Two weeks before the 2023 Met Gala, the team behind the High Fashion Twitter Met Gala sent out a tweet that stated that they would not be holding their usual digital companion event to the annual Costume Institute Benefit, which is often referred to as “fashion’s biggest night.”
“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 team wrote on Twitter. “We hope to celebrate with our community again soon.”
The group’s response is part of a larger longtime dialogue around Lagerfeld’s complicated legacy as an influential designer who also had a penchant for problematic quips that were fatphobic, racist, and misogynistic. For Twitter user and HFT Met Gala coordinator @raphlecia, the collective decision to not participate was an easy one—she didn’t want to glorify a legacy that she felt was tainted by harmful sentiments.
“A lot of us are actually part of the communities that Karl Lagerfeld has targeted in his hateful speech,” she told TIME. “And a lot of the people who participate in our event are part of those communities as well. It’s not that we’re not acknowledging his legacy and we’re not denying it either, but part of his legacy are the harmful things that he’s said and we don’t really want to partake in celebrating that.”
The discourse surrounding Lagerfeld has reached a fever pitch in the time following the announcement that the late designer was the inspiration for this year’s Met Gala, Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty, an exhibit that will feature 150 of Lagerfeld’s designs, alongside his original sketches.
Lagerfeld, the iconoclastic designer best known for being at the helm of Chanel for over three decades, as well as designing for Fendi and his own eponymous label, was famous for his innovative designs, his fantastical fashion shows, and his branding genius, both personally and professionally. He was one of the first designers to channel their creative leadership into becoming a public figure in their own right, cultivating the persona as “the Kaiser,” an aloof sunglasses-wearing and ponytail sporting caricature of himself that catapulted him to almost as much attention as his designs for Chanel. Lagerfeld was also equally notorious for his sharp tongue and seeming lack of filter, both of which he deployed often and on many topics.
While the fashion industry has long been critiqued for its lack of inclusivity, especially when it comes to larger bodies or race, Lagerfeld had no shame in deriding bodies, particularly women’s bodies. Though he also struggled with his own body issues, going so far as to lose 92 lbs in a year, an experience he documented with a 2005 book titled The Karl Lagerfeld Diet, Lagerfeld frequently offered unsolicited critiques of other public figures like Adele, who he called “too fat,” and Heidi Klum, “too heavy,” while mocking movements like body positivity and making outrageous claims that anorexia was not as dangerous as junk food and television and or that fashion is “the healthiest motivation for losing weight.”
In one particularly cruel instance, he told the German magazine Focus in a 2009 interview that “no one wants to see curvy women,” in a response to the news that another magazine, Brigitte, was planning on no longer using models in their images, but “real women.”
“You’ve got fat mothers with their bags of chips sitting in front of the television and saying that thin models are ugly,” he said. “The world of beautiful clothing is about ‘dreams and illusions.’”
However, it wasn’t just fatphobia that Lagerfeld was intent on broadcasting to the world; he also had a history of saying racist, misogynistic, and Islamophobic comments. In a 2009 interview with Harper’s Bazaar, he said that Coco Chanel “wasn’t ugly enough to be a feminist,” while in 2010, he was roundly critiqued for putting supermodel Claudia Schiffer in blackface and yellowface for the German magazine, Stern Fotografie. And in 2017, on a French talk show, Lagerfeld condemned his native country Germany’s acceptance of refugees from Muslim-majority countries, claiming with bizarre logic that the migrants were “an affront to Holocaust victims.”
Perhaps most troubling, Lagerfeld strongly disavowed the #MeToo movement, going so far as to say in a 2018 interview with Numéro, in which he defended the stylist Karl Templer, who was accused of sexual misconduct by multiple models (Templer denied the allegations), that he was “fed up with it.”
“I read somewhere that now you must ask a model if she is comfortable with posing. It’s simply too much; from now on, as a designer, you can’t do anything,” he said in the interview. “It’s unbelievable. 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!”
Despite a repeated history of Lagerfeld’s most offensive remarks, the fashion industry still roundly embraced him as a creative genius, willing to overlook his problematic snark for the sake of his art. Following his death in 2019, while many referenced his controversial views, the majority of obituaries were glowing remembrances that held up the overarching narrative of Lagerfeld’s life as that of a talented fashion legend. Amy Odell, the author of Anna: The Biography, says that it should come as no surprise that this exhibition was curated, despite Lagerfeld’s overt bigotry.
“This is an industry that is built on elitism and illusion and people don’t want to acknowledge fault lines,” Odell tells TIME, noting that Lagerfeld was also a close friend of Vogue editor in chief, Anna Wintour, the chairwoman of the event since 1995. “It’s uncomfortable to talk about these things and that makes people not want to buy into the fantasy that is fashion.”
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For Odell, the controversy surrounding the Lagerfeld encapsulates the major tensions of the fashion industry at this moment, the balancing act of commercial interests and values (or at least the performance of them)—the latter of which have become increasingly important to consumers, especially young ones. She also pointed out that a theme for the Met Gala like Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty, was a shoo-in for easy sponsorship; this year’s Met Gala will be sponsored by his former fashion house, Chanel.
“It’s really hard to have values around social good and also run a commercial enterprise,” Odell said. “I think that creates a lot of friction because fashion is a fairly liberal industry and you’re expected to have certain values, but it can be hard to do that when you’re a commercial entity.”
Editor and writer Emily Kirkpatrick, whose newsletter, “I <3 Mess,” has often addressed Lagerfeld’s many controversies, believes that the exhibit, like the reverent obituaries following his death, is part of an effort to clean up or rewrite Lagerfeld’s legacy with a focus on just his art, as opposed to facing the ugly reality of who he really was.
“Karl produced an incredible amount of very influential and important work but he was also an asshole with some really bad ideas and some really racist, misogynistic, and homophobic opinions about pretty much every topic imaginable,” Kirkpatrick told TIME. “It’s easier for us to consume pretty things without reckoning with the horrible story behind them.”
Kirkpatrick doesn’t think that Lagerfeld’s work should be dismissed or unacknowledged because of his problematic comments; she does, however, believe that it’s important to view his contributions to fashion in the context of its creator and his values and noted that fashion is far from the only industry that has to reckon with this sort of friction.
“Looking at an old Chanel show could use a warning sign,” she said. “Like, ‘You’re welcome to enjoy this fashion and to appreciate the beauty. But just so you know, this guy probably hated you if you are not a white, size 00 model. He was not working for you. He was not making clothes for you.”
Ultimately, however, she believes that the selection of the Met Gala theme and the defense of Lagerfeld’s influence and art in response to critiques of his prejudice is a telling reflection of fashion’s true values.
“Fashion doesn’t care at the end of the day, fashion has never cared,” Kirkpatrick told TIME.
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Write to Cady Lang at firstname.lastname@example.org