I first encountered a picture of Karl Lagerfeld in an issue of Vogue sometime in the mid-2000s. I had by this point eagerly devoured every book on Coco Chanel available on the shelves of the local library, and I remember being somewhat taken aback that this peculiar, inscrutable cartoon of a man was the successor of the effortlessly elegant Coco.
Over the years, I came to love Lagerfeld, the creative director of both Chanel and Fendi, and talented designer, photographer, illustrator and writer. I was greatly saddened by the news of his death last Tuesday, Feb. 19. As I pored over eulogies and scrolled through images of this artist and his creations throughout the decades, it began to dawn on me just how monumental this moment was. It may sound trite, but the fashion world truly will never be the same without him. Yet while this is a profound loss, it also opens up the identity of the fashion icon to much-needed reconsideration.
In an article for i-D Magazine, Philippa Snow refers to Lagerfeld as the “last descendant” of a “bloodline for the chic eccentric” (i-D Magazine, “Where did all the wild fashion eccentrics go?” 07.10.2017). She observes that while the designer has essentially transformed his hyper-specific image and “super-villain bitchiness” into high art, she states, “[W]e live, thank God, in times where inequality and political incorrectness are at least noted—if not, I admit, extinct—which makes the classic high-class, haute-cruel fashion world doyenne or doyen something of a dying breed” (i-D Magazine).
Like all art forms, fashion encapsulates a component of escapism and make-believe. And while it is time to begin holding artists responsible for the tangible implications that their creations have on the “real world,” especially as a new iteration of industry leaders emerge, we need to ask ourselves: To what extent do we expect them to be grounded in reality?
Due to his unparalleled clout within the fashion world, Lagerfeld was rarely, if ever, held accountable for his bizarre declarations, which ranged from, “I get along with everyone except for men my age, who are bourgeois or retired or boring, and cannot follow the evolution of time and mood” (The Cut, “Karl Lagerfeld’s Most Memorable Quotes,” 02.19.2019) to “I’m fed up with [the #MeToo movement] … What shocks me most in all of this are the starlets who have taken 20 years to remember what happened” (The Cut, “Karl Lagerfeld Talks Death and His Enemies in a Wild New Interview,” 04.13.2018).
His outrageous statements were more than just tolerated; they formed a core part of the Karl “brand.” In the current era of political turmoil, environmental crisis and social media freefall, however, we expect designers to not only have artistic vision, but to also say the right things, use the right materials and sell clothes without having the customers notice all the marketing ploys subjected upon them. Following Lagerfeld’s death, we need to look critically at the channels through which designers brand themselves and are branded.
No matter how the industry evolves as a new generation comes up through the ranks, the well-being of models must be a central priority. When asked about the sexual harassment allegations against former creative director of Interview magazine Karl Templer, Lagerfeld responded, “I don’t believe a single word of it. A girl complained he tried to pull her pants down and he is instantly excommunicated from a profession that up until then had venerated him … If you don’t want your pants pulled about, don’t become a model!” (The Cut, “Karl Lagerfeld Talks Death and His Enemies”).
We cannot continue to idolize industry giants who prioritize the whims of powerful men over the bodily integrity of models. As new designers break into the industry, how they treat the people they employ should be under careful scrutiny, regardless of the designers’ talent or larger-than-life personas.
In an interview with i-D Magazine in 2012, singer Florence Welch, actress Anna Calabrese and model Brad Kroenig compared the designer to “a bejewelled hawk,” “a lion—king of the forest” and “a mix between a lion and a fox,” respectively (i-D Magazine, “Fashion industry insiders on what made Karl Lagerfeld a genius,” 02.19.2019). These astute characterizations cut to the core of the problem with Lagerfeld’s brand of celebrity. As Rachel Syme shrewdly noted in her article, “Not content to toil in fashion, Lagerfeld wanted to dominate it, to preside over it” (The New Yorker, “Karl Lagerfeld, the Designer Who Dressed to Survive,” 02.20.2019).
In this respect, he certainly succeeded: He positioned himself at the top of the food chain, determining who was pretty and who was ugly, who was interesting and who was boring, who made it in fashion and who didn’t. Part of Lagerfeld’s genius was his knack for spotting the girl of the hour (and it was frequently a girl, not a woman), from Vanessa Paradis to Kate Moss to Lily Depp. In a way, Lagerfeld’s iconic image extended to the constant rotation of young, fresh-faced, sprite-like girls on his arm.
Although he hated to be called an artist, there is no better way to honor Lagerfeld’s wide-ranging and breathtaking body of work. But given how those who worked closely with the artist liken him to a predatory animal, something needs to change. In the wake of his death, the fashion world and its followers must grapple with the degree to which it grants power and artistic license to its leaders.
Despite fashion’s love affair with the fantastical and the absurd, it is first and foremost an industry, and its leaders have a responsibility both to those within the industry and those affected by it.