Most tributes to Karl Lagerfeld only focus on the beauty and not the ugly, but in the case of one of the most iconic fashion designers, both sides of the luxurious coin should be discussed.
On February 19, 2019 fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld passed away at the age of 85. My first thought was “What happens to Choupette?”, but the rest of the world appeared to go into a state of mourning. Social media, fashion magazines and news outlets published posts and articles mourning and honouring the long-time creative director of Chanel. But only few discuss the controversy revolving Lagerfeld, which results in a skewed memorial of the designer, instead of a balanced account of a polarizing figure.
It’s a difficult topic, because you can’t deny Lagerfeld’s talent, his imagination and his work ethic as a fashion designer. But then again, I also believe you can’t deny that some parts of his fashion ideology are cruel, misogynistic, fatphobic and Islamophobic, which is something that appears to be ignored in most of the articles and social media posts paying tribute to the deceased designer.
Lagerfeld joined, and consequently saved, the House of Chanel back in 1983 and over the years he has completely transformed the classic fashion house into one of the most famous, luxurious and leading fashion brands. He truly was a visionary designer and creative director of Chanel for over 30 years. Lagerfeld paid homage to Coco Chanel’s original designs, while still adding his own twist to them. Examples of this are Lagerfeld’s take on the classic quilted leather bags and the bouclé tweed suit. His runway shows were unlike anything else in terms of the set design, with his shows featuring larger-than-life cruise ships and rockets and appearing more like epic film sets than high fashion runways.
Lagerfeld’s designs for Chanel were beautiful, elegant and at times breath-taking. Models, actors, musicians and artists – from Blake Lively, Margot Robbie and Emma Stone to Janelle Monaé, Cara Delevigne and Lady Gaga – walked red carpets and attended premieres in stunning creations by Chanel, which were always feminine, sensual and yet classic. Chanel was ever-present on the red carpet, but also on the covers of the biggest fashion magazines, including Vogue, Elle and Harper’s Bazaar. I’m still completely mesmerized when I open a fashion magazine and the editorial photo shoots feature stunning dresses, jewellery and accessories by Chanel, and I don’t think that feeling will leave anytime soon.
What I’m trying to say is that even though Lagerfeld’s influence on and significance within the fashion industry can’t be denied, the controversy regarding the designer also shouldn’t. He has made stunning designs and envisioned epic runway sets, sure, but parts of the ideology behind his beautiful designs are heavily criticized and, in my opinion, cruel, inconsiderate, misogynistic, fatphobic and Islamophobic. Most articles, social media posts and news outlets that are paying tribute to Lagerfeld after his passing, only focus on the beauty and ignore the ugly.
The quote below is only one example of Lagerfeld’s very vocal fatphobia. In a time when fashion houses are increasingly often called out for not allowing curvy, midsize or plussize models to walk the runway and the body positivity moment is on the rise, Lagerfeld was one of the few creative directors who very openly and vocally argued that the fashion industry has no place for women (and men, for that matter) with a size larger than the sample size, which is usually between the sizes of 30 and 34. When people started responding to Lagerfeld’s comments, he said in the 2009 interview in Focus: “They are fat mummies sitting with their bags of crisps in front of the television, saying that thin models are ugly.”
No one wants to see curvy models on the runway.Karl Lagerfeld in Focus in 2009
Additionally, Lagerfeld has repeatedly made sneer comments about and voiced his distaste for fat people and fatness in general. “The hole in social security, it’s also [due to] all the diseases caught by people who are too fat,” Lagerfeld said in a television interview on French TV program ‘Le Grand 8’ on October 4, 2013 when discussing the social security system in France.
Even though Lagerfeld has always carefully paid homage to Coco Chanel’s original designs, that didn’t stop him from mocking her and feminism in general in an interview in Harper’s Bazaar in 2009. He claimed that Coco Chanel was “never ugly enough” to be a feminist, thereby appearing completetely tone-deaf to the basic principles of feminism, which aren’t in any way, shape, or form about perceptions of beauty and ugliness. In 2018, Lagerfeld once again made headlines after he commented on three models accusing Interview director Karl Templer of sexual assault. “If you don’t want your pants pulled about, don’t become a model! Join a nunnery, there’ll always be a place for you in the convent,” the fashion designer said in an interview with magazine Numero.
Of course these quotes could have been taken out of context and of course Lagerfeld apologized for some of them, but in my opinion that doesn’t take away that these quotes are hurtful, inconsiderate and cruel – and the designer himself was always very vocal about these ideas and opinions. Therefor, it felt unjust to me that my social media and new outlets were flooded by glorifyied praises and tributes on Lagerfeld, which completely ignored his own vocal and unapologetic views.
To conclude, I think it’s important to memorialize both sides of someone’s proverbial coin when paying tribute to a celebrity that has passed way. With that, I think the media should refrain from portraying someone as either a saint or a sinner, but as a human being with both strengths and flaws. And I think in the case of controversial fashion designed Karl Lagerfeld, this is especially important.
Thanks to Yonna Kuipers for sparring with me for this article <3. Portrait of Karl Lagerfeld via Chanel.