The Troubled Legacy of Legerfield

Rosa Munson-Blatt

“No one wants to see curvy women.” Problems in the French health care system are caused by “all the diseases caught by people who are too fat.” Muslims are “the worst enemies” of the Jewish people; the #MeToo movement is tiresome and The Princess of England’s sister Pippa Middleton’s face is unappealing and she “should only show her back.” These are not the words plucked from a tirade on a subreddit or your strange uncle’s Facebook comments. These are decades worth of comments from interviews of Karl Lagerfeld, the former creative director of Chanel who passed away in late February.

Despite this legacy, celebrities rushed to social media posting lengthy, heartfelt messages and pictures memorializing  the former fashion world icon. Lagerfeld was celebrated for his pioneering artistic vision and received gratitude from the many models whose careers he helped propel to massive stardom. Few acknowledge his extensively documented history of explicitly offensive and crude statement.

The collective glorification of Lagerfeld is situated within a much larger propensity to romanticize the deaths of important figures (read: old, white guys.)  This is saliently observed in last year’s passage of former President George H.W. Bush and Senator John McCain. The public heralded Bush and McCain as saints. Their political successes and purportedly humanitarian work overshadowing their respective decades of instrumentalizing policies to marginalize folks, like McCain's opposition to gay marriage and abortions, and wreak violence, such as Bush’s Gulf War of 1991, which was subversively for the purpose of oil.    

Many of their public mourners called for people to not speak ill of the dead. Yet, it is imperative to not allow the social taboo of criticizing the deceased to supercede any and all injustices a person had committed. There is a difference between senselessly and crassly maligning a person versus the legitimate invocation of their reprehensible comments and injurious behavior-- especially when the very people decrying the critics of these men are from the people who had been affected by these men's actions.  

In one Twitter exchange, supermodel Cara Delevingne, who said she was moved to tears by the passage of Lagerfeld, urged actress and activist Jameela Jamil to not paint him as a “bad person” and that “living in the past and bringing up things that have already happened” is not productive. Queer Eye stylist Tan France also took to Twitter to hail Lagerfeld as a visionary and dismissed the former Chanel designer’s viewpoints, explaining “people of a certain age get a pass.” Delevingne and France are among many famous figures that purport themselves to be social justice advocates, including for LGBTQ rights, and thus they should know far better than to delegate “things that have already happened” to the past -- only in the last decade have the trailblazers of the revolutionary Stonewall Riots been named and come into public knowledge and only about five years ago did England and the United States legalize gay marriage.

Single events and comments should not be recognized as relics of the past as much as the systems that underpin them should not be; which gets to the root of why Lagerfeld's many remarks are so troubling. They are not just blasé, fringe assertions by a quirky celebrity. They contribute to structures that perpetuate misogyny, fatphobia, and islamophobia by a massively influential person. Even as body positive activists and social media influencers proliferate in popularity, Lagerfeld's stances generated seasons of employing models, 81 percent of whom, in a sample survey by the International Journal of Eating Disorders, had BMIs that were classified as underweight. These models images are then pasted all over the billboards we hustle past to get to class or Starbucks. Lagerfeld's problematic principles must not be left in the past, as they still reverberate not just in fashion but in all the echelons of society.

Selective amnesia in remembering people like Bush, McCain, and Lagerfeld are composites of a much more dangerous proclivity: the rewriting of history. Consider President Donald Trump campaign slogan “Make America Great Again,” which frequently left people wondering -- when exactly had America been a great place for everybody? History is critical; it doesn’t just inform the present, it is the present. (For example: ask yourself whose land are you living on? Where are those people now? Because much like Lagerfeld's legacy, history does not just evaporate into the vortex that is the past.)