The Picture of Karl Lagerfeld (And Us, As Well)
Do you have a sweatshirt that says “THE FUTURE IS FEMALE”? How about a key chain or sticker with the words “Girl Power” is groovy cursive? Or maybe a t-shirt emblazoned with something like “The Future Has No Gender”?
Regardless of whether or not you own the above-mentioned items, you’ve likely seen them either IRL or on social media. As younger generations become increasingly politically engaged, it’s also become more common to wear your opinions on your sleeve—literally.
Like most apparel trends, the politics-as-accessory movement has hit the shelves everywhere from Target to the upper echelons of the luxury market. In September 2016, Maria Grazia Chiuri kicked off her tenure at Dior with a cotton t-shirt that declared “We Should All be Feminists.” Retailing for $710 USD, the shirt quickly became a staple for influencers and insiders all over the world. At present, typing “political t-shirt” into Google will yield over 103 million results, including a grey tee with a picture of the U.S. Capitol alongside the words “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”—which, I’ll admit, I thought was very clever.
Cleverness aside, the fact that Taylor Swift lyrics are now being applied to political issues leaves a lot to be determined about the merits of commodifying political issues. After all, it’s one thing to wear a t-shirt that says “GIRLBOSS” or “Black Lives Matter,” but it’s another thing entirely to act upon those values.
The level of performance that goes into the fashion industry’s political conversations became strikingly clear to me several weeks ago, when longtime Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld passed away. Aside from a handful of outliers, practically all of the content I saw relating to his death extolled Lagerfeld’s virtues as an innovator. Many of these pieces even praised his reputation as the “Kaiser” of fashion, and left out the countless controversial, offensive, remarks Lagerfeld made over the years.
As someone who is interested in the fashion industry from an aesthetic and cultural standpoint, I am the last person to try and brush off the mark that Lagerfeld left on the industry. It goes without saying that he was incredibly talented and used his vision to create what hadn’t been seen before. He was also perhaps the inventor of the designer-as-personality phenom, going so far as to market apparel and books about his cat, Choupette. As a result, the internet is full of quotes from Lagerfeld over the years, most of them controversial, some of them just cruel:
On the #MeToo movement: “If you don’t want your pants pulled about, don’t become a model! Join a nunnery, there’ll always be a place for you in the convent. They’re recruiting, even!”
On Pippa Middleton: “I don’t like [Pippa’s] face. She should only show her back.”
On women’s bodies: “No one wants to see a curvy woman on the runway.”
On women’s bodies (again): “They are fat mummies, sitting with their bags of crisps in front of the television, saying that thin models are ugly.”
On fashion: “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You lost control of your life so you bought some sweatpants.”
…And so on, and so on. You get the picture. What upset me was that the same fashion media outlets and influencers who will don a $710 “feminist” t-shirt or wear a pin at Fashion Week in support of Planned Parenthood were also reluctant to acknowledge the well-documented complexities of an industry icon.
The Feminist Mystique
So, is one a “feminist” if they promote the work of a decidedly anti-feminist individual? That’s a big question, one that requires answering a dozen sub-inquiries before we can even get to the heart of the issue. What, for instance, does it mean to be a feminist in the first place? And what makes something “anti-feminist”? Don’t worry about not having the answers--the truth is that no one does or ever will.
The Karl Lagerfeld conversation (or lack thereof) is merely a sliver of a larger cultural reckoning. From Woody Allen and Harvey Weinstein to Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway, it’s difficult to figure out when and if we should separate the art from the artist. As with most things, I don’t think there is a black-and-white solution. Rather, I believe we need to commit ourselves to the process of rethinking- and rethinking, and rethinking- our relationships with icons and their work.
We live in a time when everything is cut short. People (and our iPhones) might be lasting longer, but most of what we consume- from food to media- is compromised in the name of “efficiency.” Unfortunately, discussion topics such as the legacy of Karl Lagerfeld requirs more than 140 characters and a TLDR synopsis.
So, here’s the deal: Don’t throw out your “GIRLBOSS” tee or #MeToo accoutrements. Instead, try to think about those issues when you’re not wearing them on your person. If you’re going to walk the walk, so to speak, make sure you can talk the talk, or are open to learning how to. Better yet, strive to be more thoughtful about the way you move through the world--regardless of what you’re wearing.