Tributes continue to pour in for Karl Lagerfeld, the iconic Chanel designer who died Tuesday at the age of 85 after a reported battle with pancreatic cancer.
Bella Hadid wrote that “nothing feels right today,” and said that Lagerfeld’s “humour, wit, love and passion for fashion will live on forever,” while supermodel Claudia Schiffer called him her “magic dust,” explaining that he “transformed [her] from a shy German girl into a supermodel.”
There’s no doubt that Lagerfeld was a once-in-a-lifetime designer who made a lasting impact on the fashion industry. He created stunning pieces and consistently broke the mold.
But he’s also had a long history of spewing controversial-at-best thoughts that shouldn’t be forgotten.
The designer was a consistent fat shamer. So much so that he was threatened with legal action in 2013 after claiming “no one wants to see curvy women on the runway.”
“The hole in social security, it’s also [due to] all the diseases caught by people who are too fat,” he told French TV channel D8 at the time, resulting in a defamation claim from a French women’s group.
Of course, that wasn’t all. He was adamant that “fashion is the healthiest motivation for losing weight,” which he himself did after quickly gaining weight after the tragic death of his partner, Jacques de Bascher, in 1989.
The same year, he called Adele “a little too fat,” before going on to say that she “has a beautiful face and divine voice.”
He was also quick to slam any woman who didn’t fit into his ideals of beauty or intelligence, even if they passed his mental BMI test.
“Kate Middleton has a nice silhouette and she is the right girl for [Prince William]. I like that kind of woman, I like romantic beauties. On the other hand, the sister struggles.” The Sun once quoted him as saying.“I don’t like the sister’s face. She should only show her back.”
“She was pretty and she was sweet, but she was stupid,” he told New York Magazine in 2006 about Princess Diana.
In 2016, when Kim Kardashian was robbed at gunpoint, the designer said “you cannot display your wealth and then be surprised that some people want to share it with you.”
Last year, Lagerfeld made headlines once again, this time for his thoughts on the #MeToo movement.
“If you don’t want your pants pulled about, don’t become a model!” he said in an interview with Numéro. “Join a nunnery, there’ll always be a place for you in the convent.”
The designer was also frequently accused of being racist and Islamophobic. In 2017, he sparked outrage when he attacked German Chancellor Angela Merkel for opening Germany’s borders to migrants.
“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,” he told a French television show. “I know someone in Germany who took a young Syrian and after four days said: ‘The greatest thing Germany invented was the Holocaust.'”
“Instead of choosing to hold individuals responsible for their negative actions and working to create safer work environments, Karl seems to suggest the industry should alienate those who don’t care to experience these types of negative behavior,” she continued.
It’s a prime example of a rhetoric that has become so damaging. Lagerfeld spouted consistently asinine comments, some of which he was punished for by law, but the fashion industry has long brushed them aside because he’s a genius. Maybe a little off-colour, but a genius nonetheless. He can’t be bad, he’s just old. But Lagerfeld had the world as his stage. And instead of using it to say something that could positively impact the industry, he did the exact opposite.
Of course, the fashion world is often quick to forgive. Celebrities boycotted Dolce & Gabbana in 2015 after the designers slammed gay adoption (“The only family is a traditional one!”) — but quickly eased back into supporting the designer until 2018 when they were boycotted once again, this time for an “explicitly racist” ad.
In 2011, John Galliano was suspended from Christian Dior after going on an anti-semitic tirade in a Paris bar. But just two years later, he accepted an invitation from Oscar de la Renta for a temporary residency at the de la Renta studio. He accepted, and in his first public interview since his Dior dismissal, he said, “I am able to create. I am ready to create… [and] I hope through my atonement I’ll be given a second chance.”
In 2014, Galliano was named creative director of Maison Martin Margiela, a position he still holds today.
Chanel has always seemed to be a bit of an anomaly when it comes to public shaming. Of course there was the cultural appropriation boomerang controversy in 2017, and last year, the brand was slammed for featuring a “too sexy” ad with then 16-year-old Kaia Gerber. But besides a choice few who have spoken out against Lagerfeld personally, celebrities continue to wear Chanel on the red carpet, and as many of Tuesday’s tributes show, look at only the positive side of Lagerfeld’s career.
Is it possible to mourn the death of a true style icon and still acknowledge that he was often a fatphobic, racist misogynist? Yes. And it’s important to do so.
Was Lagerfeld an incredible designer who revolutionized the fashion industry in a way we might never see again? Absolutely. Does he, in death, deserve a hall pass for all the hurtful and dangerous things he’s said? No. We can accept both sides of the coin as truth.