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c. 1950s and 1960s

The beginnings of the man you know as Karl Lagerfeld

A portrait of his early days as a designer

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Karl Lagerfeld's first big break came with the design of this coat in 1954.
(Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

It’s tempting to imagine that Karl Lagerfeld—who died today at the age of about 85 (he was cagey about his year of birth)—arrived in the fashion world as a fully-formed creation, decked out in dark glasses, high-neck white shirt, fitted suit and tie, and fingerless gloves. Such was not the case.

Born Karl Lagerfeldt, his big break came in 1954, when he was (approximately) 23. Lagerfeld had won first prize in the coats section of a wool marketing competition, and this led directly to his being hired as an assistant to Pierre Balmain in Paris.

Three years later, Lagerfeld moved to the design atelier of Jean Patou. Curating couture collections for the first time, he was also in the process of curating his persona—at this time he went under the name “Roland Karl.” 

These photographs from the late 1950s and early 1960s, taken at the very beginning of his career, show the raw material from which he would create his identity.

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As he himself put it: I am like a caricature of myself, and I like that. It is like a mask. And for me the Carnival of Venice lasts all year long.”  

At 21, Lagerfeld won first prize in the coat category at the Fashion Design Competition in Paris, December 11, 1954.
(Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
Lagerfeld, 21, and Yves Sant Laurent, 18, unknown at that time, both won prizes at a fashion design show organized by the 1954 International Wool Secretariat, held in a Parisian bar. Lagerfeld was awarded first place in the coat category and Sant Laurent was awarded first place in the the dress category. Colette Bracchi, far right, received first prize in the suit category. The group is posing among the models that presented their collections.
(Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
Lagerfeld posing with a model presenting his winning design for a cocktail coat.
(Photo by dpa/picture alliance via Getty Images)
As a fashion designer at the house of Jean Patou, Lagerfeld does a fitting on a model in Paris, July 21, 1958.
(Photo by KEYSTONE-FRANCE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
House of Jean Patou model fitting, July 21, 1958.
(Photo by KEYSTONE-FRANCE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Working for the designer Jean Patou around 1960.
(Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
Lagerfeld around 1960.
(Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
Another fitting for Jean Patou.
(Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
Lagerfeld smiles as he looks at some fabric during a dress fitting on a model.
(Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
With a model in Germany.
(Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

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