Lagerfeld at the Met, a Controversial Tribute

Chanel’s versatile creative director for 30 years, who passed away in 2019, is being celebrated in a major retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City opening on May 5. Karl Lagerfeld was also the theme of this year’s Met Gala, the climax of the New York high-society calendar. This decision has been heavily criticized due to the fashion designer’s litany of misogynistic, fatphobic comments.
Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour at the Met Gala after-party, May 2008. © David X. Prutting/Patrick McMullan/Getty Images

Karl Lagerfeld’s vision and creative genius saw him hired at Chanel in 1983. This nomination was decried as a poisoned apple at the time, as Coco Chanel, who had passed away some ten years before, had left such an immense mark on the fashion world. Yet to everyone’s surprise, the German couturier proved that he mastered the fashion house’s codes – tweed and chains, velvet knots, monogrammed accessories, and daring cuts. He also reinvented these codes, made them his own, and rejuvenated them while keeping them center-stage, drawing inspiration from the 18th century and contemporary fashion – his two favorite eras.

The national and international press were in raptures at each of his unforgettable, budget-defying, spectacularly staged shows set in reconstructed beaches or forests. From the very first event, it was clear that Chanel was in good hands. This immediate recognition is rare in a world often dictated by a merciless game of musical chairs. “Who designed this season’s collection?” “Which couture house does the designer work for?” “Who’s he?” These and other questions are often heard on the front rows of runway shows, but never when Lagerfeld was presenting.

However, he was a controversial figure. And the tribute organized this year by Anna Wintour, the eternal high priestess of American fashion, Vogue editor-in-chief since 1988, Metropolitan Museum of Art board member, and Met Gala chair, has also been marred by scandal. A new generation of designers and fashion icons is refusing to worship the master, whose opinions are now seen as out of touch or even shocking.

Everything started in the early 2000s. An overweight Karl Lagerfeld consulted Dr. Jean-Claude Houdret and began what is now a strongly criticized, extreme diet. He lost more than 80 pounds in 13 months and published Le meilleur des régimes, in which he revealed the secrets to his slimming method. The designer was now thin, and fatphobic to boot. “No one wants to see curvy women in fashion,” he said in 2009. Three years later, he declared that the singer Adele was “a little too fat,” before hastily explaining that “Adele is very beautiful, but if she had the physique of Kate Winslet, she would be perfect.” And everyone remembers his outburst on the D8 French television channel in 2003: “The deficit in the social security budget is [caused by] all the illnesses contracted by people who are too fat.”

The designer’s reputation has been damaged by his countless comments about women, his criticism of #MeToo (“If you don’t want your pants pulled about, don’t become a model – join a nunnery!”), and his obstinate encouragement of high-risk behavior, such as refusing to consider anorexia a problem, despite the harm it causes in the cut-throat world of haute couture. In short, if Karl Lagerfeld were a statue, he would have been toppled. “A ruthless, fatphobic misogynist shouldn’t be posted all over the Internet as a saint gone-too-soon,” tweeted British actress Jameela Jamil on the day of the designer’s death. “Talented for sure, but not the best person.”

Without giving in to wokeness, it is hard to deny that the younger generation is right. But how are we to separate the designer’s disgusting comments from his successive achievements at Balmain, Chloé, Fendi, and Chanel? Aside from his controversial character, the monumental Karl Lagerfeld, forever remembered for his rockstar aristocracy aesthetic, powdered white hair, starched white collar, and black sunglasses, has made fashion history. Let the debate begin.

Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, from May 5 through July 16, 2023.

Article published in the May 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.