If reports are anything to go by, the last Chanel show fashion legend Karl Lagerfeld worked on was a thing of beauty. Set in a wintry wonderland with garments that could only have been approved by the man himself, the elegant and poignant show carried on with admirable restraint. Celebrities chimed in with warm tributes to Lagerfeld, including Donatella Versace, Lily Allen, Florence Welch, Diane Kruger, Victoria Beckham, and Rihanna. The media, meanwhile, has been hemorrhaging think-pieces about his controversial less-than-bon mots. The dissonance between blind praise and critical lambasting would have anyone’s head spinning, trying to discern the truth of the man behind the shades, but it would never be easy to deconstruct the life and persona of Karl Lagerfeld.
Lagerfeld was most likely born between 1933 and 1938, his actual age still hilariously shrouded in mystery, and quickly went from innovating with Fendi’s
“People are and always will be more important than art, especially when that art is funnelled through a blinkered and exclusionary vision”
Acknowledging his influence and reputation, it is confusing for a man who had his finger on the pulse of fashion for the whole of his career to be so willfully ignorant in so many areas. The man made up for the lack of a distinct style by cultivating a wildly controversial and contrarian public persona, and it worked for him. The same man who once said that “the secret to modelling is not being perfect” also described women as “the most perfect doll[s]”, constantly degraded women’s bodies, called Adele “a little too fat”, insulted Pippa Middleton’s looks and was consistently islamophobic. He sketched an anti-semitic Harvey Weinstein caricature, used real fur until his belated conversion to faux in 2010, said that porn was for poor people… the list, unfortunately, goes on. PETA were most accurate when they, after pie-ing him in 2001, called him a “designer dinosaur.”
The idea of separating art from artist has allowed us to excuse the worst traits of the most influential artists because of how these very traits birth the most valuable art. This remains utter crap. Should Michael Jackson’s stunted, abusive man-baby tendencies be glossed over because they resulted in iconic music imbued with child-like wonder? Should Lagerfeld’s harmful beliefs be put down to simply being over the top, an attribute reflected throughout his design oeuvre? People are and always will be more important than art, especially when that art is funneled through a blinkered and exclusionary vision.
There’s also the possibility that Lagerfeld’s controversial persona was all an act, as he admitted in 2007. This would make sense and also make the situation a whole lot darker. Lagerfeld’s success wasn’t an accident; he famously wanted to ascend to a place where he could exert power over the industry, imperiously looking over his kingdom with his beloved cat Choupette on his lap like a Bond villain’s pet. As The Guardian said, good taste can only take a person so far, and as with his slightly vulgar design excesses, he channelled a personality he knew would keep him relevant.
This may seem harsh, but Lagerfeld has always been a complicated figure to parse, perhaps existing in the shades between blinding white hair and void-black sunglasses. The truth is, he was a mess of contradictions. He used real fur but never wore it himself, and never ate meat. He was a man who bullied others for their looks while hiding his hands in gloves because his mother called them ugly when he was young. He was a man who harboured backwards views while preaching that fashion is “about all kinds of change” and ridiculing those who can’t get with the times by saying that “it’s not the days that are old, it’s you that’s old”. He was a gay man who was against marriage equality and harboured a tonne of internalised homophobia, allegedly swore off sex after his partner died of AIDs, yet hired high-class escorts because he didn’t like having sex with people he loved.
The most definitive thing to be said about Lagerfeld is that he was a fashion icon who was progressive at the time but no longer reflects the landscape of the industry, and should no longer be held to the standard of the picture of sartorial deity he painted for himself. If that self-portrait is to remain on the walls of the fashion hall of fame, stoic and refined in a gilded frame, let him at least appear with his gloves off.