Karl Lagerfeld: Is the Met Gala Honouring Fashion Prestige or a Tainted Legacy?

Red carpet
Vivika Sahajpal

The famous first Monday of May, a glorious accumulation of insane levels of wealth, ostentation and magnificence, always sparks conversation, scrutiny and dissection from reviews of the guests’ attire to celebrity-centred conspiracy theories. The 2023 Met Gala theme was in honour of the late Karl Lagerfeld titled “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty” following the designer’s death in 2019. Celebrating a figure with a history of politically offensive comments yet an illustrious legacy of distinguished designs raises questions of where the line between the art and the artist lies and at what point the creations of an individual are tainted by their actions.

The Met Gala stands as a significant, annual pillar of discussion around fashion and celebrity culture

Whether it’s because of excessively flamboyant outfits, hilariously noteworthy interviews or, in this case, a particularly controversial theme, the Met Gala stands as a significant, annual pillar of discussion around fashion and celebrity culture. Causing controversy from the moment of its reveal at Paris Fashion Week, the 2023 theme appears to have hit a sour note with many of the fans of the Met Gala.

This is mainly because of statements that Lagerfeld has made throughout his career demonstrating fatphobic, anti-immigrant and misogynistic views; amongst these include comments about being “fed up” with the #MeToo movement, his claims that nobody wants to see plus-sized models and his implication that Germany shouldn’t allow in Syrian refugees because it would risk offending Holocaust survivors.

In astonishing contrast to some of the problematic things he said, Karl Lagerfeld’s contributions to the fashion industry were monumental, embodying beauty and creativity across the work he did for different fashion houses; yet this work is also not devoid of public contention. Starting as an assistant to then become an apprentice for Pierre Balmain, Lagerfeld worked his way up through the hierarchy of the fashion world, gaining traction and influence throughout his career and making his mark most significantly at Chloé, Chanel and Fendi and of course, his own eponymous label; he worked on the last three simultaneously until his demise.

His time at Chloé, characterised by playful prints and innovative silhouettes, launched him to new levels of influence and prominence on the global stage; he produced more than 100 collections at Fendi, revolutionising their fur lines (yet another cause of controversy); and his time at Chanel saw him completely revive the brand from near death including creating the iconic interlocked CC that strongly defines the fashion house today. These are just a few of the brands he left his mark on through his ingenious design style. As such a prominent force in fashion, the reasons for the Met Gala theme are clear but not necessarily justified given the other side of Karl Lagerfeld’s use of his platform and influence.

It is a massive privilege for any designer to be represented at the Met Gala, so for a designer to not only feature at the event but have the theme in their honour makes a strong statement, a statement perhaps undeserving of a designer that is notorious for expressing controversial and often offensive views. Of course, there’s the response of the public to the Met Gala theme but one must also note the way the Met’s exhibition has responded to the backlash and how they’re treating their choice of theme.

Whilst it doesn’t appear to be the case that any of the guests refused to attend in protest, the High Fashion Twitter Met Gala (a group that unofficially covers the Met Gala on social media) refused to cover the event due to a misalignment of their values with the choice of theme. This seems reflective of the younger generation’s mentality towards Karl Lagerfeld’s air of exclusivity and his rejection of lack of ‘perfection’. Similarly, the Model Alliance founder discussed Lagerfeld’s problematic attitude towards women in the industry, signposting this as yet another reason why his mentality was outdated and harmful.

Andrew Bolton, the curator of the exhibition, discussed the controversy surrounding the theme by saying “We wanted to focus on the work rather than the words or the man,”. Whilst in sentiment this is a demonstration of separating the art from the artist (a long held debate spanning different industries), it is arguably unavoidable for the focus to not be the man given the theme contains Karl Lagerfeld’s name. When the biggest names in media, fashion and industry are asked to pay tribute to a man’s work by dressing in his designs or designs inspired by him, the event inevitably becomes a celebration of the man himself.

Whilst the desire to value someone’s creations without praising their views or actions is valid, the line between art and artist naturally becomes blurred when a supposed celebration of just the art is named after the problematic artist. In an era of culture and fashion where inclusivity and diverse expression is thriving, an era in which other designers have founded social movements and left a positive legacy outside of fashion, the question remains of why a socially problematic designer, although undoubtedly talented, deserves this immense honour when his words have harmed so many, and his legacy is an intertwined mesh of both beauty and hate.

Vivika Sahajpal

Featured Photo by Mick De Paola from Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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