Karl Lagerfeld Doesn’t Get to Appropriate Feminism

If The Onion had a fashion vertical, “Karl Lagerfeld Stages Feminist Protest” would almost certainly be one of its headlines. And yet here we are: Chanel’s head designer closed today’s Paris show with a parade of models holding signs so baldly hypocritical that they’re an exercise in doublethink. “FREE FREEDOM,” one nonsensically declares. “FEMINISM NOT MASOCHISM,” says another. Finally, hilariously, and worst of all: “BE DIFFERENT!” I laughed; I cried; I read headlines like “Chanel’s Empowering Feminist Protest the Best Thing About Fashion Week” and kept crying until I had a rage blackout.

Seriously: WHAT?!?!?! Let’s revisit some of “Feminist Ally” Lagerfeld’s greatest hits:

  • “She is a little too fat, but she has a beautiful face and a divine voice.” —on Adele, February 2012
  • “The hole in social security, it’s [because of] all the diseases caught by people who are too fat.” —on any and all French fat people, October 2013
  • “Nobody wants to see curvy women on the runway.” — on models, many times

And that’s not counting all the cultural appropriation! So before we go any further, let’s be clear. Karl Lagerfeld slapping feminist slogans on his collection is appropriation of a different kind, taking a label Lagerfeld hasn’t earned — has worked against, even — and using it for professional gain. Attempting to, at least. Hopefully without much success.

Feminism and fashion have a relationship that’s far too complicated to be hashed out in the space of a single blog post. At its core, though, that relationship springs from a tension that’s easy enough to spot. Feminism is an ideology; its goal, loosely defined, is to achieve equality and/or liberation for women. Fashion is an industry (and thus part of another ideology: capitalism!); its goal is to make money. Is there room for art in that industry, just as there is in industries like film and television? Obviously. But does fashion-as-business also make its politics inherently tricky? Mm-hm.

And fashion in particular, especially an iconic high-end brand like Chanel, has a track record to deal with before it can talk the talk — or, rather, wave the sign. Convincing people to buy wildly expensive clothes, for example, often involves cultivating a sense of exclusivity at the expense of the poor, the non-white, and the non-size zero. Or creating, and benefiting from, insecurities about one’s appearance. Or encouraging beliefs about women who don’t buy certain clothes or look a certain way that don’t do wonders for intra-gender solidarity. All of which means feminist fashion is bound to run into contradictions.

The contradictions above aren’t impossible to navigate — plenty of designers, writers, and other fashion professionals do so every day. The problem is that Lagerfeld hasn’t even tried, and clearly has no interest in doing so. Until that happens, it’s laughably easy to see Lagerfeld’s stunt for what it is: “FEMINISM NOT MASOCHISM,” unless that masochism means dieting to meet Lagerfeld’s beauty standards; “HISTORY IS HER STORY,” unless that story is Coco Chanel’s personal involvement with the Nazis.

In an era when feminism is less a dirty word than a backdrop to Beyoncé’s VMA performance, tactics like Lagerfeld’s are probably inevitable. They’re a survival mechanism, an attempt to stay relevant by incorporating a fashionable buzzword into fashionable clothes. But like the Vogue crowd’s sudden affinity for “Anaconda,” using the rhetoric of feminism without backing it up is worse than not using it at all. Difference from the norm — as in “BE DIFFERENT!” — just becomes yet another trend to toss out when next season rolls around.

Karl Lagerfeld doesn’t get to use feminism as a means to leverage his #brand. Karl Lagerfeld doesn’t get to use a movement as an accessory. Karl Lagerfeld doesn’t get to be fat-shaming and feminist at the same time. Karl Lagerfeld doesn’t get to claim feminism for his own, and most importantly, Karl Lagerfeld doesn’t get to make money off it.