Karl Lagerfeld: Can We Separate Art From Its (Problematic) Artist?

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As someone who both works in and consumes fashion media, the Met Gala anticipation is rife. My social media feeds are simply dripping with throwbacks of iconic moments of past Met Galas — plus the anticipation of what to expect from celebrities this year.

In 2023, the Met Gala theme is “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty” — celebrating the life and work of “King Karl” Lagerfeld, best known for his role as creative director of Chanel since 1983.

And while this theme promises a look back into some of the most iconic moments throughout fashion’s history and the development of brands such as Fendi, Chanel, Chloé and Balmain — I feel a mixed emotions about celebrating the man that was Karl Lagerfeld.

Despite being a force within the fashion industry — as the creative brain behind worldwide phenomenons like the Chanel quilted bag, classic women’s tweed suit and Fendi’s instantly recognisable double-F logo — he was also a man who held some beliefs that go against everything I believe in.

Alexa Chung and Karl Lagerfeld. Chung wears quintessential Chanel tweed, introduced by Lagerfeld. Photo: Getty Images

For one, he was notably fat-phobic. As a curve model — and simply a woman with a naturally fluctuating body — fat-shaming comments that directly relate to fashion and ideal beauty is something I’ve had to actively fight against. And still, we’re not even close to a fashion industry that celebrates diversity adequately.

When I think about growing up reading fashion magazines adorned with models of only one size bracket, I see an industry full of powerful figures like Karl Lagerfeld making the rules. People who say things like “no one wants to see curvy women on the runway”, which Lagerfeld aptly stated in a 2009 interview with German magazine, Focus.

And sadly, that hateful quote is the tip of the iceberg when it came to him expressing his disdain for women larger than the typical runway model size. In that very same interview, when asked how he felt about the German women’s magazine, Brigitte, announcing it would only publish photographs of “real women”, 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”, suggesting the only people who have a problem with thin models are people who aren’t thin.

Although it may seem obvious just how problematic these strong comments are, especially coming from someone with such power in an industry that influences people’s perception of how they should look and how much it matters, somehow, he got a hall pass. Many people don’t know about this side of Lagerfeld and if they do, they choose to ignore it. Because he’s a genius, right? He’s a powerful force in the world of fashion, so who cares if he’s fat-phobic?

Let me tell you — I do. And so does every other woman who has ever felt less than ideal due to the unrealistic “illusion” of ideal beauty. People like Lagerfeld are the pillars behind why the fashion industry struggles to celebrate diversity. His opinions on beauty are seen as gospel, his talent hailing him as “King Karl” — fashion royalty whose opinion has the power to create change. Or the opposite.

Lagerfeld’s fat-phobia ran beyond fashion. He openly blamed fat people for issues in greater society, such as illness.

“The hole in social security, it’s also [due to] all the diseases caught by people who are too fat,” he said on a French television program in 2013. When asked by Channel 4 in 2012 whether he had a responsibility to hire models who don’t appear to be unhealthily underweight, he said, “There are less than one percent of anorexic girls. But there are — in France, I don’t know in England — over 30 percent of girls [who are] big, big, overweight. And that is much more dangerous and very bad for the health. So I think today, with the junk food in front of TV, it’s something dangerous for the health of the girl. The models are skinny, but they’re not that skinny. All the new girls are not that skinny.”

Yet it’s one thing to be unhealthy and another to be “not that skinny”. What about all the people who unhealthily strive to be thin? To fit into the world of exclusive, skinny beauty that has been created by people Lagerfeld?

If I’ve kept your attention thus far and all this hasn’t angered you enough, just wait until you hear his unforgettable commentary within the #MeToo movement. “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,” he told Numero in 2018 after three models spoke out about Interview creative director Karl Templer, accusing him of sexual harassment.

“I’m fed up with it,” he added. “What shocks me most in all of this are the starlets who have taken 20 years to remember what happened. Not to mention the fact there are no prosecution witnesses.”

Okay. It’s a lot to take in, I know. Here we have a man who yes, was undeniably a design genius with a powerful creative mind for fashion. However, he was also a man who believed that anyone over a sample size is impacting the world negatively. Who was “fed up” with women who were finally feeling brave enough to share their stories of horrific sexual assault, because it’d taken them “20 years to remember” and they should’ve known better given their job title? And now, we’re celebrating his legacy at the 2023 Met Gala?

Personally, I don’t know how to feel. There’s no denying that Karl Lagerfeld — despite all problematic opinions — made an extremely memorable impact on the fashion industry. He’s undeniably one of the greats when it comes to creative directors of major fashion houses. He brought the world so many iconic moments in fashion history and he’s created many of the designs that we love and wear today. I can’t say that his work hasn’t inspired me, because it has. However, I’m left with a moral debacle — can I separate the art from its (often problematic) artist?

Claudia Schiffer and Karl Lagerfeld during Marie Claire’s IV Fashion Prizes Party, 2006. Photo: Getty Images

I’m not sure I can, and I think that’s okay. Part of me feels the need to compartmentalise to appreciate the incredible work of Karl Lagerfeld in a realm that is completely away from his own personal beliefs. But as an artist, don’t your beliefs influence your art? Lagerfeld was constantly inspired by his muses — models like Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer and Cara Delevingne — all of whom fit into a specific mould of idealised beauty that he believed in.

But what about the rest of the world? We’re the ones actually buying the clothes, who are influenced by the art of fashion, who feel a burning desire to be included in the world of the beautiful people. To be inspired only by a certain body type, means to create clothes that aren’t inclusive.

On the other hand, the 2023 Met Gala and its celebration of Lagerfeld is going ahead — whether we like it or not. And if you want to celebrate his work and remember him as the creative force he was, that’s okay. His problematic opinions don’t detract from his talent or his legacy. But it’s important that we remember this side of him, too.

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