Met Gala Faces Push Back on Karl Lagerfeld Theme as Discussions on Racism and Misogyny Swirl

This year’s Met Gala theme, a nod to designer Karl Lagerfeld, has sparked controversy and disgust as people wonder if you really can separate the art from the artist.

Met Gala Karl Lagerfeld

For outsiders to the fashion world, this year’s Met Gala theme seemed unremarkable.

The theme was a nod to the late designer Karl Lagerfeld, who was the steady hands at the helm of Chanel for 30 years and was perhaps best known personally for his recognizable sunglasses-and-ponytail signature look.

But there’s a dark side to Lagerfeld’s reputation, one which the Met Gala powers that be seemed uninterested in discussing this year.

Katie Couric Media writes, “Lagerfeld’s legacy, massive as it may be, is marred by a long list of statements that could be viewed as racist, sexist, antisemitic, and fat-phobic. The Chanel designer was known for criticizing non-thin bodies: He called Adele ‘too fat,’ claimed sweatpants were ‘a sign of defeat,’ argued that eating disorders like anorexia were nowhere near as dangerous to one’s health as eating junk food, and said he was ‘fed up’ with the Me Too Movement. In 2009, he told Harper’s Bazaar that Coco Chanel ‘wasn’t ugly enough to be a feminist.’

Other comments and decisions drew even more extreme criticism: In 2010, he put model Claudia Schiffer in blackface and yellowface for a German magazine. In 2017, he criticized then-Prime Minister Angela Merkel’s decision to admit Syrian refugees into Germany, going so far as to say, ‘The greatest thing Germany invented was the Holocaust.’ It’s easy to understand why so many are outraged at the fashion designer placement at the heart of this year’s Met Gala.”

So why on earth would they pick Lagerfeld, with so many other extraordinary options available?


Why the Gala Organizers Says They Chose Lagerfeld

The Met Gala first kicked off in 1948 as a way to raise funds for the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.

Since then, it’s become a singular event that brings together the best in celebrity and fashion for a good cause.

The theme for each gala is selected by the Costume Institute’s chief curator, Andrew Bolton, who makes an official recommendation to the director and president of the museum.

In the past, Bolton has noted that he chooses themes which are designed to “generate buzz.” And in 2020, he told Vogue that the theme should spark debate.

Bolton recently spoke about the decision to choose Lagerfeld, but he skipped over the dark parts of the designer’s reputation.

Katie Couric Media adds, “The curator said that the Lagerfeld exhibit that this year’s Met Gala theme focuses “on the work rather than the words or the man.” In practice, that will look like approximately 150 original looks on exhibit, as well as samples of Lagerfeld’s original sketches and multiple video interviews of Lagerfeld playing on a loop.

The Costume Institute hasn’t released an official statement on the controversy over Lagerfeld as a theme, but Bolton did personally respond to it in a recent interview on the Business of Fashion podcast. ‘Yeah, he was problematic. There were things he said that were, yeah, difficult. And, again, did he mean it? Or was it a deflection? I don’t know, it’s hard to know,’ Bolton said.”

Lagerfeld’s past feeds into an ongoing debate in the public sphere and separating art from an artist.

This was most recently exemplified in the roasting of “Harry Potter” author, J.K. Rowling.

Rowling has openly spouted anti-transgender beliefs, and proudly aligned herself with TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) ideology.

As a result, those supporting LGBTQ individuals and causes have called for boycotts of her work, which hit her hard in the pocketbook.

The debate that has arisen in the shadow of Rowling’s stumble is this: can you still support art if the artist’s beliefs are antithetical to your own?

The answer seems to vary from person to person, as seems to be the case with Lagerfeld.

Most celebrities avoided directly addressing the controversy – either because they didn’t know or didn’t want to wade into it. Or perhaps because they worry that someday their number might come up when people find out about things they’ve done in the past and wonder whether or not to still support their work.

Ultimately though, the problem with elevating someone like Lagerfeld over just about any other extraordinary designer comes down to the fact that the fashion industry specifically has long punished marginalized people and thrown sand in the eye of those that the industry hurts. So this year’s Met Gala is a glaring sign that not much progress has been made in that regard.

There’s always next year.