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Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty and a History of Hate Speech

Trigger Warning: This blog discusses sexual assault, hate speech, and fatphobia which some readers may find distressing.

Our selective memory of influential but problematic figures re-writes their flawed legacies. Last week’s Met Gala honoured the controversial Karl Lagerfeld. This served as a stark reminder that commercial enterprise and art can supersede social justice, sometimes at the expense of the marginalised groups that they appear to protect.

Each year, as I eagerly await the "first looks" of the Met Gala’s red carpet, I am often conflicted. My love of fashion often clashes with my core values as a psychiatric researcher. I struggle to reconcile with the impact on society of an unsustainable, exclusive, and elitist fashion industry.

But this year I could not consume the Met Gala.

"Fashions biggest night out" paid tribute to the late designer Karl Lagerfeld. Whilst Lagerfeld’s contributions to fashion were venerated and celebrated by Hollywood’s most famous, his contributions to racism, sexism, and fatphobia were conveniently ignored. The impact of this on the wellbeing and mental health of those affected by his comments should not be underestimated.

Lagerfeld’s notoriety is rooted in his impressive career. As creative director of Chanel for 36 years, Fendi and his eponymous brand Karl Lagerfeld, he worked with the world’s most influential fashion houses. He was arguably one of the most prolific fashion designers of all time. Lagerfeld was and still is revered within the fashion industry and heralded for his contribution to art. However, perhaps equally infamous are his controversies and lack of inclusivity.

He held problematic views, with women and minority groups predominantly in the firing line.

Lagerfeld defended Karl Templar (creative director of Interview magazine) after sexual misconduct allegations stating "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 sent flowers to Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former Chief of the International Monetary Fund, after he was charged with sexually assaulting a hotel chambermaid. He said of Strauss-Kahn: "He is a sweet guy — as long as you are not a woman".

The Model Alliance recently reported that 30% of models have experienced inappropriate touching in photoshoots. Former model for Vanity Fair, Maxim, and Vogue, Nikkie Dubose, spoke out about the sexual assault she experienced in the industry and described being "drugged and raped… by a photographer at a lunch". When she confronted her agency director, she was "shot down". Dubose has since struggled with an eating disorder and mental health issues.

Such mistreatment is unsurprising when people like Lagerfeld, who was the head of the world’s largest fashion houses and proclaimed the "Godfather" of fashion, normalised this behaviour.

Lagerfeld’s suggestion that women in the modelling industry should expect and accept sexual assault was accompanied by disdain for the #MeToo movement. Lagerfeld stated he was "fed up" with the movement saying "What shocks me most in all of this are the starlets who have taken 20 years to remember what happened. Not to mention the fact there are no prosecution witnesses", seemingly questioning the credibility of the reports of the sexual assault that he had indicated was implicit to the job.

Lagerfeld also spread damaging fatphobic and dehumanising ideas calling Heidi Kulm "too heavy", Adele a "little too fat" and said Pippa Middleton should "only show her back". He claimed, "no one wants to see" plus-sized models and described fashion as the "healthiest motivation for losing weight".

Women were not his only targets. Lagerfeld made shocking, racist comments in response to Germany opening its borders to Syrian Refugees, in 2017, saying "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". And, on the same topic, he was reported saying "I know someone in Germany who took a young Syrian and after four days said: The greatest thing Germany invented was the Holocaust".

Whilst Lagerfeld's comments frequently caused outrage and calls to "boycott" him, his many high-profile friends continued to support him. At the time of his death, many celebrities expressed heartfelt tributes, including Cara Delevingne (model and Lagerfeld's muse) who described him as "one of the most interesting and caring men" she had ever met. In an article published in Vogue, Anna Wintour (co-chair of the Met) described him as her "colourful compatriot" and "dear friend". But many did acknowledge his flaws. The BBC published an article describing his '"controversial genius" and one Guardian article expressed a balanced view, referring to him as a "bully" whilst emphasising his "visionary" and "brilliance".

Although the Met Gala is no stranger to controversy, this year's theme seems to have been a step too far for many people. The decision to honour Lagerfeld has triggered discourse across the internet.

The New York Times published an article calling him a "Fire hose of Offence", The Guardian described his views as "odious", British actress and activist Jameela Jamil (a long-standing critic of Lagerfeld) expressed outrage at the theme and condemned his "cruel outbursts" and Ashley James (model, presenter and DJ) took to Instagram to express her disappointment at the theme and in those who attended.

But behind the Tweets, Instagram posts, and trending hashtags, are victims. Lagerfeld’s comments are not just the outdated opinions of an eccentric artist from a different time, they are damaging hate speech.

Research has shown that hate speech can have the same psychological impact as other traumatic events. The symptoms experienced by those on the receiving end of hate speech are similar to the symptoms experienced in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, including anxiety, nightmares, pain, fear, and intrusive thoughts. Such hate speech has far-reaching consequences, also feeding into the values of wider society and contributing to the microaggressions faced by marginalised groups.

By definition, microaggressions are verbal, non-verbal, or environmental slights that denote members of stigmatised groups (e.g., racial minorities, women) as lesser. A recent study demonstrated that there are harmful effects associated with experiencing microaggressions including reduced psychological well-being and health.

As Lagerfeld’s legacy is re-written and the Met Gala remembers him as an idol, rather than a talented, but deeply flawed individual, his responsibility for this damage is excused, the ideology is unchecked and those affected are undefended.

As a society, we must decide: Does influence and power absolve discrimination and hate speech? At what point do our values come before our desire for art? And where do we draw the line on artistic licence extending to hate speech?

Lagerfeld has a complicated legacy. But just as his influence and talent cannot be denied, neither can the damage he inflicted on the wellbeing of those at the receiving end of his most controversial comments. If we chose to turn a blind eye to such bigotry, we are complicit.

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