Editor’s Note: Hilary George-Parkin is a freelance journalist who writes about fashion, culture and technology. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
That Karl Lagerfeld was a brilliant and prolific designer is unquestionable. That his opinions of women’s bodies were damaging, archaic and often misogynistic is equally so.
With his death on Tuesday at the age of 85, the world is now tasked with reconciling the many facets of the man who helmed Chanel for more than three decades – who was, by most accounts, one of the industry’s most complex and compelling figures.
Lagerfeld’s influence extended far beyond the reaches of fashion’s inner sanctum: As creative director not only of the storied French luxury house, but also of Fendi and several eponymous collections, he cultivated an outsize persona in popular culture. Which meant he had a global audience for such comments as “no one wants to see curvy women” on the catwalk and, in reference to Adele, “She is a little too fat.” (He later offered a quasi-apology to Adele.)
Historically, fashion’s most powerful figures have hardly been known to celebrate those outside the thin, white, able-bodied norm, but Lagerfeld stood out in his willingness to deride women’s bodies loudly and without apology. Heidi Klum, he said, was “simply too heavy” to be a runway model; the problems in the French health care system were caused by “all the diseases caught by people who are too fat.”
In a 2009 interview with the German magazine Focus, he mocked the readers of the popular publication Brigitte, a German women’s magazine, for wanting to see “real women” in its pages. “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.
It’s an argument that countless faceless Twitter trolls have since trotted out in the mentions of anyone who dare suggest that they appreciate seeing themselves represented in magazines or on the runway. And Lagerfeld’s statement – though at least grammatically correct and devoid of crude emojis – may ultimately be worse, as it validates the cruelty of others.
What’s more, for a designer whose wit was legendary (“I’m very much down-to-earth. Just not this earth,” he once quipped) and whose intellectual curiosity was said to be boundless, his remarks on women’s bodies aren’t just callous, they’re pedestrian.
Some have argued that his narrow ideals of beauty stemmed from personal insecurities: Lagerfeld himself once lost 92 pounds in just over a year, a saga chronicled in the 2002 book “The Karl Lagerfeld Diet,” which he co-wrote with his doctor. He did so, he said, in order to fit into the slim-cut suits that designer Hedi Slimane made for Dior Homme. Forget today’s vogue for wellness: In Lagerfeld’s view, fashion is “the healthiest motivation for losing weight.”
(It’s worth noting that Slimane, now creative director of Céline, is also criticized to this day for continuing to promote the “heroin chic” aesthetic so popular in the 1990s.)
If Lagerfeld’s disparaging comments had been confined to a few offhand instances in a career that spanned more than 60 years, perhaps they’d be forgivable, but taken together with instances of Islamophobia, racism and sexism, they seemed to be part of an ugly pattern for someone capable of creating so much beauty.
On a French talk show in 2017, he called Muslims “the worst enemies” of the Jewish people (worse, he implied, than even the Nazis).
Of the #MeToo movement, he said he was “fed up with it” in a 2018 interview, adding that, “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.” He was, on the other hand, quick to defend his friend and collaborator, the stylist Karl Templer, against accusations of groping models on set. Templer denied the allegations.
If the industry is unwilling to condemn – or even acknowledge – the less palatable elements of Lagerfeld’s personality because of the designer’s creative genius, it risks allowing the same traits to flourish again. In recent years, it has made significant strides toward embracing people of different sizes, races, ages and abilities – a movement led on the runway by designers like Christian Siriano and Chromat’s Becca McCharen – but few would deny there is still a long way to go.
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To hear him tell it, Lagerfeld wasn’t overly concerned with his own mortality. “Death is nothing. I mean, death is the price of life,” he said in 1977. “Millions have passed through life before us and millions will die after. It’s not that important.” Still, his legacy – his designs, of course, but also his words and actions – is bound to shape fashion for decades to come, and we owe it to ourselves not to dismiss the parts of it we don’t like.