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Here's why Karl Lagerfeld's legacy shifts depending on who you ask

He died yesterday at 85.

I DON’T KNOW when I first became aware of Karl Lagerfeld; so-called iconic figures like Lagerfeld aren’t people you’re introduced to, but individuals you simply accept without question.

Chanel Metiers d'Art Show - New York Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Their existence seems ever-present, and, as such, few of us can remember a time when we didn’t know of them; they simply are and always have been.

For much of my life, I considered Karl Lagerfeld more abstractly than actually, understood he was thought of as somewhat of a deity in the world of fashion, and knew he had cultivated an almost ethereal-like appearance.

He had, in other words, been elevated to the realm of the otherworldly, but in recent years, Lagerfeld began descending.

Slowly but surely he came into focus in my eyes, and unfortunately the sharpening of perspective revealed a controversial figure, prone to contentious ideas and opinions.

Indeed, I associated Chanel’s creative director with barbed comments, fat-shaming rhetoric and an air of disdain when it came to the discussion of issues surrounding the Me Too movement.


And so, a distinct pattern which emerged in the myriad acknowledgements made about Lagerfeld surprised me somewhat yesterday.

Over and over and over again, the word ‘kind’ and its derivatives featured in his tributes.

View this post on Instagram

Cher Karl Cher maître Votre Présence si vibrante, votre profonde gentillesse, l’intérêt et la curiosité que vous aviez pour les gens et le monde m’ont profondément touchée. Ce que vous laissez est Vivant, Lumineux, Eclatant. Le mot Génie vous habillait à la perfection. Merci pour la beauté, l’humour, la poésie, l’authenticité, l’excellence, la passion et l’amour. Merci d’avoir tant donné à la France. Et à l’Art. Je vous souhaite un merveilleux et paisible voyage. Avec tout mon amour. ♥️♥️♥️ Marion Dear Karl Dear maestro Your Being was so vibrante, your profound kindness, your curiosity of the world and humanity touched me so deeply. What you have left is Alive, Luminous and Bright. The world Genius suits you perfectly. Thank you for the beauty, the humor, the poetry, the authenticity, the excellence, the passion and the love. Thank you for giving so much to France. And to Art. I wish you a wonderful and peaceful journey. With all my love.♥️♥️♥️ Marion

A post shared by @ marioncotillard on

From peers to protégés, Karl’s ‘kindness’ appeared to be his defining feature – an unmistakable departure from the public persona he appeared to have cultivated in recent times.

And it is undoubtedly this disparity which resulted in the mixed response the news of his passing was met with yesterday.

While many were quick to pay their respects, others were equally as quick to warn against unnecessarily glorifying the dead.

Let’s consider the perspective of Jameela Jamil from The Good Place and Queer Eye’s Tan France in this instance.

Responding to an article entitled ‘Stop Mourning Oppressors: Anti-Condolences for Karl Lagerfeld’, Jameela wrote: “I’m glad somebody said it. Even if it is a little soon.”

A ruthless, fat-phobic misogynist shouldn’t be posted all over the internet as a saint gone-too-soon. Talented for sure, but not the best person.


Tan, on the other hand, acknowledged Lagerfeld’s problematic narrative, but felt talent and age can be used to soften the severity of his past comments.

Speaking to BBC Breakfast, Tan said

He was a man of a certain age and I think that he thought he could get away with some of his comments. Some of those comments were very mean, but as far as his work goes, he was incredible.

“He was iconic and he was one of the most influential people in this industry,” Tan continued.

I will forgive him some of his comments because he was so impactful in what he did, and sometimes I think that people of a certain age get a pass if they’re going to make a comment.

“I don’t think it’s wise, but let’s forgive them or explain why it’s not right and move forward… and I won’t speak ill of the dead,” he added.

Is it a case of simply needing to separate the person from the persona, or is it an ill-advised inclination to prioritise talent over tolerance?

Tan and Jameela’s differing opinions seem to be indicative of the wider response in the wake of Karl’s passing, and there is little doubt that the designer’s legacy lies in the eye of the beholder.

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About the author:

Niamh McClelland

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