'Curious Fashion' is a monthly column by feminist researcher, writer and activist Manjima Bhattacharjya. Read more from the series here.
Karl Lagerfeld took over the reins of fashion house Chanel in 1983, a decade after its founder, the incomparable Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, had passed. They never actually met.
Despite its iconic status, Chanel was said to be almost dead as a brand, surviving on the sales of its perfumes. Over the years, Karl took Chanel from elegant and timeless (read: old) to snazzy and edgy: mini-skirt tweed suits, loud shiny interlocked Cs, more leather, more chains, more bling to appeal to changing sensibilities and a new generation. Karl added the curlicues to the language that Coco had created.
Last week, Karl Lagerfeld passed away at the age of 85. By all accounts, Karl was quite a fellow. He was said to be brilliant, creative, witty, multiply talented at design, art, drawing, aesthetics, an innovator, a workaholic, a visionary, generous with friends, and devoted to his cat. In the same breath, he was also said to be eccentric, decadent, mercurial, misogynistic, fat-phobic, and provocative.
He “hissed at things he did not like”. He called Adele “a little too fat”. His pro-fur stance led to agitation by PETA activists, who called him a “fashion dinosaur” and once hurled tofu pies at him in a press conference. The pies hit a bewildered Calvin Klein (not pro-fur) instead. Controversy was never far from Karl.
If there is one thing that is for sure, he was hardworking to the point of exhaustion. He was creative director for several fashion brands, along with being a photographer, illustrator, publisher and book-maker. ‘I am a machine,’ Karl said. He conceptualised and mounted couture shows of a scale unparalleled. Recreating an American rodeo? A space shuttle? A beach in the middle of Paris? An autumnal forest inside the Grand Palais exhibition hall, complete with trees? Why not. Nothing was impossible. Nothing was too much for Karl.
Karl Lagerfeld was the grand showman of European fashion for three decades. But he was also the zeitgeist of those decades, the embodiment of ideas defining a difficult period in fashion history. Obsessed with weight, unkind to models, white supremacist, terribly politically incorrect. He resolutely treated models as stupid, barely human, unworthy of empathy, existing only to be draped by him. I mean, three insults in just one interview!
Karl liked his models thin and silent. In fact, he liked everyone thin. Did you know he was on a diet for 15 years? He wrote a book called The Karl Lagerfeld Diet that sold 200,000 copies worldwide after he lost 41 kilos in 18 months, because he wanted to fit into slim suits. To women who objected to the idea of thin models, he said, "They are fat mummies sitting with their bags of crisps in front of the television, saying that thin models are ugly".
For Karl, things like the #MeToo movement were inconvenient in a world where his personal ideals did not converge with what the market wanted. After a Bollywood-themed Chanel fashion show wooing the Indian market, he told the press he had never been to India, and never wanted to! How does one reconcile these contradictions? How did he love a furry cat so much (the famed “bourgeouis cat” Choupette, who Karl said he’d marry if it was legal) but still be alright with using fur for fashion? “I like to reinvent myself. It’s part of my job,” Karl said, but was a Xerox of himself every day, wearing the same outfit, having thousands of pieces of the same starched collar shirts.
When Karl did a Chanel show in 2014 where the runway became a site of feminist protest, people commented that he was (finally) harking back to Coco Chanel’s feminist leaning origins. Models with megaphones shouted slogans on the ramp, and walked with placards demanding freedom and women’s rights. Then there was his show in 2018, a runway plush with beautiful dresses, all with pockets — even the wedding dresses. Coco introduced pockets in women’s clothes at a time when only men’s clothes had pockets.
But Karl was not Coco.
They had some things in common: an aversion to their age being public knowledge, for example. Both disputed their known year of birth and claimed to be younger. Karl by five years, Coco by a whole 10. They were both from humble backgrounds, unschooled but genius at the craft of dressmaking – Coco with fabrics, Karl with wool, fur, pelt. And they both had the ability to give immensely quotable quotes.
Where Coco was all about simplicity in her designs, Karl about extravagance. Coco preferred champagne (“I only drink champagne on two occasions, when I am in love and when I am not," Coco said). He had Diet Coke (“I drink Diet Coke from the minute I get up to the minute I go to bed.") Coco made fashion more egalitarian, liberating French women from discomfort. She defined what the modern independent woman would look like.
Karl, well. His relationship and feelings for women were suspect.
Karl once said, “What I've done, Coco Chanel would never have done. She would have hated it." It is a testament to how far brands go from the ideologies of their founding mothers or fathers, in pursuit of profit making. Nothing is sacred. No ideological bent of a fashion brand is forever. I was a sad kitten the day I found out that The Body Shop – a brand I associated with fair trade and humanitarian practices – was now owned by L’Oreal, a brand certainly not associated with those things.
Karl Lagerfeld epitomised everything that (today) would be considered “wrong” with the fashion industry. But he also epitomised its voracious appetite for success, for global stature, for perfection, for reinvention season after season after season, for spectacle.
Karl’s death signals “the end of an era”. Who knows if there will be such grandeur in shows ever again? Or such an iconic personality in the industry? But perhaps it is also the end of an era – of misogynistic, thin, merciless fashion.
Manjima is the author of Mannequin: Working Women in India's Glamour Industry (Zubaan, 2018)
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Updated Date: May 21, 2019 19:59:34 IST