As someone who has worked in the industry, it’s impossible to surmise the impact Karl Lagerfeld had on the fashion world. He was truly a brilliant creator and his art has changed how we all dress (whether you’re conscious of that or not). But, for me, it’s hard to feel sad about his passing. In death, there’s a tendency to look at someone’s life with a rose-tinted view, but with a figure as prolific as Lagerfeld does the “don’t speak ill of the dead” really apply? It’s no secret that the designer was a racist, sexist, fatphobic man – so, does he really deserve the outpouring of support from every brand and fashion-person going? I’d argue we all need to mourn with more nuance.
The designer, who has died at age 85, shaped luxury fashion into the cultural phenomenon it is today and the legacy of the world’s most famous house, Chanel. From Alexa Chung to Bella Hadid, the internet has en masse expressed its sadness and gratitude for the man behind Fendi and Chanel’s success, but it’s important to remember him as much for his innovations as his failures. He was a pioneer for fashion, and creatively he pushed boundaries and earnt the industry a lot of money – but he also held it back from progress and inclusion.
As a society, we breeze over how problematic people are when we value their art, no more so than in death. Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, Lagerfeld’s predecessor, was a “Nazi intelligence operative and an incorrigible anti-Semite”, yet every biopic and installation dedicated to her skims over this and creates a very one-dimensional narrative. We push it to the back of our minds because we don’t want to navigate the complexities that come with admiring someone’s work when we fundamentally disagree with their morals. The fashion industry is notoriously bad for this, John Galliano is back working again and will likely be immortalised for his beautiful designs and Gucci’s recent blackface scandal has been brushed over with little more than a weak apology coming from those in charge.
Karl Lagerfeld was arguably the most damaging of them all, because he never showed any remorse and if anything, only got more intolerant with age, as we continued to indirectly validate his opinions by never (with any gravitas) boycotting his work.
He suggested the Holocaust when Angela Markel opened Germany’s borders to migrants stating “One cannot – even if there are decades between them – kill millions of Jews so you can bring millions of their worst enemies in their place,” adding “I know someone in Germany who took a young Syrian and after four days said: ‘The greatest thing Germany invented was the Holocaust’.” He has called Adele “too fat”, said that Pippa Middleton should only “show her back” because he didn’t like her face, blamed Kim Kardashian’s robbery on her for flaunting her wealth and said in relation to the #MeToo movement that “If you don’t want your pants pulled about, don’t become a model!”. In short, he was a bigot. Seeing as he was known for being a private person, it’s unconceivable to think what he would say behind closed doors given that the aforementioned comments were all made in public interviews.
Just imagine what an impact Karl Lagerfeld could have had if he wasn’t fatphobic and racist. If he championed diversity in his shows, spoke out and said “All women deserve clothes. All women are beautiful” rather than “no one wants to see curvy women on the runway”.
Celebrate his work, but do it with a level of accountability and awareness. Let’s not drown out the truth about this man in the midst of his passing, because no one should be untouchable, not even the late not-very-great Karl Lagerfeld.
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