Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld was misogynistic, fatphobic, and anti-immigrant.
And still, on May 1, fashion’s biggest names will come together for the Met Gala to fete the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute’s latest exhibition: Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty.
Lagerfeld, who died at 85 in 2019, was always outspoken and rarely concerned about how it sounded. During the height of the #MeToo movement in 2018, he refused to accept that women could have a hard time coming forward about sexual assault. “What shocks me most in all of this are the starlets who have taken 20 years to remember what happened,” he told the French fashion magazine Numero.
In the same interview, he defended a stylist, Karl Templar, who was accused of sexual misconduct by models he worked with. Templar allegedly “aggressively [pulled] down their underwear without asking them,” according to the Boston Globe.
“It’s unbelievable,” Lagerfeld said. “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. They’re recruiting even!”
Lagerfeld was obsessed with weight – his own and that of others. In 2009, when he was criticized for using models who looked emaciated, he told German magazine Focus, “no one wanted to see curvy women” on the runway.
In the same interview, he was asked to comment about a decision by the German women’s magazine Brigitte to publish photos of “real women” instead of models. Lagerfeld responded: “You’ve got fat mothers with their bags of chips sitting in front of the television and saying that thin models are ugly. The world of beautiful clothing is about ‘dreams and illusions.’ ”
In 2013, Lagerfeld was sued by a group of women for comments he made during a French news segment when he said “fat people” were to blame for a financial deficit in the country’s health care system. “The hole in social security, it’s also [due to] all the diseases caught by people who are too fat,” said Lagerfeld.
And he’s been an all-purpose insulter on a number of other subjects.
When German chancellor Angela Merkel opened the country’s borders to Syrian refugees and others in 2017, Lagerfeld told French talk show Salut les Terriens!: “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.”
And Lagerfeld has dressed model Claudia Schiffer in blackface and yellowface for a Dom Perignon ad campaign in 2010.
Early in his career, Lagerfeld worked for Fendi and then Chloé. In 1983, he became creative director of Chanel and transformed it into a billion-dollar company. He also had his own namesake line, was a photographer and owned a book imprint.
The theme of the 2023 Met Gala, corresponding to both the museum’s exhibition and the night’s dress code is “in honor of Karl” — meaning guests are to attend wearing something Lagerfeld inspired.
But will anything be said about the less seemly side of this prolific designer who thought political correctness was boring?
“[Lagerfeld] was a bigot and perpetuating exclusivity seemed very important to him,” said Senam Attipoe, a participant in “high fashion Twitter.”
In November 2019, Attipoe says, a few members of the digital movement came together to host a virtual – and unaffiliated – companion event now known as the High Fashion Twitter Met Gala.
They create informative threads for people to learn more about the gala’s theme and provide resources so people can develop their own perspectives. According to Attipoe, these resources range from runway shows to literature to Spotify playlists.
But this year, the team will not be participating.
“As we approach the first Monday of May, the hf twitter met gala team would like to announce that we will not be celebrating this year’s met gala as our values don’t align with the selection of Karl Lagerfeld as the theme,” the HF Met Gala account tweeted on April 17. “We hope to celebrate with our community again soon.”
“I don’t believe that fashion and clothes are so important they trump humanity, and he spent his whole life and career acting quite inhumanely towards most other groups and communities of people,” said Attipoe. “It would be completely against everything we stand for, it would be a betrayal to ourselves as a team and organization, as well as to our community, to celebrate this man by hosting the event in his honor.”
Great artists can be terrible people in their personal lives, and fans of the art often try to separate the two. That was hard to do with Lagerfeld. He was a jerk who made beautiful clothing, and often seemed to be trolling with his comments.
“I find Karl to be a fairly accurate representative figure of the evils of the fashion industry,” said Attipoe. “In his speech and his actions, he was fatphobic, misogynistic, anti-Black, Islamophobic, homophobic, the list extends endlessly. And as exclusionary as he was, the industry at large is that twice over.”
Lagerfeld peddled fantasies. He built them time and time again for his runway shows. The unfortunate thing about fantasies is being at the mercy of the man’s mind who created them. Lagerfeld was talented but unkind. The way he worked — flitting between major fashion houses and creative projects while designing up to 17 collections each year — has become the template for modern-day creative directors.
As the world has changed in the past few years, it will be interesting to see how the Met and the invited celebrities honor this man. In his 2013 book The World According to Karl, he wrote, “sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You lost control of your life so you bought some sweatpants.”
Who will be bold enough to wear sweats? Or admit to dieting to fit into their dress? (Lagerfeld would have loved the diabetes drug Ozempic, which is used off label for weight loss.)
“Karl Lagerfeld was a complicated figure — he was extraordinarily talented and prolific but he also made incendiary comments about everything from size inclusivity to the #MeToo movement,” said Jessica C. Andrews, fashion director at PopSugar. “I think any tribute to Karl Lagerfeld needs to hold space for both those truths to exist.”