Not everyone is happy with this year’s Met Gala theme…
This year, the annual Costume Institute Benefit, which is often referred to as “fashion’s biggest night”, sees Karl Lagerfeld appointed as its theme. Previous themes have included “camp”, “heavenly bodies” and “gilded glamour”. Upon announcement, however, the official page of high fashion Twitter’s Met Gala event @HFMetGala – to be clear not associated with the Met Costume Institute – released a statement issuing they will not “not be celebrating this year’s met gala as our values don’t align with the selection of Karl Lagerfeld as the theme”.
The group’s response is part of a larger longtime dialogue around Lagerfeld’s complicated legacy as an influential designer who also had a penchant for problematic quips that were fatphobic, racist, and misogynistic. For Twitter user and HFT Met Gala coordinator @raphlecia, the collective decision to not participate was an easy one—she didn’t want to glorify a legacy that she felt was tainted by harmful sentiments.
“A lot of us are actually part of the communities that Karl Lagerfeld has targeted in his hateful speech,” she told TIME. “And a lot of the people who participate in our event are part of those communities as well. It’s not that we’re not acknowledging his legacy and we’re not denying it either, but part of his legacy are the harmful things that he’s said and we don’t really want to partake in celebrating that.”
This truly is a case of whether or not people are happy to separate the art from the artist. Can we celebrate the iconic legacy of a designer who often spewed offensive comments? Where do we draw the line? I myself feel like the art can be celebrated so long as it doesn’t perpetuate racism, fatphobia, misogyny or other offensive ideals in itself. This therefore allows us to separate art from artist other the art acts as an aid to the artist’s problematic ideals.
To paint a picture of Lagerfeld’s views on bodyweight, to those perhaps unfamiliar, the designer frequently offered unsolicited critiques of other public figures like Adele, who he called “too fat,” and Heidi Klum, “too heavy,” while mocking movements like body positivity and making outrageous claims that anorexia was not as dangerous as junk food and television and or that fashion is “the healthiest motivation for losing weight.”
“You’ve got fat mothers with their bags of chips sitting in front of the television and saying that thin models are ugly […] The world of beautiful clothing is about ‘dreams and illusions’” Lagerfeld told German magazine Focus in a 2009 interview.
Earlier, I mentioned my desire to separate the art from the artist as long as the art doesn’t connote problematic views. This does not apply to Lagerfeld when we consider an atrociously racist spread he carried out with Claudia Schiffer for an editorial spread in 2010 where he put the supermodel in blackface and yellowface for the German magazine, Stern Fotografie. Furthermore, in 2017, on a French talk show, Lagerfeld condemned his native country Germany’s acceptance of refugees from Muslim-majority countries, claiming with bizarre logic that the migrants were “an affront to Holocaust victims.”
His misogynistic comments are also just… cringe… and very tone deaf. In a 2009 interview with Harper’s Bazaar, he said that Coco Chanel “wasn’t ugly enough to be a feminist” and as for the #MeToo movement, the designer went so far as to say in a 2018 interview with Numéro, in which he defended the stylist Karl Templer, who was accused of sexual misconduct by multiple models (Templer denied the allegations), that he was “fed up with it.” “I read somewhere that now you must ask a model if she is comfortable with posing. It’s simply too much; from now on, as a designer, you can’t do anything,” he said in the interview. “It’s unbelievable. 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 even recruiting!”
Yet despite a repeated history of Lagerfeld’s most offensive remarks, the fashion industry still roundly embraced him as a creative genius. Here is where it gets complicated because his work was truly outstanding and this cannot be denied. But is a willingness to ignore Karl’s problematic opinions for the sake of the art or are there deeper, more commercial motivations?
Amy Odell, the author of Anna: The Biography has publicly noted that a theme for the Met Gala like Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty, was a shoo-in for easy sponsorship; this year’s Met Gala will be sponsored by his former fashion house, Chanel. “It’s really hard to have values around social good and also run a commercial enterprise,” Odell said. “I think that creates a lot of friction because fashion is a fairly liberal industry and you’re expected to have certain values, but it can be hard to do that when you’re a commercial entity.”
Perhaps the selection of a controversial topic is purpiseful in itself. Odell also notes in her biogrpahy on Wintour that “over her career, she’s been really good at understanding where the culture is,” Odell said. “She knows the purpose of these events nowadays. It’s not to watch on TV—it’s to provide pictures for people to talk about on TikTok or Instagram reels. Little moments for the internet today rule, so leaving them out would be really unwise.” For this reason, surely selecting such an iconic and controversial figure will incite more digital activity?
This isn’t the first time Wintour has executed such a decision. The entire involvement of the Kardashian family – once blacklisted by the fashion industry and Anna herself as reality TV stars – was Wintour’s doing. Kim Kardashian in particular has attended every Met Gala that the Costume Institute has thrown since her first; her outfits, which have ranged from an avant-garde, BDSM-inspired black Balenciaga dress with a full balaclava to a historical piece belonging to Marilyn Monroe, have incited controversy, rage, obsession, and always a bevy of searches, clicks, likes, and shares. “Kim has benefitted hugely from being in Anna’s circle of approval and being able to move in the fashion world as probably the No. 1 fashion influencer” Odell told Time.
During this period, she and her sister Kendall Jenner have each landed three American Vogue covers. The family has now built out 11 brands, primarily in the fashion and beauty worlds, and in 2020 Forbes reported that Kim Kardashian, Kendall Jenner, Kylie Jenner, Kourtney Kardashian, Khloé Kardashian, and “momager” Kris Jenner would be ending the run of Keeping Up With the Kardashians with a collective fortune exceeding $2 billion. Last spring, in a viral power move, the family commanded the internet and industry’s full attention when all five sisters, Kris, and their respective partners attended the Met Gala together for the first time.
Over the nearly three decades since Wintour has been at the helm of the Met Gala, the editor has taken what was once a conventional society event and turned it into a global red-carpet show. And as fashion has become more and more reliant on online influence, Wintour has adapted the Met Gala accordingly, whether through creating Instagrammable, gargantuan floral arrangements (now a signature of the event), tapping YouTube personalities like Emma Chamberlain for Vogue’s red-carpet interviews, or ensuring that buzzworthy and very online celebrities like the Kardashians and Jenners are on the guest list.
Editor and writer Emily Kirkpatrick, whose newsletter, “I <3 Mess,” has often addressed Lagerfeld’s many controversies, believes that the exhibit, like the reverent obituaries following his death, is part of an effort to clean up or rewrite Lagerfeld’s legacy with a focus on just his art, as opposed to facing the ugly reality of who he really was.
“Looking at an old Chanel show could use a warning sign,” she said. “Like, ‘You’re welcome to enjoy this fashion and to appreciate the beauty. But just so you know, this guy probably hated you if you are not a white, size 00 model. He was not working for you. He was not making clothes for you.”
Ultimately, however, she believes that the selection of the Met Gala theme and the defence of Lagerfeld’s influence and art in response to critiques of his prejudice is a telling reflection of fashion’s true values.
“These institutions may have power from elitism, history, and heritage, but they will collapse in the face of new media and its power if they can’t build a new and interactive relationship with this audience” said MJ Corey, a writer and researcher who theorises about the Kardashians on social media under the handle @kardashian_kolloquium.
Choosing Lagerfeld promises exactly that – interaction. Sadly, the choice of controversy for a MET Gala theme is arguably what keeps the event alive and the name of Vogue moving with the times.