Karl Lagerfeld, one of the most famous fashion designers in the world, died on February 19 at age 85. Over his five decades in the industry, he solidified the house of Chanel as one of the most iconic fashion brands in history and transformed what we know today as the aesthetics of wealth.
He also took great care to determine what wealth and status were not: fat.
Throughout his career, Lagerfeld was quite open about his disdain for women larger than the typical runway model size, which is considered a 0 or a 2. In an industry that already marginalizes anyone outside of this range, Lagerfeld was among the few designers who actively defended the unspoken practice of hiring exclusively rail-thin models to walk in shows and pose for campaigns, on the grounds that “No one wants to see curvy women,” as he told the German magazine Focus in 2009.
This was not an outlier in the world of misogynistic and fatphobic Lagerfeld quotes. In the very same interview, when he was asked how he felt about the German women’s magazine Brigitte announcing that it would only publish photographs of “real women” instead of models, Lagerfeld said, “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.’”
He has also blamed fat people for societal woes. “The hole in social security, it’s also [due to] all the diseases caught by people who are too fat,” he said on a French television program in 2013. When asked by Channel 4 in 2012 whether he had a responsibility to hire models who don’t appear to be unhealthily underweight, he said, “There are less than one percent of anorexic girls. But there are — in France, I don’t know in England — over 30 percent of girls [who are] big, big, overweight. And that is much more dangerous and very bad for the health. So I think today, with the junk food in front of TV, it’s something dangerous for the health of the girl. The models are skinny, but they’re not that skinny. All the new girls are not that skinny.”
Unlike many designers, Lagerfeld was also never shy about lambasting potential celebrity clients, the most famous instance likely being when he described Adele as “a little too fat” in Metro France in 2012 (he then said that actually he was referring to Lana Del Rey). On Pippa Middleton in the days following Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding, he said, “I don’t like the sister’s face. She should only show her back.”
It’s possible that some of this disdain may have come from his own experience with weight — in 2005, he published a book called The Karl Lagerfeld Diet based on his 90-pound weight loss in the early 2000s. But this defense (if it’s even a defense) is weakened by the fact that overweight women were far from the only marginalized people he targeted.
His disdain for refugees was evident when he criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2017 for opening the country’s borders to migrants. Lagerfeld, who was born in Hamburg and was a German citizen, told a French television show, “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 then implied that accepting migrants would fuel anti-Semitism in Germany. “I know someone in Germany who took a young Syrian and after four days said: ‘The greatest thing Germany invented was the Holocaust,’” he said.
Lagerfeld was also a vocal critic of the #MeToo movement. “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,” he told Numero in 2018 after three models accused Interview creative director Karl Templer of sexual harassment.
“I’m fed up with it,” he added. “What shocks me most in all of this are the starlets who have taken 20 years to remember what happened. Not to mention the fact there are no prosecution witnesses.”
These comments are not the ones included in today’s outpouring of tributes from celebrities and leaders in the fashion industry. No one would expect them to be. Lagerfeld, for all his offensive, outdated beliefs, was best known among his peers for his quirks: his impossibly spoiled cat Choupette, his unapologetic devotion to glamour, glib one-offs like referring to selfies as “electronic masturbation.” There are plenty of Lagerfeld quotes that are objectively hilarious: In his 2013 book The World According to Karl, he wrote, “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You lost control of your life so you bought some sweatpants.”
His willingness to give his honest, albeit often blatantly offensive, opinions on women’s bodies certainly endeared him to some. Often described as “irreverent,” “larger than life,” or “politically incorrect,” Lagerfeld’s words were, in a twisted way, often just reiterating the beliefs the fashion system is based on.
The truths that went unspoken in the industry — that designers are reluctant to make clothes for larger women because they don’t want larger women wearing them, or that they refuse to hire larger models because they think people don’t want to see them — came out of Lagerfeld’s mouth explicitly. Though he was one of the few who felt strongly enough to say it (and occupied a uniquely untouchable status), he surely wasn’t the only fashion designer who didn’t want larger women wearing their clothes: The industry itself is practically built around this philosophy.
And despite the fact that he said he “doesn’t do internet,” Lagerfeld was adept at one of its most useful tactics: that of the troll. Over the course of decades, he implied that almost everything he said was somewhat meaningless. “I have no human feelings,” he said in 2007 on how he feels before a fashion show. When asked if he would ever write a memoir, he said, “No memoirs. I have nothing to say, and what I could say, I cannot say,” despite possessing one of the most provocative mouths in fashion. In his book, he described himself as a cartoon: “I am like a caricature of myself,” he wrote, “and I like that.”
Lagerfeld’s wit, however, obscured a cruel and deeply held opinion about the majority of women on earth: that those who don’t conform to Lagerfeld’s ideal of the female form just aren’t worth caring about. One could argue that it is the job of the fashion designer to determine what, and who, is beautiful. But if so, it’s a job that Lagerfeld was only ever going to be increasingly unsuited for. His influence on fashion can’t be overstated, but in celebrating it, we should reckon with it too. The industry itself is cruel enough as it is.
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