Met Gala-In Lagerfeld's Words

Designer Karl Lagerfeld takes a bow at the end of his Metiers d’Art fashion show in Dallas in 2013. Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press, file

The theme of this year’s Met Gala is not a brand or a concept, but a person: Karl Lagerfeld. The designer, who died in 2019 at age 85, was known almost as much for his designs for Chanel, Fendi, Chloé and his eponymous brand as he was for his own celebrity.

Shielded behind sunglasses and pouting in a ruffed-collar shirt and powdered white ponytail, he uttered bon mots that were at turns droll – “Choupette is the Garbo of cats,” he once said of his pet Birman – and shocking, even disturbing. In a 2018 interview with the European fashion magazine Numéro, for example, he claimed he was “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,” Lagerfeld said. “Not to mention the fact there are no prosecution witnesses.”

In the same interview, he complained about new guidelines that might ensure models’ safety on set. “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!”

He expressed derision for fat women, calling Adele “a little too fat” in 2012 (he apologized shortly thereafter) and saying “no one wants to see” plus-size models in a 2009 interview with the German magazine Focus. “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.

In 2017, he made a bizarre connection between the Holocaust and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s borders to Syrian refugees. “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 said on a French talk show, adding that a German friend took in a Syrian and a few days later said: “‘The greatest thing Germany invented was the Holocaust.'”

His notoriety for such comments won’t be a part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition.


Met Gala

German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld acknowledges the applause of his models at the end of the show he designed for the French fashion house Chanel, for the 1993-94 Fall-Winter haute couture collection in Parisi n 1993. Associated Press, file

In a recent interview on “The Business of Fashion Podcast,” curator Andrew Bolton said that he wanted to emphasize Lagerfeld’s output and creativity, as well as his status as the original multi-hyphenate designer of the kind that would inspire Virgil Abloh and Kanye West.

“That’s one of the reasons we wanted to focus on the work rather than the words or the man,” Bolton said. “Because, yeah, he was problematic. There were things he said that were, yeah, difficult. And, again, did he mean it? Or was it a deflection? I don’t know, it’s hard to know.”

Lagerfeld had a reputation for obscuring even the most straightforward facts of his life, such as his year and place of birth. “And I thought the one thing that was authentic,” Bolton said, “the one thing that was real, and tangible, was his output, his creative output.”

Like many celebrities, Lagerfeld was known to many but was intimately familiar with a few. He had a habit of cutting off close friends with little notice or reason. But one of his nearly lifelong best friends was Anna Wintour, the Vogue editor in chief who has played host and organizer of the gala and its attendant exhibition for roughly two decades. And that either complicates or smooths over a percolating controversy over Lagerfeld’s legacy in the lead-up to Monday’s event, considered the Super Bowl of the fashion industry.

In an Instagram post in October, a day after Lagerfeld was announced as the theme, actor Jameela Jamil shared a number of Lagerfeld’s offensive words, writing that Lagerfeld “used his platform [in] such a distinctly hateful way, mostly towards women. . . . Why is THIS who we celebrate when there are so many AMAZING designers out there who aren’t bigoted white men?”

In April, the HF Twitter Met Gala (HFTMG), an international group of 20-something fashion fanatics who organize programming around the gala on social media, tweeted that it would forgo celebrating this year’s event, “as our values don’t align with the selection of Karl Lagerfeld as the theme.” (The group is unaffiliated with Vogue, though the magazine has written positively about its efforts in the past.)


“I think that everything that Karl represented is something that we all generally are very against,” said Senam Attipoe, 23, who is one of the organizers of the HFTMG account. “We value democratization. He valued exclusivity, and he demonstrated that throughout his career. And we value inclusivity and creativity. He valued celebrity, and we value self-expression.”

Lagerfeld’s supporters say the designer’s comments are dwarfed by his achievements, artistically and intellectually.

William Middleton, a veteran fashion reporter who published a definitive biography of Lagerfeld in February, said that those who are skeptical about celebrating Lagerfeld should “decide if they feel that the 85 years of life that this person lived and the 65-year career, if it’s fair to judge both of those by this half-dozen or 10 or dozen comments that were made over the years. If they think after reading about his life, that those comments do define him, that’s certainly their choice. But I don’t think that they do.”

Still, the desire to avoid conversation around Lagerfeld’s controversial words extends beyond the walls of the Met. Those hoping to read the article in Numéro have to rely on quotes in Middleton’s book and elsewhere; the article was removed some time in late 2020, one of the HFTMG organizers noticed while she was researching Lagerfeld. Numéro editor Philip Utz did not reply to a request for comment.

“I’m really interested in seeing how these people – like these celebrities – how their fans are going to react,” said Aida Pehlic, 22, another of the HFTMG’s organizers.



