Image description: A header illustration of Karl Lagerfeld standing in front of stairs, placed against a silver and pink background with Doja Cat to one side. END ID.
Image description: A header illustration of Karl Lagerfeld standing in front of stairs, placed against a silver and pink background with Doja Cat to one side. END ID.

Illustration by Sidra Dahhan

Karl Lagerfeld: Man or Designer?

The Met Gala theme sparked great controversy because it honored the late Chanel creative director Karl Lagerfeld. While undoubtedly an influential fashion designer, choosing to ignore his persona and perceive him only through his work is problematic.

May 8, 2023

The Met Gala is the year’s definitive high-fashion event. Celebrities clad in over-the-top “finery,” gather on the first Monday in May to raise funds for the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute. The funds are always tens of millions U.S. dollars, with the 2022 event raising 17.4 million USD. There is always a theme to the evening, which the Kardashians regularly choose not to follow, and who are often the first to be scrutinized.
This year’s theme sparked controversy. Named “In Honor of Karl,” the theme referenced Karl Lagerfeld, a former designer for Balmain, Poutou, Chloe and Chanel. The event was also intended as somewhat of an opening ceremony to the Met’s new exhibition called “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty.” Lagerfeld has often been at the center of many controversies and fashion critics say he is one of the most insensitive creative directors in the fashion world. He has been publicly fatphobic, islamophobic, homophobic, and misogynistic. However, in the eyes of both the public and critics, he still remains one of the most influential fashion designers and one with significant contributions to the development of modern fashion.
Choosing a controversial person like Lagerfeld as the theme for the Met Gala raised eyebrows. As previously mentioned, the Met Gala is considered a tastemaker in fashion, so honoring a person who is as famous for his designs as notorious for his hateful speech is quite inappropriate, considering the wide reach and influence of the event. Costume Institute curator in charge Andrew Bolton defended the choice of the theme for both the gala and the exhibition. He argues that both events are not “intended to honor Lagerfeld the man”, rather “Lagerfeld the designer.” So the Met admits there is a controversy, but sought to justify it solely by highlighting the designer’s work, turning a blind eye to the accusations of Lagerfeld’s discrimination and bias.
The “art versus the artist” question is one of growing importance in contexts where celebrities are commonly involved in scandals — not uncommonly for publicity purposes. In the marketing philosophy, there is no such thing as bad publicity. The prevailing of such philosophy is a testament that industries dealing with celebritydom openly condone abuse and hate crimes for the sake of publicity. If the situation escalates, institutions such as the Met often argue for a separation of art and the artist, possibly profiting from the controversy which brings more attention to them. In this context, the Met is only a symptom of a larger problem. However, for a representative of such a prominent institution to go on a platform like Vogue, and excuse problematic aspects of Lagerfeld’s life and career, is unnerving. Especially since the Met does have enough sway to persuade a larger audience of separating the art from the artist.
How far are we actually willing to go to separate an artist from their work? After all, their work is a reflection of who they are and what they believe in. Many would choose to boycott. It is what happened with musicians Hobo Johnson, or showrunner Dan Schneider and producer Harvey Weinstein. In 2017, the #MeToo movement opened the conversation about holding celebrities and influential people in politics accountable for their actions. For the first time, disenfranchised voices were heard, which is a step forward in the right direction.
Tackling the issue from a legalistic perspective requires nuance. Whereas Weinstein and Schneider were accused and found complicit in crimes, Lagerfeld was notorious for hate speech. Legally speaking, hate crimes that do not result in injury are not as severe as actual assault. Additionally, taking any action at this point against Karl Lagerfeld is practically obsolete — he is no longer with us. Yet the question remains open: is there a way to recognize a celebrity’s contribution to their field without honoring them as a person? Diminishing or ranking abuse of power and image in terms of its severity does not bring about any resolution for the problem. It is important that every case of a celebrity contributing to hate speech is treated with care. Otherwise the gray area between the personal and professional will continue to excuse celebrities from their actions, which might even translate into the privileging of influential people in the judicial system.
The work of people like Laagerfeld is already out there. It has been viewed enough, it has gained revenue for its creators, it has been cited and referenced. And most of the big controversies involve high-profile people, whose work is practically inescapable. Boycotting it would barely scathe them. Particularly in the case of Lagerfeld, he has influenced many fast-fashion collections throughout the years as well. He is cited for introducing the extra-padded shoulders on blazers, shortening the skirts, using tulle for entire skirts and dresses and turning high heels and stilettos into almost a high-fashion standard, among other fashion innovations. Browsing through a ZARA or a Mango store you will find many of these elements in their more expensive clothing lines. Therefore, there is really no boycotting the designer: his work is now so embedded into fashion overall that, on a tangent, we have all been his clients.
Instead of looking for a solution, perhaps we should focus on identifying the root of the problem.
Defining what forces are at play that keep a person’s influence are crucial when trying to navigate through the era of information overload and no-bad-publicity. It is already difficult enough recognizing fact from fiction in a world plagued by fake news, but the added layer of institutions like the Met honoring celebrities who we hardly find admirable complicates the conversation. In this context, it becomes hard to even appreciate any of the art at this year’s Met, even if they came from artists that do not condone hate speech.
In this line of thinking, perhaps the only people who understood the assignment were indeed the cat-dressed Doja Cat, Lil Nas X, and Jared Leto (referencing Lagerfeld’s pet). While I doubt they intended it as a form of protest or ridicule to highlight the misstep of the Met in choosing Karl Lagerfeld as the theme, I choose to think that they did it on purpose to highlight the problem of the Met supporting a problematic figure in the history of the fashion industry.
Yana Peeva is Senior Columns Editor. Email her at
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