Karl Lagerfeld represented the fashion world in all its ugliness. That’s why his legacy matters

There is a myth that designing dresses for women equates to loving or respecting them.

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First came the eulogies, then the backlash. The designer Karl Lagerfeld, who died on Tuesday, was vaunted as a genius. Celebrities including Diane Kruger, Victoria Beckham and Alexa Chung lined up to pay their respects. According to Lily Allen, Lagerfeld made her “feel like a princess”.

Alas, not everyone has been quite so complimentary of Chanel’s former creative director. Sharing an article by Lara Witt titled “Stop Mourning Oppressors: Anti-Condolences For Karl Lagerfeld”, Jameela Jamil declared the deceased to be “a ruthless, fat-phobic misogynist”.

So what’s the correct position to take on Lagerfeld, former creative director of Chanel and Fendi, known not just for his style but his forthright opinions on women and their bodies? In recent years he disparaged “fat mummies who sit with bags of potato chips in front of the television saying that thin models are ugly”, claimed the singer Adele is “too fat” and that Pippa Middleton should “only show her back”, and dismissed the #Metoo movement with the line “if you don't want someone pulling down your panties, don't become a model.” On this evidence, Jamil’s appraisal seems correct.

One way of responding has been to position this as evidence of Lagerfeld’s “controversial genius”, or to argue, as Madeline Fry has done in the Washington Examiner, that Lagerfeld was “right about fashion and wrong about women”. Either Lagerfeld’s misogyny was a kind of performance art – part of an “outrageous” persona he cultivated – or a discomforting footnote to an otherwise stellar career.

The view of Lagerfeld as both genius and misogynist provides one way to confront his legacy. But can the two things – the fashion icon and the sexist – be disentangled quite so easily? Lagerfeld was not simply a maverick who occasionally voiced problematic opinions. He was deeply embedded in the fabric of the fashion industry. His misogyny was a brand, a performance: its ugly side was concealed by the dreams and illusions of haute couture.  

The blatant misogyny and classism of the fashion industry has always been plain to see. In a recent interview with Elle magazine, nestled between glossy adverts and price-on-request frocks, Marc Jacobs admitted that the whole charade is essentialy bollocks.  “Look at Balenciaga elevating what kids buy for $15 at the mall and making it for $2,000. It’s the emperor’s new clothes. Isn’t that what fashion has always been?”

How clever and self-aware! Like a punch from someone insisting they’re merely offering an ironic representation of the cultural dynamics of violence, Jacobs’ remarks were a damning indictment of the industry.

Women have long been the fashion industry’s primary target: criticise fashion and you criticise female interests. Yet this is gaslighting per excellence. Emaciated models shorn of body hair betray a clear antipathy towards adult female bodies. Intermittent attempts at presenting catwalk diversity are orchestrated to appear as “turning points” that only the cruellest cynic would dismiss. The current “fashion” for baby bumps  (for one season only, pregnancy is allowed!) highlights this tokenism.

While the inclusion of “plus sized” models  can be seen as a step forward, their presentation as a generous concession to inclusivity reinforces the status of thin models as the abnormal norm. As Robin Givhan asks, “when will a plus-size model get to stop representing diversity and simply be part of the pack?”

There is a myth that designing dresses for women equates to loving or respecting them. There’s the male fashion designer who “understands” his muses and loves women, surrounding himself with starving teenagers, binding them in garments which transcend plebeian concerns for warmth, comfort and support.

Yet this amounts to the patriarchal fetishisation of female pain. As footwear designer Christian Louboutin puts it, “for some [women], a little discomfort is balanced by something else, which has to do with desire”. Only a crisp-munching fat mummy could fail to appreciate that.

“I am a caricature of myself, and I like that” Lagerfeld once remarked. “It is like a mask. And for me the Carnival of Venice lasts all year long.” But there is a limit to how much can be excused by playful metaphors. Most women won’t ever own a Chanel bag or a pair of Louboutin shoes. Most will, at some point in their lives, hate their bodies. Women are neither stupid nor gullible for allowing images that surround them to distort their perceptions of the ideal body shape. Lagerfeld was not uniquely misogynistic or fat-phobic for viewing women’s bodies the way he did. He was typical of the fashion industry.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.