Karl Lagerfeld: Beautiful Designs, Questionable Character. A metaphor for the Fashion Industry?

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Karl Lagerfeld: Beautiful Designs, Questionable Character. A metaphor for the Fashion Industry?

Karl Lagerfeld
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Where were you when Karl Lagerfeld died? I was sat in a stuffy e-commerce studio contemplating what I’d like for lunch when a colleague relayed the news. Within minutes my group chats were alight with commiserations; we talked about his legacy and insanely long career. We speculated what tributes would feature at the upcoming fashion week and who would be his successor at Chanel. We even talked about suddenly very valuable Karl Lagerfeld Barbie dolls. (Last I checked the starting price is around £6000 plus postage) . Other commentators had a very different reaction. Take this article, in which Lara Witt calls for anti-condolences on the basis that Lagerfeld was a ‘ruthless, fat-phobic misogynist’. Witt cited his far from pleasant comments about Adele, Pippa Middleton and models who complain about ‘their pants being pulled down’. Lagerfeld’s offensive views are common knowledge but it doesn’t seem to have hindered his success or prestige. Is turning a blind eye to unkindness a universal disease of the industry?

 

One of Many

Unfortunately, Karl Lagerfeld is not an anomaly. Google ‘Stefano Gabbana’ and the second result after his Wikipedia entry is a comprehensive list of his most offensive comments. By now we’re all familiar with D&G’s unique brand of casual racism, most recently the tone-deaf chopsticks advert which saw the Chinese luxury market snap their weighty purses shut on Sicily’s golden boys. But I was still shocked to discover that the brand’s controversial behaviour dates as far back as 2007.  Maybe Lagerfeld and Stefano Gabbana are like Piers Morgan and Jeremy Clarkson; relics of a different time. Maybe this is political correctness gone mad, driven by a generation of snowflakes reared by helicopter parents. Read this for full context. Karl Lagerfeld suggested as much when he announced himself ‘fed up’ of the Me Too movement. But like it or lump it, millennials make up the current and future audience, and as Francois-Henri Pinault, CEO and chairman of global luxury group Kering, put it “The attractiveness of couture, of ready-to-wear is much higher for that clientele than it used to be for older people.”

 

Culturally Proactive

Kering, which includes Bottega Veneta, Alexander McQueen, Yves Saint Laurent and Gucci, have taken affirmative action to attract a core customer aged 25-35. Recognising the need to engage a younger customer, Gucci has enlisted a ‘shadow committee’ of millennial advisers. CEO Michele Bizzarri consults the group of under 30-year-old employees on executive decisions and credits them with the brand embracing a more sustainable way to cut leather. From a financial perspective, the advisory board seems to be working. In 2017 Gucci made up 39.4% of Kering’s total revenue and reported that 50% of its sales came from millennials. Digital analysts L2 have named them the best performing digital fashion brand three years in a row. In 2019, however, even the great Gucci faltered. Appearing on the Diét Prada feed twice in a matter of days. Firstly, on 4th February for a video campaign in homage to Technicolor films which did not feature a single person of colour. Completely disregarding ethnic minority performers like Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge, Anna May Wong and Sidney Poitier who fought for and often failed to received recognition in 20th Century Hollywood. Just three days later, Gucci was back in the Diét spotlight, this time for blackface turtlenecks, the brand was quick to apologise and withdraw the item but the recent missteps leave me asking if the company is making a genuine effort to be more inclusive or if this millennial advisory board is a cute gimmick to turn profits?