Designers make compromises to dress a star for an awards show, often simplifying their work. But at the Met Gala, fame is at the mercy of fashion’s extravagance, bringing us Rihanna wearing a yellow dress with a lengthy train, by Chinese couturier Guo Pei, and Katy Perry dressed, by Jeremy Scott, as a chandelier.

What was once a dusty society event launched in the 1940s to raise money for the Costume Institute, the only department at the Met that is self-funded, is now a $50,000-per-person spectacle engineered for maximum virality.

The aura of celebrity, and the sense that the guests often seem costumed rather than in fashion, creates a feeling of outright celebration. And, in fashion, celebration often means airbrushing, literally or figuratively.

For the HFTMG, it’s the fact that Lagerfeld’s controversies go unmentioned in the exhibition that upsets the group most. “I think that’s kind of a very unfair introduction to him, because it’s not like, ‘Oh, his design career is to the left, and then his problematic history is to the right,'” said Rebeca Spitz, 23. “It’s this entangled thing that happened over a series of years, and it’s completely incorporated into his career and legacy.”

There is nothing inherently misogynistic or antisemitic about Lagerfeld’s actual work. If anything, Lagerfeld’s garments are Pollyannaish compared with the work of designers such as John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Claude Montana. But it is also possible to see Lagerfeld’s invented persona as just as significant an invention as his clothes.

Like Bolton, Middleton points to Lagerfeld’s propensity to fib, exaggerate and reinvent himself. “I think that Karl’s harshness was performative,” Middleton asserted. “He developed a persona.” He would sometimes refer to himself as “the marionette.”


He was also inconsistent in his comments, suggesting his strong mind was easily changed. A year after he dismissed plus-size women, he photographed one for V Magazine, and he told Vice how much he loved seeing figures such as Beth Ditto in fashion.

His defining quality as a designer, Alicia Drake wrote in her 2006 chronicle of Lagerfeld’s rivalry with Yves Saint Laurent, was what he called “vampirizing.” “Karl could hit upon a trend,” Drake wrote, “draw it and then three weeks later eject it ruthlessly from his intellectual system and pass on to the new, the next.”


Wintour isn’t an ally to only Lagerfeld.

During her tenure at Vogue, she has evolved the role of editor in chief into something like an ambassador for fashion writ large, helping to facilitate a place for designer clothes within popular culture. Fashion executives consult her when hiring creative directors, and she often suggests names to them or even brokers deals between brands and designers.

With that, she often champions designers who are embroiled in scandal. When Galliano was fired from his role at Dior in 2011 after footage was published of the designer on a drug-fueled antisemitic rant, he sought Wintour’s counsel. In 2013, Wintour arranged a residency for Galliano at Oscar de la Renta, and the Met put Galliano’s work for Dior in the 2014 Chinese-themed Met Gala, using a 2003 dress of his to announce the exhibition. When he landed the chief role at Maison Margiela in October 2014, Wintour was among the first to wear his designs, as he presented her with the outstanding achievement award at the British Fashion Awards that December.


Her efforts in this arena have increased lately. In a recent New Yorker profile, Balenciaga designer Demna said that Wintour was one of two people to call him after the internet erupted into a conspiracy-theory-fueled takedown of the brand for its depiction of children clutching stuffed animals in leather harnesses and the appearance in a separate ad of documents from a court ruling protecting child pornography. She also published the first interview with the designer following the fallout. Alexander Wang, who was accused in late 2020 of drugging and sexually assaulting people, then in 2021 met with several of the accusers and apologized, staged a comeback show in February that a number of publications balked at covering. Wintour sat in the front row.

And Daniel Lee, the Bottega Veneta designer who mysteriously left his post in late 2021 amid a rash of rumors, was appointed to Burberry less than a year later. (A fashion writer and influencer based in Paris, Louis Pisano, alleged on Twitter, in a now-deleted tweet, that Lee had used the n-word in a meeting, an accusation that Kering denied in a reply.) Wintour published a profile of Lee before he showed his first collection in which he briefly addressed the controversy; she also hosted a dinner in her Greenwich Village townhouse to celebrate the appointment, inviting a number of young New York designers, models and editors. Lee wasn’t simply welcome back into the Condé Nast fold, but into the New York fashion community at large.

To put it bluntly, Vogue needs advertising revenue from fashion brands to sustain itself. But it’s a position that puts her in conflict with a younger generation of fashion fans that is not so willing to forgive and forget.

This is arguably Wintour taking a more nuanced position: that a person’s transgressions should not define the scope of their career. Fashion is especially well disposed to the idea that the art, as it were, cannot be separated from the artist, given the fact that conflicts of interest are essentially the medium’s life blood. Seduction and desire are two of its foundational principles.

The #MeToo movement led a number of photographers, such as Bruce Weber, Patrick Demarchelier and Mario Testino, to stop working, and a new generation of photographers, and the emerging designers who are often more diverse than their predecessors, has ensured that self-expression is now fashion’s foremost purpose.

That, of course, and making money.

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