It’s just days before the Met Gala, and Laurie Lynn Stark’s phone is ringing off the hook. Stark, who co-owns the Los Angeles-based luxury brand Chrome Hearts, has been fielding a stream of last-minute requests from celebrities and their stylists for clothes and jewelry to wear for fashion’s biggest night. “I had people calling for clothes on Friday!” she says. Chrome Hearts, known for its gothic sterling silver accessories, heavy-duty leather garments, and baroque-biker design aesthetic, is all about making things the right way—as in, slowly, by hand, in Hollywood. The brand is often flexed by A-listers like Drake, but it’s not a regular presence on the breakneck-paced red carpet circuit. The 2023 Met Gala, though, is a tribute to Karl Lagerfeld, the fashion titan who helmed Chanel for 36 years. Stark knows very well why seemingly everybody wants to show up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Monday night wearing a piece of her brand. “Karl,” she says, “loved Chrome.”
Before his death in 2019, Karl Lagerfeld was fashion’s greatest and most famous eccentric—almost a caricature of a fashion designer—and his daily uniform was instantly recognizable. He cultivated several looks over his lifetime, but the one that finally stuck was his image of a Prussian dandy, a famous getup of tight jeans, skinny Dior blazer, starched white shirt with a 4”-tall collar, wide black tie, leather gloves, and dark sunglasses. And “Kaiser Karl” often topped all this off with piles of Chrome Hearts jewelry: layers of necklaces, stacks of rings, and an ensemble of dangly wallet chains and various glittery charms. Though he was reputed to own hundreds of belts, in his final decade Lagerfeld was rarely seen in public without a diamond-encrusted Chrome Hearts “Gunslinger” buckle on his waist. As time went on, Lagerfeld’s silver accessories became almost as central a part of his identity as his silver ponytail.
His Chrome Hearts habit has been cast as one of Lagerfeld’s many somewhat inexplicable personal quirks. Why, you might ask, would the German designer of Chanel and Fendi cover so many of his appendages in the work of a label that emerged out of LA’s biker and rock ’n’ roll scenes?
Laurie Lynn, whose husband Richard Stark founded Chrome Hearts in 1988, asked herself that same question when Lagerfeld showed up to the brand’s Upper East Side store one day in the late-’90s. “I mean, he’s the farthest thing you could ever be from a biker,” she says. At the time, Chrome Hearts was growing beyond its motorcycle roots and emerging as an emblem of hardcore American luxury, with clients like Cher and Guns N’ Roses and soaring popularity in Japan, where Comme des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo was an early supporter. But they had essentially no presence in Europe—and no reason to believe somebody like Lagerfeld would drop into their store, let alone embrace what they were doing.
Stark doesn’t remember Lagerfeld buying anything on that first visit. But he kept showing up to the shop, which was located on the first floor of a 19th-century townhouse on E 64th St. and opened up into a peaceful courtyard. (The location is currently closed for renovations.) At first, Lagerfed would come to sit in the garden and drink diet sodas. “We were just blown away that he would keep coming back,” Stark says. He soon became a fixture at the townhouse. “He absolutely loved hanging out. He loved the atmosphere. He would come in and not buy anything, just hang out. That’s how we got to know him,” Stark says. She remembers how polite the often imperious designer was. “He was so kind to everyone in the store. He never treated anyone like, ‘You are just the door guy.’ To him, everyone was on the same level.”
Lagerfeld clearly recognized in Chrome Hearts certain values that he held dear, even if the brand’s heavy-duty aesthetics were a jarring contrast to the high artistry he pursued on the European runways. In the courtyard, hidden away from the press and hangers-on and fans, Lagerfeld would tell Stark how inspired he was every time he visited. “Karl loved the quality, and that it was timeless,” Stark says of Chrome Hearts jewelry. “He always said, ‘These will be passed on. They’re heirlooms.’” He appreciated the culture around the brand, too, the fact that it was family-owned and that Richard and Laurie Lynn didn’t chase trends but instead made whatever they felt like. “He said, ‘It’s real. You’re the only real brand. You’re the only real brand around,’” Stark recalls.