Karl Lagerfeld’s Miami Moment: As tributes pour in for the legendary designer, we remember his 2008 visit to South Beach, and how he fell in love with the Raleigh’s relaxed vibe.

Photo courtesy of The Raleigh Miami Beach.

High up in the penthouse of the Raleigh hotel, Karl Lagerfeld had turned his back to the flurry of activity around him – the stylists, models and seamstresses typical of the frenzy found 24 hours before the debut of a collection – preferring for a moment the serene view of the iconic pool below and the ocean beyond. When Lagerfeld returned to his work, he was grinning, almost giddily.

When I awoke early Tuesday morning to the news of Lagerfeld’s death in Paris at the age of 85, that penthouse moment in May 2008 immediately leaped to mind. The longtime artistic director of Chanel had chosen South Beach and the Raleigh for the debut of the house’s Cruise 2009 collection, and though his eyes were hidden behind the oversized black sunglasses that were as signature to his look as his snow-white ponytail and fingerless gloves, it was clear Lagerfeld was having a grand time.

Photo courtesy of The Raleigh Miami Beach.

“From the day he arrived to the day he left, he was incredibly happy,” remembers André Balazs, who was a friend of Lagerfeld’s for more than 20 years. The designer was fond of staying at Balazs’s Mercer hotel when he was in New York; in 2008 Balazs also owned the Raleigh, though he sold the property in September 2009 (the hotel was resold to new owners on Feb. 13 and is currently closed for renovations). “Karl seemed to absorb everything about the South Beach environment, and he was really inspired by it. He also loved that the Raleigh still reflected its original design. Up to the last minute until the show, you could see he was trying to incorporate a lot of those elements into what he was creating.”

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Photo courtesy of The Raleigh Miami Beach.

Lagerfeld first visited the Raleigh roughly six months prior to the Cruise collection’s debut, Balazs says, exploring the hotel in secret before deciding it was the ideal venue to host the event. The Cruise season, also known as Resort, arrives in stores in mid-November, and historically has been thought of as the “traveling clothes” moneyed clients need in the winter when they decamp for warmer climes. The Raleigh’s art deco styling and laid-back vibe, tinged with a hint of glamour, ultimately were deemed ideal for the mood Lagerfeld desired. From the moment Chanel announced in February 2008 that South Beach and the Raleigh were the chosen location, the race was on to mount the mammoth production, which employed dozens of A-list models from around the globe and an army of artisans from Chanel’s Paris atelier.

When Lagerfeld arrived the week before the show, it was clear he already had embraced his surroundings. During a pre-show interview he told me, only half-joking, that he had discovered Wet Willie’s, the bar at Ocean Drive and 8th Street known for its colorful frozen cocktails, while the restaurant at Casa Tua also had become a favorite. Chanel hosted a VIP dinner at the indoor/outdoor Northern Italian hotspot the night before the show, an event that included Diane Kruger and Zoe Kravitz, as well as Lagerfeld favorites like Lady Amanda Harlech and Miamians Barbara Becker and Malia Scharf.

At the Raleigh, Lagerfeld stayed in the hotel’s legendary Esther Williams Suite and had converted the penthouse level into a makeshift studio, with his desk – laden with sketches, books and flowers – at the far end against the floor-to-ceiling windows. Long tables lined each side of the room and were heaped with accessories sporting Chanel’s famed double-C’s, with the space in the middle becoming a de facto runway for models and fittings. He also adopted a new wardrobe for Miami, selecting summery pieces in varying shades of white from Tom Ford; on the day he was lured by that penthouse view, Lagerfeld was wearing a jacket in blue and white stripes, which he had custom-made by Saint James, the Normandy-based brand that’s been crafting the iconic striped fisherman’s sweaters since the 18th century. “It’s the same company that dresses the sailors in the French navy,” he said both proudly and unsurprisingly; the man who for 36 years had conjured modern interpretations of the Coco Chanel legend was forever a fan of history and heritage.

MIAMI BEACH, FL - MAY 15: Karl Lagerfeld and Finale attend CHANEL 2008 Cruise Collection - Runway at The Raleigh Hotel on May 15, 2008 in Miami Beach, FL. (Photo by BILLY FARRELL/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images) Patrick McMullan Patrick McMullan via Getty Image

The collection ultimately debuted on May 15, 2008, and Lagerfeld’s joy was undeniably reflected in the clothes, from white bouclé-tweed pantsuits that would look perfectly at home amid that trend today to easy pastel knits and a stunner of a satin evening shift that seemed to literally burst with lushly embroidered roses down its front. Also splashed among the 74-look collection were T-shirts sporting Lagerfeld’s sketch of the Raleigh pool, the edges of which served as the show’s runway – those pieces were among the first to be quickly snapped up, and they’ve since become collector’s items.

When Lagerfeld took his runway bow, once again he was smiling, resplendent in a white jacket trimmed in black on the lapels, an effect meant to echo the lines of the pool. He gifted Balazs with a similar jacket in his size. “Karl was very generous with his friends – I have a lot of things from that event, including a self-portrait he did while he was there,” adds Balazs, who naturally was on the front row for the show, not far from Kruger and Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, as well as a cadre of international journalists flown in for the show.

In the decade that followed that seminal South Beach event, Lagerfeld took the Cruise collection to other exotic locales, including Dubai, Havana and Saint-Tropez. I once again interviewed him before that latter show in 2010, and while I might be biased, the sparkle I sensed in Miami wasn’t quite the same. Had he been seduced by South Beach? “I think he fell in love with it; you saw that in what he created,” Balazs says. “That was a major moment for all of us, because the city was substantially less sophisticated than it is today, but Karl saw something and put Miami on a global stage. That was part of his genius – seeing what perhaps others had not yet seen, and celebrating it.”