The death this week of Karl Lagerfeld has been widely mourned, but this outpouring of love, writes Mr Siphiwe Mpye, neglects the fact that there was no phobia too deplorable for him, and he was allowed to flourish by an enabling fashion industry.
Mr Karl Lagerfeld, the creative mastermind behind his eponymous label and the luxury fashion giant Chanel, died this week after falling ill. He was 85. The German was well-loved around the world, evidenced by the outpouring of grief, archive pictures and social media tributes from the top-tier of world fashion – from André Leon Talley, Jefferson Hack and Grace Coddington, to Carine Roitfeld, Donatella Versace and Suzy Menkes.
There were cute anecdotes about his eccentric ways; nods to his intellectual stamina; his magnificent contribution to the canon of the cloth and an archive strewn with fantastical fashion productions. His genius and influence are without question, and it is perhaps this creative excellence – among other structural buttresses – that allowed him for so many years, to get away with being an ass, and in many instances, something much more sinister.
“His genius and influence are without question, and it is perhaps this creative excellence – among other structural buttresses – that made sure he got away with being an ass, and in many instances, something much more sinister than that.”
His sins are well documented: racism, misogyny, classism, fatphobia, xenophobia and Islamophobia. Outburst after outburst – the singer Adele was ‘a little too fat’; Coco Chanel was ‘not ugly enough to be a Feminist’; a tirade about his disdain for Syrian immigrants; models who ‘didn’t want their pants pulled about’ should join a nunnery – would be written off as “candid”, “controversial” or “politically incorrect”, never what it really was.
In the days following his death, there have been but a minority in the industry honest enough to speak the truth – like Australian models Ms. Tiah Eckhardt-Delaney and Mr Ryan Porter. Mr Ryan asked rhetorically in an Instagram stories post: “I wonder how many people really know how much of a pig Karl Lagerfeld was? He made fun of overweight people, made fun of the MeToo movement. Only cared about physical appearance.”
But still, in death the media is tentative about condemning his ‘controversies’ and the fashion world is largely content to ignore his misdeeds and sing his praises, as they did while he was still alive. The genius creator overshadowed the ‘pig’. The ‘pig’ could prance around, muddying and offending at will, and the genius would be protected and celebrated by the Fashion Media Industrial Complex (FMIC), because his bile was largely directed at people in the margins of society: in race, class, gender, nationality and aesthetics. Our contemporary vigilance for demanding accountability from writers, musicians, actors, directors, comedians, means nothing if it gives fashion a pass.
“The genius creator overshadowed the pig. The pig could prance around, muddying and offending at will and the genius would be protected and celebrated by the Fashion Media Industrial Complex.”
It would be naïve to miss the point that Lagerfeld was also protected because in the world of the FMIC, many people in pivotal places share his worldview. Stefano Gabbana’s China DMs attest to this; ex-Vogue Brazil Style Director Donata Meirelles’s recent slavery-themed party falls in that class and Gucci’s blackface stupidity betrays their many blind spots. But he also got away with it because he made a lot of money for people who worship wealth. He also got away with it because he too was rich, male, and white. There is no black or brown designer with Lagerfeld’s track record for indiscriminate abuses, who would have survived their own mouths, yet Lagerfeld thrived, year on year, for decades. And now, he is no more.
He leaves behind his cat Choupette (who looks likely to inherit all of R2.7BN from the Lagerfeld estate) and an industry that will continue to pay lip service to the urgent changes that our global moment demands. It will continue to protect its despicable own, as long as they keep producing beautiful garments and stay profitable. That, is the saddest thing about Mr Lagerfeld’s death.