Karl Lagerfeld at the Met: A line between the art and the artist?

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On Monday, May 1, the red carpet was once again rolled out in front of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Cameras from all angles ready to get the perfect shot and interviewers anxious to get the best scoop from celebrities across many industries.

In 2019, Karl Lagerfeld died age 85. He had worked in the fashion industry since his early twenties, and was a world-renowned icon. His public image was, and still is, highly curated and sleek. Hiding behind darkened glasses and a his signature pulled back ponytail, he brought Chanel into the modern age.

In honour of Karl

The theme of the 2023 Met Gala, Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty, was in honour of Karl Lagerfeld’s undeniable and towering contribution to the world of fashion. Guests are always expected to dress in accordance to broader themes. However, this year, there was less room for interpretation.

Inspired by Karl’s black and white style with clean lines and accessories contributing to the “total look” – all in line with Coco Chanel’s concept – it was speculated and anticipated that guests would dive into the Chanel archives and pull out some of Karl’s designs. And they did.

Several attendees worked with other houses and stylists to bring the perfect balance of the “total look” to the carpet in honour of the late designer’s legacy. Several more showed up in cat costumes to resemble Karl’s unlikely feline companion: Choupette.

Lil Nas X, Jared Leto, and Doja Cat paying tribute to Choupette. Image credit: AFP

Noticeably, a few celebrities were missing in action. Blake Lively, who co-chaired at last year’s Gilded Glamour Met Gala and stole the show in a Versace dress paying tribute to New York, was nowhere to be seen. Likewise, red-carpet pro Zendaya, Timothée Chalamet, Beyoncé, the Biebers, Lady Gaga, and Harry Styles were all solemnly missed.

Their absence were in some cases addressed. For example, Blake Lively and husband Ryan Reynolds just welcomed their fourth child in February, Zendaya and Chalamet are probably busy with Dune Part 2, and Styles is on tour. Still, it is widely speculated that their invitations were declined for other reasons.

The icon, the designer and the problem

Though a skilled artist, Karl Lagerfeld was misogynistic, fatphobic, racist, Islamophobic, and just a plain old bigot. And with more than 50 years in the industry he sure did manage to compile an extensive list of controversial opinions.

Lagerfeld was very vocal about how fat people, especially women, did not belong in the world of fashion.

“You’ve got fat mothers with their bags of chips in front of the television and saying that thin models are ugly. The world of beautiful clothing is about ‘dreams and illusions.’”

He hosted many problematic comments on the looks of women, famously bashing Kate Middleton’s sister at the royal wedding, saying he didn’t like her face; dismissed victims of sexual assault during the #MeToo movement; and criticized Angela Merkel in 2017 for opening the German borders to migrants, implying that migrants would fuel anti-Semitism in Germany.

A powerhouse in fashion and problematic comments, Karl is still described and celebrated as an extraordinary designer with wit and a biting sense of humour.

Jameela Jamil posted on her Instagram already in October 2022 that the theme for the upcoming Met Gala was not the appropriate way to remember Karl Lagerfeld.

“Why is THIS who we celebrate when there are so many AMAZING designers out there who aren’t bigoted white men?”

And it’s a very valid question. Somehow we have come to accept that it is completely fair to separate the art from the artist when convenient. It’s a fine line and it seems that we’ve reached an impasse where cancel culture is the answer – until it’s not.

The truth is Karl Lagerfeld is dead so there is not much to cancel. It is all too late to address his deeply misogynistic and bigoted beliefs and ask him to course correct, but choosing to forget long after his death is not doing anyone justice.

Karl Lagerfeld was the creative director for Chanel since 1983. Image credit: Alessandro Garofalo/indigital.tv

The views and opinions that Lagerfeld held are bigger than just him. They are the industry standard. In choosing to honour him without weighing the good against the bad, without keeping the artist close connected to the art we cannot expect to move forward in any direction.

Silent protests on the red carpet

So, how did people respond? Well, we know that Blake Lively did not attend, and neither did a lot of other Met Gala veterans, for reasons known and unknown. Jameela Jamil made another Instagram post in response to the controversial theme.

Better yet – and more entertaining, allowing us to once again enjoy the fashion while critically reviewing the man of honour – some guests showed up in their best ‘mockingjay-esque’ attire to give Karl Lagerfeld a metaphorical middle finger. (Pedro Pascal even showed off his actual Valentino polished nails.)

Viola Davis, Ashley Graham, Pedro Pascal, Quannah Chasinghorse and many others chose to wear the clothes that Lagerfeld hated the most: pink, sweatpants, men showing leg, and fat women.

Karl Lagerfeld said of these styles: “Think pink, but don’t wear it”; “I hate nothing more than when men cross their legs, and you see hairy legs, socks and pants – the worst. The worst!”; and “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat”. Image credit: Yahoo/Shutterstock/usmagazine.com

And Lizzo… well Lizzo wore a custom Chanel dress, one of Karl Lagerfeld’s designs, dripping in pearls and poise, and shared a photo of herself eating McDonalds chips.  

Featured Image Credit: Christopher Anderson/Magnum

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