 

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The new @gucci video campaign is both beautiful and bothersome.  Having spent a good chunk of my early 20s diving into Hollywood cinema from the 1930s through 50s, the set design, the joyful charisma of the tap dancers, and the accuracy of the technicolor effects of Gucci’s homage mesmerized and mostly did justice to an incredible legacy. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Beyond the gorgeous production value, taking a closer look at the casting of the principal "actors" and I'm reminded of two recent fashion industry casting gaffes. Like the runways of Demna Gvasalia's first Balenciaga collection and Hedi Slimane's Celine debut, Gucci’s vision of Hollywood was also extremely white. In actuality, 2018 was a milestone of representation in Hollywood (notably the casts of Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, and Roma's Yalitza Aparicio), but this video harkens back to a time when minorities scarcely had the same opportunities to create successful careers as they do now. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Exceptions like Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte, Dolores del Río, and Dorothy Dandridge, typically had to fight for roles that wouldn’t denigrate their identity in order to satiate palatable stereotypes.  The Los Angeles-born Anna May Wong also comes to mind, who in 1935 was notoriously snubbed for the chance to play O-Lan in The Good Earth (the role went to a yellowfaced Luise Rainer and won her an Academy Award for Best Actress). Hollywood's bizarre Motion Picture Production Code (1930-1968) also forbade the depiction of interracial relationships at the time, but what was preventing Gucci from representing the POC that also made history in Hollywood? ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Rather than seizing the chance to celebrate its true spectrum of pioneers (albeit limited), pushing a singular white narrative of Old Hollywood was a missed opportunity to forward fashion’s diversity agenda, especially coming from a brand that has shown inclusivity. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ • From top left: Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Anna May Wong, Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Ramon Novarro, Hattie McDaniel, Dolores del Río • #guccishowtime #gucci #luxury #hollywood #oldhollywood #glamour #film #cinema #goldenageofhollywood #poc #blackhistorymonth #fashion

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Problematic Diét Prada

We should all be worried that an Instagram account can amass 1.2m followers on the basis of exposing fashion house faux pas’. And boy have they been busy, as well as the D&G and Gucci coverage, Diét Prada has also called out Thom Browne NYC for sending bound and gagged models down the runway, Prada for using bag chains that reinforce blackface caricatures. While elsewhere, Burberry used their recent runway show to unveil a range of ‘noose hoodies. The design was said to be inspired by a nautical theme but model Liz Kennedy expressed concerns shortly after her fitting and before the runway show. The brand’s response, “Write a letter”. Miles away from their reaction after the resultant media storm;  Burberry announcing initiatives to improve diversity and inclusivity.

 

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Fashion can’t seem to learn from its mistakes. Back in February 2018, dozens of iterations of the balaclava walked the @gucci runway in Milan. Based on vintage DIY knit ski masks, no one clocked them at the time for having any racist connotations…or maybe they went unnoticed among the layers and layers of styling. Rihanna even wore one version just a couple months later at Coachella. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Last night though, a knit black turtleneck balaclava with red cut-out lips resembling blackface that wasn’t on the runway, caught twitter’s attention…and Gucci’s almost immediately. Within a few hours, they pulled the sweater from sale and issued an apology. All things considered, it’s probably clear now that these brands are severely lacking the cultural context and knowledge to avoid these same pitfalls. If these global brands are serious about their commitment to increasing corporate diversity, it needs to happen at all levels and departments, not just the creative teams. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ • #gucci #skimask #fashion #knitwear #blackface #blackhistorymonth #luxury #luxurybrand #europeanfashion #turtleneck #balaclava #diy #knittingpattern #vintageknitting #pinterest #pinterestfail #rihanna #milanfashionweek #mfw #mfwss18 #ss18 #dietprada

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Problematic Karl Lagerfeld is indeed a metaphor for luxury fashion. Numerous high-end brands have repeatedly shown not only ignorance but disregard for real world issues. A callous disinterest in being tolerant or kind has become ubiquitous. Accepted. The norm. Lagerfeld and other like him have continued to enjoy commercial success despite multiple dark stains on their character. Up until now that is. While most brands are simply paying lip service to inclusivity, they cannot afford to ignore the bad press on social media nor reduced revenue. As consumers and employees, we are equally responsible for taking steps towards a brighter, nicer fashion industry. Follow in the footsteps of Liz Kennedy and Chinese shoppers; speak up and stop spending. Power to the People!

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