The star-studded Met Gala was held on Monday in New York City amid both glamor and controversy, with its theme revolving around the late fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, who passed away in February 2019 at the age of 85.
The Met Gala is held annually on the first Monday in May and marks the opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute's annual fashion exhibit. The event is organized by the Vogue fashion magazine, which described those in attendance as "stars, young creatives and industry paragons." Each year the event, which raises money for the Met's Costume Institute, announces a new theme that will dictate the dress code of those in attendance.
"The gala is, yes, a major star-studded fundraising event," wrote one Vogue journalist Elise Taylor in an April 23 article, "but its importance goes beyond dollars raised and social media impressions made. It’s a grand display of art as fashion and fashion as art, showing how both forms comprise and define our cultural fabric."
The 2023 theme is "Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty." Lagerfeld was an extremely successful German fashion designer who, among many other things, served as creative director at the Chanel and Fendi fashion houses.
Who was Karl Lagerfeld?
The designer was born to an upper-class family in Hamburg, Germany in 1933. According to a 2015 documentary by German media outlet Deutsche Welle (DW), Lagerfeld was an extremely gifted child, showing a penchant for visual arts at an early age.
He explained in the DW documentary that as a child he dreamed of being a caricaturist; his dream came true as he grew into a designer as well as an illustrator and cartoonist. He also had a very strong sense of personal style even as a young child. "I didn't want to look like other kids," he said.
"He dressed differently from the others," a former classmate of his told DW. "No matter what we were doing in class, Karl Otto was always busy sketching."
DW reported that his drive to design clothing and fashion in particular was sparked when he attended a Dior show in Hamburg in 1950. A few years later at age 17, he was hired as an assistant for French fashion designer Pierre Balmain and from there climbed in the ranks of the international high fashion industry.
Karl Lagerfeld's views on women and immigrants
While was lauded for his unique taste, Lagerfeld also received criticism as he shared his controversial views on weight, immigration and the #MeToo movement in the last several years.
According to a 2019 Vox article and a more recent BBC report, Lagerfeld was very open about his disdain for women who wore anything larger than a US size 4 - the traditional catwalk model size. According to the BBC, he once said that Heidi Klum was "simply too heavy and has too big a bust." He also said that "no one wants to see curvy women on the runway."
The French edition of European online media outlet The Local reported in 2013 that the French organization Belle, Ronde, Sexy et je m’assume (Beautiful, Round, Sexy and OK with it) took legal action against Lagerfeld in response to his comments disparaging fat women made on French television. He reportedly accused fat people of putting undue burden on the French health care system, saying: "The hole in social security, it's also [due to] all the diseases caught by people who are too fat."
Lagerfeld was also critical of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's 2017 decision to open the country to Syrian migrants. Vox reported him saying on a French television show that "one cannot...kill millions of Jews so you can bring millions of their worst enemies in their place." His implication, presumably, was that Syrian migrants would enflame antisemitism in Germany. "I know someone in Germany," he said, "who took a young Syrian and after four days he said: 'The greatest thing Germany invented was the Holocaust.'"
Additionally, the late fashion icon was an outspoken critic of the #MeToo movement. New York-based fashion magazine Paper reported in 2018 that Lagerfeld drew ire from his peers for speaking his mind on the issue of sexual asault in the fashion industry. He reportedly said that women should avoid modeling if they "don't want their pants pulled about." He suggested that rather than pursue modeling, women who want to keep their pants on should "join a nunnery."
Media backlash to the 2023 Met Gala
In light of his controversial statements, the Met Gala's choice to use Lagerfeld as this year's theme was met with censure by activists including The Good Place star Jameela Jamil. In October 2022, when the theme was announced, Jamil wrote on Instagram: "Karl Lagerfeld is the theme for the entire Met Gala next year. This man... was indeed, supremely talented, but used his platform is such a distinctly hateful way, mostly towards women, so repeatedly and up until the last years of his life, showing no remorse, offering no atonement, no apology, no help to groups he attacked... there was no explanation for his cruel outbursts."
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Much of the media coverage of the 2023 Met Gala focused on the positive impact of Lagerfeld's legacy, and the event was attended by multiple celebrities, like Doja Cat and Lizzo, who are self-identified feminists and outspoken in their appreciation of their own larger bodies.
Jamil re-posted the Instagram post on her story on Monday to bring attention back to Lagerfeld's checkered legacy. The post contained several specific examples of the designer's distaste for fat women and women who speak out against mistreatment at the hands of powerful men.
She also wrote in her caption: "Why is THIS who we celebrate when there are so many AMAZING designers out there who aren't bigoted white men? What happened to everyone's principles and 'advocacy.' You don't get to stand for justice in these areas, and then attend the celebration of someone who reveled in his own public disdain for marginalized people."