How can we celebrate the art of Karl Lagerfeld – who said such controversial things? Here's how I do it

Absurd, sometimes hilarious and occasionally downright unacceptable, Lagerfeld’s comments shouldn’t be ignored in support of his designs

Harriet Hall
Saturday 23 February 2019 12:38 GMT
Lagerfeld next to a painting of his cat Choupette during the inauguration of the 2015 show ‘Corsa Karl and Choupette’ at the Palazzo Italia in Berlin
Lagerfeld next to a painting of his cat Choupette during the inauguration of the 2015 show ‘Corsa Karl and Choupette’ at the Palazzo Italia in Berlin (Getty)

Shortly after the news broke that fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld had died, I wrote a profile about his design legacy. I was soon met with messages from friends and colleagues, asking me how – as a feminist journalist – I reconciled my fashion writing with some of the things the late Chanel and Fendi creative director had said.

He had called women “too fat”, criticised the Me Too movement and made an Islamophobic comment in reference to Angela Merkel welcoming Syrian refugees into Germany. He had stood by a friend accused of sexual assault.

Hours after the news of Lagerfeld’s death had been announced animal rights group PETA published a “sorry, not sorry you’re gone” press release and actor Jameela Jamil took to Twitter to condemn the designer, referring to Lagerfeld as “a ruthless, fat-phobic misogynist”, who “shouldn’t be posted all over the internet as a saint gone-too-soon. Close friend and long-term muse of the late designer, Cara Delevingne responded: “It saddens me deeply that anyone was hurt, that I do not condone. It is not possible to go through life without hurting people. He was not a saint, he is a human being like all of us who made mistakes and we should all have the chance to be forgiven for that.” The spat went on.

Lagerfeld’s contribution to fashion was prolific. He transformed Chanel, taking the liberating codes she imbued her designs with and translating them for a modern audience. He wanted everyone to be able to afford his clothes, proffering multiple high street collaborations and sparking a decade-long trend for them. At Fendi he made fur hip and desirable again. Always dictating the mood, he U-turned last year, making Chanel the first major fashion house to ban fur and exotic animal skins from their rails. Following suit, London Fashion Week went fur free for the first time in history in September.

Discussions around Lagerfeld remind me of what happened with another creative director of a prestigious French fashion house: the British designer John Galliano. In 2011, Galliano was caught on camera in a café in Paris drunkenly spouting antisemitic insults. Dior fired him and he went largely under the radar for years. When I reviewed the V&A’s latest blockbuster show, Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, I questioned the absence of this moment. How can we fully understand culture without the context? Can we still enjoy Galliano’s work?

In an age where what we say has become more important than ever, how do we broach subjects of separating art from artist, character from cloth?

A Harvey Weinstein production – take Shakespeare in Love, for example – feels somehow detachable from him, as a passive viewer, because his words and sentiments do not define the production in the same manner that a Woody Allen picture does. Watching Annie Hall now feels distinctly uncomfortable. Listening to a Ryan Adams song in which he romantically declares his love and protection of women is now bleached by the emotionally abusive messages he allegedly sent to women in real life; the reality of his relationships behind the façade. It is difficult to imagine being able to ever again watch Taken without recoiling at Liam Neeson’s deplorable racist comments – the personal drive which fuelled his revenge roles.

Lagerfeld was a self-confessed contrarian, once saying, “I like people saying horrible things because it gives me the freedom to be worse” and another time professing: “Everything I say is a joke, I am a joke myself.” He manufactured his entire image and persona to be that of an Absolutely Fabulous fashion caricature. He was indiscriminate with his cutting remarks: for every time he insulted a woman’s appearance he insulted a man’s. He once described Andy Warhol as “repulsive”. He was a gay man who was anti-gay marriage because it was “bourgeois”. He, himself, lived by the draconian dietary demands he enforced upon others.

Absurd, sometimes hilarious and occasionally downright unacceptable, Lagerfeld’s comments shouldn’t be ignored in support of his designs. But why is it that fashion continues to be held to higher regard than other industries? Because it’s run largely by women and largely for women, it is pierced with the double-edged sword of being fluffy and not news worthy and then is slammed for being unenvironmental, out of touch, misogynistic. Comparatively, we see vast celebratory coverage when men kick varying sizes of balls into varying sizes of hole every single day.

That’s not to say these criticisms aren’t valid, but it’s the manner in which they are covered. With glee. Fashion week is absurd, show attendees dress like idiots. Footballers are national treasures – even ones who spit racist slurs or call people c**ts who deny them a knighthood. This past London Fashion Week was the most political I’ve seen in the 17 seasons I’ve been reporting on the shows. The coverage of those moments came and went, but the criticism with which people have been met who showed support to a beloved designer has lingered for almost a week.

So where does this leave us? We should always hold people in the public eye to account. Whether they choose to be role models or not, they have a sphere of influence and a duty of care. We may never know whether Lagerfeld truly believed the cutting things he said or whether this was another side of his carefully constructed wind up merchant public image. Whichever it is, some of his comments were unequivocally terrible. And yet, in his case, I believe we should still be able to respect – celebrate – his contributions to the way we dress, for his designs were not reflective of those attitudes.

The clothes Lagerfeld designed celebrated and liberated women, letting them dress and behave how they please, be that – as seen in his shows – as feminist activists marching down the Champs Elysees or as anarchic punks. The accounts from those close to him attest to that.

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A large part of what is not being said is the unappealing truth that Lagerfeld vocalised what many designers do but never say – if we take the examples of him perpetuating a size zero image. Just this week, model Edie Campbell claimed she was turned down from modelling a show for being “too big”. Of the 14 shows I attended this season, no more than two or three of them included diverse body types. Arguments about sample sizes aside, this is an industry-wide problem.

The world – and the fashion industry with it – is changing for the better. Picking people up on attitudes that hinder others is a necessary part of ensuring that continues. We must demand the same across the board and not simply target those industries that most serve women. As for me, I’m looking forward to seeing who will replace Lagerfeld longterm, at the helm of a fashion house that has a century-long history of emancipating women.

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