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"It's The End Of An Era"—Remembering Fashion Icons Karl Lagerfeld And Lee Radziwill


READ: Karl Lagerfeld Dead at 85: Remembering the Iconic Designer's Life in Pictures


A melancholy and macabre tweet went out the night Karl Lagerfeld died. It went: “Who are the people in your neighborhood?FASHION WORLD: "They are all dying.” Indeed, this year’s fashion week season was marked by the deaths of two gargantuan figures in the world of fashion: style swan Lee Radziwill and icon Karl Lagerfeld. Devout Catholics believe that when one dies is a significant statement on one’s life. Marian devotees long to pass away on either a Saturday (Our Lady’s special day) or a major Marian holiday. A friend of mine was happy that her father died on Christmas Day because he was a Santo Niño devotee. And so for Lee Radziwill and Karl Lagerfeld to meet their worldly end during Fashion Week season is both poignant and poetic.


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To study their lives is to study parallel paths. At first sight, it may not seem so. On the surface, Lee may seem like a dilettante, a serial dabbler, a lady who lunched who happened to look good while she was doing it; while Karl was the classic workaholic who had famously quipped that he would die in the design atelier and that he would never ever retire. 

And yet, there are still strong and significant similarities. Both had fathers who were in the financial field: “Black Jack” Bouvier was from a wealthy family and he became a stockbroker while Karl’s father was a banker. Both had mothers who were highly critical of their children. Janet Lee Bouvier Auchincloss famously told her daughters, “One is not born weak, one becomes weak from lack of exertion of the will.” There are numerous accounts from biographers and friends of the pair once called “the most famous sisters in the world,” Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and Caroline Lee Bouvier Canfield Radziwill Ross having a contentious and emotionally cold mother. Karl himself often told stories of his mother telling him that he had ugly hands (hence the gloves) and throwing out his diary because she wanted to spare him the embarrassment of having proof of his stupidity. 


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Both found their tribes in the fashion world, Lee being called the “original influencer” by Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times, and Karl Lagerfeld who simultaneously designed for his own label, Fendi and most famously, the House of Chanel for 36 years being called the most prolific and influential fashion designer of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Both loved art, ballet, history, literature, film, and interior design, and had close friendships with creative people from all these fields. Both spoke multiple languages. Lee is credited for boosting the career of now design legend Renzo Mongiardino. And after being associated with the 18th century look, Karl auctioned off all his pieces so that he could commission a flat by Christian Liaigre, the minimalist who is still a fashion world favorite. 

And being quintessential fashion people, they cultivated friendships and acquaintances with people much younger than themselves. Lee befriended and famously championed Martin Grant, Giambattista Valli, and became very close with Marc Jacobs (helping him settle into Paris when he was first named Creative Director of Louis Vuitton in 1997) and his best friend Sofia Coppola who filmed a short documentary on Lee two years ago. Karl once said, “What excites me are new starts,” and so he loved hanging out with musical genius Pharell, young actress and model Lily Rose Depp, and even Violette d’Urso, the pre-teen youngest daughter of his one-time muse Ines de la Fressange.

Both Lee and Karl lived a life devoted to the pursuit of aesthetic adventures, and proved that far from being superficial, a life in fashion means infinite curiosity, an insatiable thirst for learning, and a mindset that looked to creating the future rather than living in the past.



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Lee Radziwill: Beyond her sister's shadow 

While she never escaped her sister Jackie’s shadow in the popular imagination, to the fashion world, Lee was even more of a fashion icon than her celebrated sister. She married Michael Canfield, a publishing executive and Prince Stanislaus “Stash” Radziwill and film director Herbert Ross, and famously had a great love affair with man about town, adventurer and now artist and diarist Peter Beard, as well as Aristotle Onassis who then went on to marry her sister. 

She then became a brand ambassador for Giorgio Armani in the 80s. Her one-time best friend, novelist Truman Capote once said, “I can’t think of a woman more feminine than Lee Radziwill.” Fashion editor and insider Andre Leon Talley once wrote, “The lack of clutter, the choices of things to put on the wall, it’s all done with care and love for the objet, a sense of editing—editing her clothes and editing her friends and editing the menus for dinner. She edits herself. She edits her wardrobe. She edits her life.” 



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Her impeccable taste tempered with a dash of daring endeared her to designers and style savants. The Paris-based Australian designer Martin Grant, whose first garment for Lee was a white leather motorcycle jacket, once philosophized: “The thing was, her sister Jackie was an icon to a generation  but once you got past her, you realized Lee had a huge influence on Jackie, and a lot of her style was filtered down from Lee. But because Lee was less in the limelight, she could be edgier and more interesting.” 

Tory Burch cited Lee as the main influence for her fall 2018 collection and she even named a handbag after her. Many Americans still remember her pink shift dress as she sat perched atop an elephant with then First Lady Jackie when they toured India together. For Truman Capote’s legendary Black and White Ball, she donned a sleek and straightforward Mila Schon, who was then unknown, but became a cult sensation among the fashion set after Lee wore her gown. In the 2000s, she was photographed mostly in Martin Grant’s minimalist but perfectly tailored coats.

Lee was constantly photographed in her homes, one in New York and another in Paris for both fashion and interior magazines. But like her sister, she had a literary bent and was wont to give eloquent quotes. Of her beloved Paris, she waxed rhapsodic: “In what other city can you find doves on your window sill?” And in her last interview before she passed away, she said, “People who say they have no regrets are either liars or narcissists.” She published a book titled Happy Times, of family photographs and her memories on the less tragic days of her life. Aside from the Kennedy assassination, she lost both her only sister and only son to cancer in the same year, 1994. She found solace in her memories, and never looked back. Perhaps, that is the greatest lesson a fashion lover can leave behind: to forever look forward.



The true kaiser of fashion 

Can there ever be an imagination as monumental as Karl Lagerfeld’s? He turned the Grand Palais into a space station, an iceberg, a supermarket with actual grocery items all branded Chanel, an old-fashioned casino, a political rally, and he also turned the world’s streets into runways, most recently, the main thoroughfare of Havana that became a giant Chanel runway. 

Year after year, season after season, he was able to transform the Chanel codes and motifs into updated, relevant and, yes, wearable new interpretations. So much so that even Korean supergroup BTS went on a Chanel shopping spree when they first went to Paris and on their much-awaited “airport fashion shots,” where we saw them sporting Chanel jackets, brooches, earrings and bags.



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Those who know Karl spoke often of the vast breath and depth of his knowledge, often calling his mind, “encyclopedic.” But Instagram was soon flooded with people who noted his kindness when approached for selfies and young designers who were given words of encouragement  But particularly moving was Marion Cotillard’s tribute: “Your Being was so vibrant, your profound kindness, your curiosity of the world and humanity touched me so deeply.  What you have left is Alive, Luminous and Bright. The word GENIUS suits you perfectly. Thank you for the beauty, the humor, the poetry, the authenticity, the excellence, the passion and the love. Thank you for giving so much to France. And to Art.”

After both Lee and Karl passed away, many wrote: It’s the end of an era. Eras may end, but true genius and artistry live on. The singularity and shining examples of these style legends have now passed on into immortality.


Photos from @karllagerfeld @lee.radziwill