The 2023 Met Gala Reckons With Karl Lagerfeld’s Complicated Legacy

    The Karl-themed gala raises questions about how high fashion’s elitist model can coexist with today’s diversity and inclusivity-based values.
    The late Chanel designer was undoubtedly one of fashion’s most influential figures. But the Karl-themed gala raises questions about how high fashion’s elitist model can coexist with today’s diversity and inclusivity-based values. Photo: Getty Images
      Published   in Fashion

    What happened

    This week’s Met Gala marked the opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s spring 2023 exhibition, "Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty." The exhibition showcases the legacy of the late designer, who was one of fashion’s most influential figures as creative director of Chanel, Fendi and his namesake brand up until his death in 2019. Chinese celebrities, including Cai Xukun, Wang Jiaer, Gu Ailing, Liu Wen, He Cong, and Margaret Zhang, attended the prestigious Met Gala. The event's hashtag on Weibo generated around 2 billion views today. Cai Xukun's related outfit post received nearly 1.5 million likes and over 1 million reposts.

    But the decision to spotlight Lagerfeld’s contributions to fashion also raised questions about less savory aspects of his legacy. Throughout his lifetime, the designer frequently made fatphobic remarks, derided the #MeToo movement and criticized his native Germany for accepting refugees from Muslim-majority countries, leading some to criticize the choice to honor his work.

    Lagerfeld was knowingly provocative in his comments, calling himself a “caricature of myself” in his 2013 book The World According to Karl and staging a faux feminist protest at the Chanel Spring/Summer 2015 ready-to-wear show. But dedicating a Met Gala to his legacy in 2023 represents a larger challenge in the fashion industry: how to meld luxury’s traditionally exclusionary model with contemporary values built on diversity and inclusion.

    The Jing Take

    As fashion’s most high-profile event, the Met Gala offers a rare opportunity for celebrities and designers to showcase not only their names, but their values. And attendees have occasionally used the high-profile event to make political statements, most notably US Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez who wore a dress emblazoned with “Tax the Rich” by New York designer Brother Vellies at the 2021 event.

    View post on Instagram

    Guests at this week’s event made more subtle statements that melded Lagerfeld’s legacy with contemporary norms. The event featured many archival gowns, in keeping with a growing red carpet trend of rewearing used gowns in a nod to sustainability. Co-host Dua Lipa wore the wedding dress look modeled by Claudia Schiffer for Chanel’s Fall/Winter 1992 couture show, while Nicole Kidman donned the feathered gown she wore in the 2004 Chanel No. 5 ad directed by Baz Luhrmann.

    Model and indigenous activist Quannah Chasinghorse used the event to showcase her heritage with handmade Dakota jewelry, but also wore a Prabal Gurung gown in pink, a color Lagerfeld notably dismissed. Actor Harvey Guillén and singer Lizzo garnered praise for attending the gala despite Lagerfeld’s vitriolic remarks about fat people. Actor and writer Michaela Coel wore custom Schiaparelli to the event, perhaps as a slight jab to Lagerfeld’s former house, considering Elsa Schiaparelli was a bitter rival to Coco Chanel.

    But those are subtle digs at Lagerfeld rather than open rejections, a sign that his contributions to fashion still outrank his discriminatory views. And he’s not alone in that assessment; while designers face increasing scrutiny for derogatory remarks, they don’t necessarily face long-term consequences. After being widely derided for their China scandal, Dolce & Gabbana recently found its way back onto high-profile red carpets via celebrity culture, and partnered with Kourtney Kardashian to outfit her and her family at her wedding to Travis Barker in 2022.

    View post on Instagram

    The Met’s Karl Lagerfeld retrospective cements the designer’s legacy alongside previous honorees like Alexander McQueen and Rei Kawakubo. But even as the event concluded, Lagerfeld’s larger-than-life persona is unlikely to fade anytime soon, nor will conversations about his cultural contributions — both positive and negative.

    The Jing Take reports on a piece of the leading news and presents our editorial team’s analysis of the key implications for the luxury industry. In the recurring column, we analyze everything from product drops and mergers to heated debate sprouting on Chinese social media.

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