It’s time to talk about the fashion industry’s accountability problem
Disclaimer: this essay is a depiction of the writer’s own thoughts, experiences and observations, and in no way reflects the opinions of the publication on which it is shared, nor does it reflect the opinions of the publication’s parent company or fellow businesses.
When Andrew Bolton, head curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, was asked why he dedicated his latest exhibit to Karl Lagerfeld, he stressed the late designer’s visionary genius, which catapulted him into one of the most influential figures in the fashion industry.
“I was asking myself: How do you do an exhibition on someone who had a 65-year career? How do you do a show on somebody who worked for four labels, plus his other freelance work?” Bolton shares. “It was very easy to make judgments about him through what he said, what he wore,” he muses in another interview. “But I think the work is really his legacy.”
Bolton’s statements, while fair, come across as almost defensive in response to the immense criticism thrown towards his new exhibit Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty. While Lagerfeld’s legacy has undeniably shaped modern fashion, he was also a very hateful man who has made several harmful racist, fatphobic and anti-woman remarks.
“No one wants to see curvy women,” he scoffed in 2009 at a reporter asking for his opinion on the rise of plus-sized models on the runway. In 2017, he condemned Germany’s acceptance of Syrian refugees as an “affront to Holocaust victims.” And probably most disturbingly, he said of the fashion industry’s #MeToo movement: “If you don’t want your pants pulled about, don’t become a model! Join a nunnery.”
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Many condemned the Met’s celebration of Lagerfeld’s legacy. “Hollywood and fashion said the quiet part out loud when a lot of famous feminists chose to celebrate at the highest level, a man who was so publicly cruel to women, to fat people, to immigrants and to sexual assault survivors,” actress Jameela Jamil writes in an Instagram post.
HF Twitter Met Gala, an account that creates much fanfare around the Met Gala on Twitter every year, tweeted: “…we will not be celebrating this year’s Met Gala as our values don’t align with the selection of Karl Lagerfeld as the theme.”
While Lagerfeld’s impact on fashion is undeniable, many are disappointed in how the fashion industry seems to condone his hateful rhetoric. And in hindsight, this seems part and parcel of fashion’s long history of failing to hold its most powerful figures accountable for their misbehavior.
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A history of selective amnesia
Lagerfeld, after all, isn’t the only designer who the fashion industry has welcomed back despite their personal controversies.
In 2020, several male models publicly called out designer Alexander Wang and accused him of multiple instances of sexual assault. Fast forward three years later (and after laying low for a bit), he presented his fall collection at New York Fashion Week. Vogue lauded his comeback and declared that Wang “still has a handle on what the kids want.”
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Italian design duo Dolce & Gabbana seem to relish in their political incorrectness: from condemning parents using surrogacy for producing “chemical children” from a “rented uterus” and releasing a $2,000 shoe they deemed a “slave sandal” to claiming the Chinese “eat dogs.” Still, the label continues to thrive on the red carpet, dressing celebrities like Sydney Sweeney and Megan Thee Stallion. Last September, the duo even released their S/S 2023 collection at Milan Fashion Week designed in collaboration with Kim Kardashian.
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We don’t need to look further to see this pattern play out—let’s not forget that Coco Chanel, universally revered as the originator of restrained French chic, was a literal Nazi collaborator. Pissed that the Jewish Wertherheimer brothers owned a majority stake of her perfume company, she used her position as an “Aryan” and the mistress of a high-ranking Nazi official to seize back control of her perfumery during World War II. Yet today, this dark period in Chanel’s history is often overlooked in lieu of her contributions in democratizing fashion.
The one designer that has come closest to facing the consequences of his actions is John Galliano, who in 2010 was infamously fired from his position as Dior’s creative director after screaming anti-Semitic insults to a group of women at a Paris bar. But after four years in fashion exile, he was appointed the creative director of Maison Margiela—a position he holds to this day.
Is fashion really that shallow?
So, the question remains: why does the fashion industry repeatedly allow talented yet problematic designers to get away with their misbehavior? Perhaps it’s indicative of how the industry chooses to focus on aesthetics and visual beauty, and not much else. As Stanley Tucci’s Nigel sarcastically quips in The Devil Wears Prada: “That’s really what this multibillion-dollar industry is all about anyway, isn’t it? Inner beauty.”
And that’s the other thing. From a capitalist lens, amidst the glamour and fabulosity of it all, we forget that fashion is first and foremost a business. In 2022 alone, the fashion industry generated a total global revenue of $1.53 trillion. There’s huge money at stake here, and from an investor’s point of view, why would it make sense to let go of a designer with a loose mouth when he generates high-value designs that continue to sell well?
Some may also argue that you should separate art from the artist. And yes, it is true that you can recognize someone’s talent and genius while also condemning their misdeeds. But the problem with this line of thinking is how it perpetuates a culture of non-accountability in the fashion industry. If today’s designers continue to go unpunished for their actions, then the next generation of talents will grow up thinking that as long as they work hard and develop their talent, they can behave as badly as they like without any repercussions. And quite frankly? The thought is terrifying.
The irony of it all is that fashion is inherently such a judgmental industry. We judge people for wearing last season’s shoes or for wearing colors that clash, but where is the judgment when it comes to the horrible things powerful fashion figures do? What needs to change? What will it take for accountability to come into vogue?
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Words Jer Capacillo
Art Matthew Ian Fetalver