.
A Case for Slobbery?
I’ve heard all the defenses. If you are smart and killing it as an entrepreneur, your value is in what you do. It’s your mind, not your clothing. You don’t have to prove anything with what you wear. It’s what you do that matters.
It sounds vaguely plausible except one’s suspicions should be aroused given that this flips the narrative of half a millennium.
In the Middle Ages, you could immediately discern the difference between the rulers, the aristocracy, the merchants, the farmers, the workers, the slaves, by their dress alone. Crossing over, getting outside your born-that-way station in life was not only culturally verboten; it was often illegal (recall the sumptuary laws). Such was life before the dawn of modernity.
Capitalism eventually made that untenable. People could aspire. They could move. They could change professions. They could succeed on their own merits. In one lifetime, they could leap up the ladder of social success. They could literally go from rags to riches, which is to say that they were permitted to dress in ever-higher-class ways. The social-class signaling systems were bound up with what you wore. The opportunity to look as awesome as Louis XIV was now available to everyone — provided they had the success to show it.
This system of ascending social class marked by fashion was a driving force of the industry from the late 16th century until very recently. Take a look at the meritocrats of the Gilded Age with their high hats, high collars, and spats, their canes and watch fobs, their bright-white shirts and suits with tails. The point was to adorn yourself in the highest possible way, anything to send the sought-after sign that you have made it. No factory-floor manager could get away with this, and certainly not just any laborer. You had to be truly awesome to look this way.
In the 20th century, with the spread of the democratic ethos, this approach came to be seen as excessively ostentatious or just downright gauche. The getups were dialed back, but the class structure of clothing still survived even until the 1990s.
In the 21st century, however, the relationship between class and clothing began to break down because of the mass availability of clothing. Today — and I’ve tested this — I can spend $100 at Walmart and look as good from a slight distance as what would have required me to spend $2,500 at Burberry 20 years ago.
If such pretense is available to absolutely everyone, it’s no longer special. It took someone to pull the trigger to blow it all up. That person was Steve Jobs. Riffing off his extreme minimalism and adding an overlay of pure tackiness was Mark Zuckerberg. If these awesome, super rich, super successful dudes can eschew the push for sartorial escalation, so can everyone else. Thus came clothing nihilism. The only true faux pas was believing in faux pas at all.
Somehow in this mix, Lagerfeld survived. Does his death entrench the death of clothing? Is this the new permanent condition of humankind? Allow me to demur. I predict that the opposite could happen. We could all wake up tomorrow and wonder what we were thinking. Just as people look back at leisure suits, big bells, and wide ties with horror, the same will happen to the typical outfits of the well-to-do today. What were we thinking?
Here’s why this will happen. People completely misunderstand the more serious and robust reason for fashion and for the aspiration to dress above your station of birth. It’s not only about leading others to believe you are awesome. It is also, and especially, about letting others know that you think they are awesome enough to deserve your best.
When you dress well, you are honoring the occasion, your hosts, the venue, the profession, the setting, the other guests at dinner, your family, your coworkers, and so on. You are sending a signal: I think so highly of you that I went out of my way to honor you with trying to improve how I look. And here’s the thing: it truly does work.
I’ve never boarded a flight without being thanked for dressing up. Wearing a suit to anything, anytime, gains you countless numbers of special little favors from others, and why? It’s a way for others to thank you for honoring them. You feel it too: when guests come to your house for a party, who among them would you say is especially grateful for the invitation? It’s a pretty good guess that the answer is connected to how well they dress.
The point is incredibly obvious once you make it. It’s so obvious that it will soon be rediscovered. On that glorious day, we will see that we can use the gift of capitalism — universal access to the tools to live amazingly well — as a method by which we come to honor each other’s presence in the world by dressing up and caring once again.
This will be accompanied by a new dawning realization: dressing like a slob is a selfish act that fails others and finally fails yourself. Just look at Zuckerberg: do you think he cares about anything but himself, really? His clothing choice makes the point. And it’s not working for him anymore.
The death of the brilliant Karl Lagerfeld does not mean the certain and forever death of elegance. His death might shock us all into a new sensibility that helps us all see what he saw: if we want the world to be beautiful, we have to make it so.