Karl Lagerfeld, one the 20th century’s greatest fashion designers, died Tuesday in Paris. Credited with saving Chanel when he became its creative director, Lagerfeld was known, not only for his stylistic brilliance, but also his outspoken and controversial comments.
His perspective on fashion was invaluable, but his critiques of women represent the darker side of the industry.
The haute couture king told the New York Times that fashion designers are artisans, not artists. As catwalk looks have become increasingly unattainable, with models debuting styles you wouldn’t see anywhere but the runway, Lagerfeld emphasized fashion’s utility.
Designers “take themselves very seriously because they want to be taken as artists,” he said. “I think we are artisans. It’s an applied art. There’s nothing bad about that. If you want to do art, then show it in a gallery.”
Despite his lifetime contracts with high-fashion labels Chanel and Fendi, Lagerfeld embodied a down-to-earth perspective on clothes. “People buy dresses to be happy,” he said.
But the designer’s legacy is tainted by the way he conformed to industry stereotypes. Fashion may have been more than a piece of art to him, but women were not.
Lagerfeld had a habit of complaining about women’s bodies, whether he was saying they looked ugly or need to lose weight. He called Adele “a little too fat,” as an aside while discussing her lovely voice, and later insulted plus-sized women again: “No one wants to see curvy women on the catwalk.”
He also grumbled about other people's faces. In 2012, he insulted Pippa Middleton saying the Duchess of Cambridge is beautiful, but “her sister struggles. I don’t like the sister’s face. She should only show her back.”
Worst of all, Lagerfeld dismissed objections to sexual harassment in the industry. He told Numero magazine last spring that he was "fed up" with the #MeToo movement. "If you don’t want your pants pulled about," he said, "don’t become a model! Join a nunnery, there’ll always be a place for you in the convent."
Lillian Fallon, a New York City-based fashion writer, said Lagerfeld’s conflicting legacy represents a broader trend. “His comments on plus-size women and models in general kind of summarize the elitist attitude of the fashion industry and the treatment of women as objects meant for consumption,” Fallon said. “He seemed to embody a lot of the negative stereotypes of the fashion industry.”
Lagerfeld “really was not on board with the push to have a more accurate representation of women and wasn’t really interested in diverse beauty.”
While obituaries focus on his more humorous quotes — Lagerfeld once said that “sweatpants are a sign of defeat” — we should remember that he was only halfway revolutionary. The designer’s legacy was one of breaking fashion trends but conforming to its old tropes.