The German-born fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, who will be honored at this year’s Met Gala, was no stranger to controversy, with his offensive blunders and insensitive remarks often overshadowing his successes on the runway.
His mistakes could have enormous consequences. Take the “iceberg” that towered over his fall 2010 ready-to-wear show at a height of 28 feet.
The set decoration, made from 240 tons of snow and ice apparently cut from a Swedish glacier, was a statement on climate change. Unfortunately, the gesture fell flat because it took six days and a constant temperature of 25 degrees for the ice blocks to reach his runway in one piece; they were transported there via 15 tractor trailers.
His feminist protest at the spring 2015 Chanel show in Paris is just as etched in the industry’s memory. Cara Delevingne led a phalanx of models chanting for freedom with a megaphone as they marched through the Grand Palais, some carrying signs that said “History Is Her Story” and “Ladies First.” The act was met with skepticism and criticism for being insensitive to a serious political cause.
Possibly Mr. Lagerfeld just shrugged. His previous statement, “Everything I say is a joke,” was not taken very seriously.
When Claudia Schiffer walked the catwalk for Chanel in 1994 wearing a dress embroidered with a sacred Muslim text, the designer seemed to be the one who was in on the joke. Mr. Lagerfeld, who claimed he was confused by the text, offered an unusual public apology.
In the fall 1991 Chanel show, he took cues from hip-hop and rap by having the models wear heavy gold chains down the runway. Cultural appropriation was a common criticism, albeit the term wasn’t as popular then as it is now.
No apologies were made at the time. According to Mr. Lagerfeld, “Rappers tell the truth,” as he declared after the show. To paraphrase, “That’s exactly what’s needed right now.” The designer’s spring 1994 Chanel show was full of chains and other poorly planned references to gang affiliations; he had previously starred in a music video with Snoop Dogg.
Mr. Lagerfeld has a penchant for causing controversy; in the early ’90s, he placed Italian porn star Moana Pozzi in a Fendi presentation. One of his guests stormed out in a fury, but the designer carried on as if nothing had happened. In 2010, he told Vice, “I admire porn actors,” adding, “There would be much more crime without prostitutes and without porn movies.”
Other statements were similarly controversial and were made with an arrogance that would accept no rebuttal. Some fit with Mr. Lagerfeld’s character, which seemed like an intentional caricature of an elitist fashion designer from the late 20th century. That “I am like a caricature of myself, and I like that,” he remarked. Like a mask, you could say.
However, real cruelty could be hiding beneath that veneer at times. His unedited and acerbic comments revealed some of his more archaic beliefs. He is notoriously fat-phobic, and in 2009 he justified his choice of size 0 models by saying, “No one wants to see curvy women.”
He reiterated another time, stating, “You’ve got fat mothers with their bags of chips sitting in front of the television and saying that thin models are ugly.” He then went on to insinuate that the world of high fashion was never intended for them.
In an explosive interview from 2018, Mr. Lagerfeld made it clear that he did not support the #MeToo movement and questioned why it took some women so long to go public with their accounts of sexual assault.
Telling Numéro magazine, “I’m fed up with it,” he expressed his displeasure. What surprises me the most is that it took those young actresses twenty years to remember what happened. And there are no witnesses to testify in the prosecution’s favor.”
There was also an attack on gay marriage. His 2010 statement, “I’m against it for a very simple reason,” explains why. We were guaranteed our right to be different back in the ’60s. And all of a sudden they want to live like the bourgeoisie.
He showed little respect for even the most renowned idols. He spoke out against Diana, Princess of Wales, telling New York Magazine, “She was pretty and she was sweet, but she was stupid.” When asked about Andy Warhol, he was equally forthright: “I shouldn’t say this, but physically, he was quite repulsive.”
Kate Middleton was his idol, but Pippa’s face turned him off so much that he said, “She should only show her back.” “Is she a construct with all her implants?” someone asked about Lana Del Rey.
Mr. Lagerfeld was sometimes just as critical of his own work. He said he didn’t believe in any lofty principles. His stated goal in life was to fit into a pair of size 28 jeans. He plainly remarked, “I have nothing to say,” so there would be no memoirs from him. And, as he alluded to, contentment was not always easy to come by.
He himself admitted, “I’m the kind of fashion nymphomaniac who never gets an orgasm.”
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Karl Lagerfeld was a fashion icon with a penchant for controversy and offensive remarks. His actions, including a failed climate change statement and feminist protest, were met with skepticism and criticism.
He also made offensive comments about various groups, including fat-phobic and homophobic remarks. Despite his success, Lagerfeld’s negative behavior often overshadowed his accomplishments.
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