Lagerfeld, instantly recognisable in his dark suits, pony-tailed white hair and dark glasses, was best known for his association with Chanel but delivered collections for LVMH’s Fendi and his own eponymous label.
Rumours of Lagerfeld’s ill-health had swirled after he missed Chanel’s January show in Paris.
“We have lost a creative genius who helped to make Paris the fashion capital of the world and Fendi one of the most innovative Italian houses,” LVMH chairman and chief executive Bernard Arnault said in a statement on Tuesday.
“We owe him a great deal: his taste and talent were the most exceptional I have ever known.”
A true craftsman who combined artistic instinct, business acumen and commensurate ego, Lagerfeld was known for his strikingly visual fashion show displays and extravagant outfits.
Born in Hamburg in 1933, Lagerfeld made his debut with designer Pierre Balmain as an apprentice before moving on to Patou and Chloe and then Italian brand Fendi. He gained a rock-star status after he joined Chanel in 1983.
He earned the nicknames “Kaiser Karl” and “Fashion Meister”.
“We are deeply saddened to learn the news of Karl Lagerfeld’s passing today. His unrivalled contribution to the fashion industry changed the way women dress and perceive fashion,” Caroline Rush, chief executive of the British Fashion Council said in a statement.
The German designer was best known for his association with Chanel, dating back to 1983. The brand, the legend now goes, risked becoming the preserve of monied grannies before he arrived, slashing hemlines and adding glitz to the prim tweed suits of what is now one of the world’s most valuable couture houses.
But Lagerfeld, who simultaneously churned out collections for LVMH’s Fendi and his eponymous label – an unheard of feat in fashion – was almost a brand in his own right.
Sporting dark suits, white, pony-tailed hair and tinted sunglasses in his later years that made him instantly recognisable, an irreverent wit was also part of a carefully crafted persona.
“I am like a caricature of myself, and I like that,” runs one legendary quote attributed to him, and often recycled to convey the person he liked to play. “It is like a mask. And for me the Carnival of Venice lasts all year long.”
His artistic instincts, business acumen and commensurate ego combined to commercially triumphant effect in the rarefied world of high fashion, where he was revered and feared in similar proportions by competitors and top-models.
A refusal to look to the past was one of his biggest assets, those who knew him said.
Lagerfeld also stood out as a craftsman. An accomplished photographer, he drew his own designs by hand, an increasingly rare phenomenon in fashion. Behind the facade, he was known for his erudition and penchant for literature, and he devoured the world’s leading newspapers daily.
The designer was not afraid of breaking the mould within often-pompous couture circles. He teamed up with high street brand H&M in 2004 for limited edition collections, a move that raised eyebrows and was then quickly copied by others.
His appearance changed over the years along with his affectations, such as a fan he at one time carried and fluttered incessantly.
Known to adore Diet Coke, Lagerfeld said he shed weight in the early 2000s to fit into the razor-thin suits brought in by Christian Dior’s then menswear designer Hedi Slimane.
In rare moments when he was not working, Lagerfeld retired to one of his many homes in Paris, Germany, Italy or Monaco, all of them lavish carbon copies of 18th-century interiors.
French celebrity online magazine Purepeople said Lagerfeld died on Tuesday morning after being taken to hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine just outside Paris the night before.