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Weighing in on Karl Lagerfeld

By Cassidy Marshall

It takes a lot of accomplishments in one’s life to have an entire gala themed after your likeness and work – especially an event of the Met Gala’s caliber.

It also takes a lot of controversy in one’s life to have an entire Wikipedia section dedicated solely to your offensive transgressions.

It’s no secret to anyone that Karl Lagerfeld was one of the most revered fashion figures in the entire world. In particular, his work over the decades with largely successful fashion houses, such as Chanel and Fendi, as well as his longstanding relationships with many of the biggest names in the industry throughout his career, have contributed to his status as a fashion icon. In the wake of his recent passing, however, the controversies that followed this ever-enigmatic man throughout the duration of his life have been brought back to the surface. These transgressions, and the anger that they invoke in the public, have been further exacerbated by the Met Gala’s decision to dedicate their 2023 Gala theme to Lagerfeld.

Many have been quick to side with Lagerfeld, though even amongst those many, few have been eager to defend his actions; rather, even amongst his supporters, there seems to be a common understanding that although he made terrible, demeaning comments and committed controversial actions, it is excusable and/or understandable due to his old age and the generation in which he grew up. More or less, everyone seems to agree with the vilification of the nature of his actions and comments, but not everyone agrees that these actions and comments make Lagerfeld deserving of vilification himself. Hate the sin, not the sinner, right?

Let us discuss his sins, then:

In 2009, Lagerfeld told Focus, a German magazine, that “no one wants to see curvy women”. When asked about the controversy that stemmed from this comment, Lagerfeld doubled down on his sentiments, summing the reaction up to “a bunch of fat mommies sitting in front of the television with their bags of potato chips calling skinny models ‘ugly’”. That same year, he referred to supermodel Heidi Klum (formerly the second-highest paid supermodel in the world) as “too bling-bling” to be considered a supermodel. This was in response to another designer calling her “too heavy” to model, a sentiment mirrored in Lagerfeld’s reaction. Later on, in 2012, he sparked anger again when he called singer Adele, one of the world’s best-selling music artists in all of history, “too fat”. These are just a few of the many, many comments Lagerfeld made about women’s bodies and appearances in his lifetime.
His name was in the mud once more in 2017, when he confused and angered many with his comments on a French talk show regarding Germany’s acceptance of Muslim-majority refugees. Lagerfeld railed against his home country’s decision to grant refuge to citizens fleeing Muslim-majority countries, saying that Germany killed millions of Jews during the Holocaust and was now further hurting the Jewish population of Germany by “bringing in millions of their worst enemies”. In essence, his argument was that Muslim refugees living in Germany is the worst thing to happen to Jewish Germans since the Holocaust. You read that correctly. The Holocaust. He did not stop there, either. Lagerfeld made sure to include a delightful anecdote about a German he knew who, four days after taking in a Syrian refugee child, apparently told Lagerfeld “The greatest thing Germany invented was the Holocaust”. The author of this article would like it noted that Lagerfeld is not ethnically Jewish, nor has he ever practiced Judaism.

In his defense, however, it is not as if Lagerfeld had the best track record with Muslims prior to this incident. In 1994, Lagerfeld designed several Chanel dressed featuring verses from the Qur’an; after Indonesian leaders referred to the collection as “an insult to our religion”, Chanel was forced to apologize.

There is also the instance in which Lagerfeld made creative use of…racism. In his collaboration with model Claudia Schiffer for German photography magazine Stern Fotografie, he not only adorned Schiffer in blackface and a large Afro wig for one of the shots, but also gave her yellowface and slanted her eyes with makeup for a tasteless “Asian” look.

In response to stylist Karl Temper facing multiple accusations of inappropriately touching and removing the clothing items of models without consent, Lagerfeld did not deny Temper’s actions. Instead, his response was that Temper should be allowed to do whatever he wants to do to models because that is what they sign up for when they join the modelling industry; his exact words were “If you don’t want your pants pulled about, don’t become a model! Join a nunnery, there will always be place for you in the convent”.

He also sent flowers to accused rapist Dominique Strauss-Kahn, as well as Strauss-Kahn’s wife, after Strauss-Kahn attacked a hotel maid in New York City in 2011. When questioned about Strauss-Kahn’s guilt later on, he gave a hauntingly vague response: “He’s a sweet guy – as long as you’re not a woman. That’s the problem”. Lagerfeld further clarified that, regardless of whether or not the hotel maid consented, he was on Strauss-Kahn’s side.

In summation, on more than one occasion, Lagerfeld has openly admitted to not caring about the consent of women. He has also doubled down on every single occasion when questioned.
Whenever someone old and verifiably terrible passes away and there is an understandable reaction of addressing the terrible things that they have done, it is common for supporters of the deceased to chalk it up to their having a been a “product of a different generation”. They do the same with their racist grandmothers, their sexist bosses, and essentially any elder person who they do not feel like correcting because the harm is not detrimental to themselves. It is incredibly easy to say “Well, I guess they are just from another generation, what can you do?” when you are not the one being attacked by the person from that “different” generation.

The problem with this argument is that sexism, racism, fatphobia, xenophobia, transphobia, islamophobia, all these notions of hatred and oppression have always been bad. It is not like we all suddenly woke up one day in 2012 and decided to become politically correct on a whim. Generations and generations of pushback and protest and fighting against the existence of harmful, oppressive systems is what led us to where we are today with our current understanding of social relations, which we are still far from figuring out completely. Regardless, we have always had a certain level of understanding within our society that these beliefs are exactly that: hateful, oppressive systems.
Anyone who has lived through as many historically monumental social movements as Karl Lagerfeld did and still learned nothing is actually worse for having become a product of their generation. Karl Lagerfeld is worse for having become a product of his generation.

His supporters do not seem to realize that the more they emphasize his generation and his becoming a product of it, the more they emphasize his complete unwillingness and inability to rise above hatred and move towards equitable social justice in a way that the rest of the world somehow figured out a way to come around to. If the rest of the world has caught up, Lagerfeld should have been able to as well, especially considering the exorbitant amount of resources that Lagerfeld had at his disposal if he had really wanted to explore a different way of thinking. Wealthy, high-status, white men are the last people we should be affording understanding to when it comes to the lack of willingness to change. They have more means than anyone to do so, and yet continually, they get away with their words and actions without facing any real-life consequences. And why? Because when they die, we honor them with galas. Nobody seems to care that he was vile and harmful. If he created beautiful work and brought billions into the industry, the people that he hurt along the way are disposable. By honoring and defending Karl Lagerfeld, we dispose of his victims through our unwillingness to acknowledge them and condemn him. You would not look one of Karl Temper’s victims in the eyes and tell them that they are disposable, because you support survivors of sexual assault. But are you not telling them that they do not matter, that victims of this kind of abuse do not matter, when you choose to honour their abusers and those that protect them?

The people and groups that Lagerfeld so frequently demeaned and attacked were the exact people that define this industry. They embody it and evolve it, and without them there would be no fashion industry. So why do so many of us still stand in support of men who treat the foundations of our artform as subhuman? They deserve better; they deserve our support in their demand for better. We must expect more from our creatives. And if they do not deliver, we must find our inspiration elsewhere. To create an industry that is truly reflective of the beauty that is born of it, we must stand with each other at times like these, because to do otherwise would be to demean the very foundation of fashion. If we did not expect the absolute best from those that we entrust this artform to, then we are doing fashion a disservice.

At all times, if you are a woman, a minority, or any religion outside of Christianity, you are far closer to being targeted by men like Karl Lagerfeld than you are to being praised by them. It is imperative to keep this in mind when asked to choose between morality and iconography.

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