Lagerfeld’s Legacy: He Was Good at What He Did, But Did Not Care to Be the Good Guy

Depending on which tributes or publications you read, the late designer Karl Lagerfeld was either a forward-looking, no-filter, cultural and creative mastermind, or a misogynistic, racist, fat-shaming, islamophobe. These two reflections of his legacy collided this week on social media between actress Jameela Jamil and model/actress Cara Delevingne. Via twitter, the two partook in an impromptu and heartfelt discourse over whether Lagerfeld was getting the homage he truly deserved in the media.

It began when Jamil shared a link to an “anti-condolence” piece published in the intersectional feminist Wear Your Voice Magazine that summarized Lagerfeld’s very public, unapologetic penchant for holding offensive views that tended to be at the expense of marginalized individuals. “A ruthless, fat-phobic misogynist shouldn’t be posted all over the internet as a saint gone-too-soon. Talented for sure, but not the best person,” Jamil tweeted, alongside the link share.

Delevingne, a close friend of Lagerfeld’s, promptly responded and suggested that Jamil “lead with love” and to consider that many people were still grieving his death; following the passing of a public figure, it’s perhaps easy to overlook that friends and family are privately mourning. Without condoning the fact that Lagerfeld himself did not exactly “lead with love,” Delevingne seemingly dismissed the harsh criticism of his character and pronouncements as unremarkable. “It is not possible to go through life without hurting people. He was not a saint, he is a human being like all of us who made mistakes and we should all have the chance to be forgiven for that.”

Jamil and Delevingne continued back and forth, respectfully disagreeing with one another over what it means to reflect upon someone’s life, who is entitled to voice those reflections, and what leading with love can look like.

To people like Jamil, who felt that she was speaking out “for those whose voices are so constantly ignored when famous white men hurt them,” looking back on Lagerfeld’s life requires a full acknowledgement of his choices. As writer Lara Witt wrote in Wear Your Voice, “The blatant separation of the artist from the art perpetuates cycles of abuse in which men like Lagerfeld can occupy prominent spaces in our industries and face no consequences for their words or actions, and be fondly remembered when they are dead.”

Lagerfeld derided the supporters of the #MeToo movement as a bunch of women who need coddling. “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!” he said in an interview. He brushed off suggestions that Coho Chanel was a feminist, explaining that she was not ugly enough to be one. He’s also criticized women from Adele to Heidi Klum as too fat, and has shown little grace in discussing what he believes to be the everyday woman’s “weight problem.” As someone with great influence over the sphere of women’s fashion, he clearly felt no obligation to wield his power with compassion.

Beyond commerce, he had openly expressed anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim points of view when discussing the refugee crisis in Europe. Of the situation in Germany, specifically, he reasoned, “One cannot – even if there are decades between them – kill millions of Jews so you can bring millions of their worst enemies in their place.” The bizarre and tactless logic is almost Trumpian.

Karl Lagerfeld
Photo Credit The Guardian German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld described accepting so many refugees as a ‘huge error’. Photograph: François Guillot/AFP/Getty Images

And yet, it’s important to recall that people are capable of doing good and bad things. Lagerfeld may not have cared much for how his comments were received in the court of public opinion, but allowing that he was perhaps a “good person” to those in his close circle, Delevingne was ultimately asking for compassion for her grief as well as the grief of others. “I only went on twitter because a lot of people close to him were so hurt by what [Jamil] said so I had to say something,” she tweeted before signing off. “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and I respect that. Sending you love and best wishes in return. Just asking for some sensitivity at this time.”

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