Met Gala 2023: The Controversial Lagerfeld Legacy

28/07/2023

Kendra Williams (she/her) explores the Met Gala 2023's contentious theme and its implications for fashion

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Image by Siebbi

By Kendra Williams

The fashion world is fundamentally honorific. New fashion seasons contain reverence and inspiration to collections gone by. Museums spill at the seams with archival collections. High street brands adorn themselves with reference to, and imitation of, famous fashion houses. Yet why is this honour so often blind?

Celebrated fashion houses have a long history of problematic, particularly racist views. Hugo Boss for instance was an active member of the Nazi Party, who designed Nazi uniforms with his eponymous company and utilised slave labour to do so. More recently, a 2018 Dolce and Gabbana advert featured an Asian woman attempting to eat pizza with chopsticks with stereotypically ‘Chinese’ music playing in the background. In 2011, Hugo Boss released a statement on its website expressing its “pro-found regret to those who suffered harm or hardship at the factory run by Hugo Ferdinand Boss under National Socialist rule.”

Yet, these brands continue to be revered. At London Fashion Week this year, Hugo Boss held a huge, widely-attended party at the opening of its new flagship store. It remains a central player in the fashion world.

The most potent example of fashion’s problematic celebrations was arguably the decision to honour Karl Lagerfeld at the 2023 Met Gala. In previous years the celebrated runway at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has had themes like ‘Heavenly Bodies’ and ‘Gilded Glamour’. Yet this year the runway was inspired by Lagerfeld, the creative director of Chanel and Fendi, who passed away in 2019. Despite his accomplishments at Chanel’s helm, his personal views were deeply problematic. As well as disparaging plus size models and criticising Germany’s immigration policy, he was also an outspoken critic of the #MeToo movement. He said that he was "fed up" with it, and told Numero Magazine that “What shocks me most in all of this are the star-lets who have taken 20 years to remember what happened.” He defended the creative director of Interview Magazine, Karl Templar, from sexual assault allegations and also claimed that models should choose a different profession if they don't want their “pants pulled about”.

In 2010 he also came out against same-sex marriage calling it “bourgeois”. In an interview with Vicehe stated that, “For me it’s difficult to imagine – one of the papas at work and the other at home with the baby. How would that be for the baby? I don’t know... I also believe more in the relationship between mother and child than in that between father and child.”

However, hundreds of celebrities and designers paraded in visual support of the theme on the Met Gala steps, honouring not just the brands he spearheaded but Lagerfeld himself, with singer Doja Cat even dressing as his cat.

Not everyone was silent and the theme did face a backlash on social media. The activist and actress Jameela Jamil criticised “famous feminists” for their attendance and described the decision to honour him as “distinctly hateful.”

Therefore, much like the worlds of film and music, fashion faces a fundamental question: can you separate the art from the artist? Should Lagerfeld’s designs and accomplishments at Fendi and Chanel be discounted because of his problematic views?

This is a mammoth question and not one for me to answer, yet what I will offer is a few suggestions of British female designers who definitely deserve some of the reverence given to these bigger fashion houses with such murky histories. Hopefully by celebrating many different types of designer, the unquestioning canonisation of problematic fashion brands may begin to lose its lustre.

Grace Wales Bonner isa young Black British designer who won the 2016 LVMH Young Designer award and lectures at UAL’s Central St. Martins. Her brand is called Wales Bonner and it is known for its blending of European and Afro Atlantic styles.

Another wonderful British designer is Mary-Ann Msengi, who founded Farai London. All of her pieces are designed in East London and according to their website they seek to celebrate the “perfect imperfections of every woman.”

Kemi Telford is the South London-based women's wear brand founded by Nigerian-born Yvonne Modupe Telford. The brand is inspired by the clothing that she saw women wearing whilst she was growing up and her designs in-corporate bold patterns and colours.

Finally, Priya Ahluwalia is a London-based designer who repurposes vintage and surplus clothing for her label Ahluwalia. She says that the sustainability focus of her brand was based on her trips to Panipat and Lagos where she witnessed the devastating affects that fast fashion was having in Asia and Africa. She notes that, “My label is ultimately away to explore cultural histories and start conversations around them.”

Celebrating up and coming female designers is one of the best ways that fashion fans can help to redress the balance in the fashion world and challenge the honouring of problematic designers.