The Legacy of Fashion: From Nazis to Karl Lagerfeld


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Today, the world was shocked to wake up and learn that Karl Lagerfeld had died.

Reading impassioned Instagram posts, reviewing Twitter threads and seeing personal posts from my friends in fashion – there’s a lot to unpack here. People share being simultaneously inspired by his work and horrified at his personal politics.

This post is not about that reaction.

Personal Politics vs Creative Work

There’s this… desire to separate the work of Lagerfeld from his politics. A sort of fashion “Death of the Author” debate. It’s no surprise that Lagerfeld’s death has struck this cord. Collectively, it seems, we are no longer willing to excuse a creator’s actions or politics because we love their work.

There have been some really great critiques on both his decades of creative work – as well as his disdain for plus size women, his eye-rolling at the #MeToo movement, etc. BUT what is most fascinating to me is how Lagerfeld’s death exposes our treatment of established fashion houses.

But This Started Before Lagerfeld

Long established houses, such as CHANEL, have a some skeletons in the closet. Some well-documented and discussed skeletons.

It is well-documented that Coco Chanel was a Nazi spy and sympathizer. She tried to wrest control of her Parfum Chanel (later becoming Chanel No. 5) from the Jewish Wertheimer family. “Chanel wrote a letter to the occupied government informing it that the perfume division was “still in the property of Jews…I have an indisputable right of the priority” via the Nazi’s Aryanization of property laws” (Source).

Seeing the outrage on social media over Karl Lagerfeld, I wonder if past generations balked at buying tweed suits from a Nazi spy. Probably not, judging by sales reports.

Snark aside, I know that a House is more than the sum of its part, and I know people who are Jewish who have worked for CHANEL. At what point (if any?) do we excuse a house’s troubled past and stay focused on their current work?

Can a brand be redeemed? Or will future generations refuse to buy CHANEL because of it’s antisemitic history?

Customers Care about Ethics

The polar opinions on the life and work of Karl Lagerfeld point to a larger shift in fashion:

A brand’s history and ethics matter, now more than ever.

Maybe past generations didn’t care about the history of the designer outfitting them, but the current market absolutely does. One study found that 56% of internet users would stop buying from an unethical brand, and 36% would tell their friends to stop purchasing, too.

I don’t know if this study can be applied to luxury. But if we engage in a little thought experiment for just a moment – what if brand ethics *are* a major factor in determining purchases?

Judging by the impact a racially inclusive Fenty has had, as well as plus size customers steadily increasing their purchases of luxury and high end clothing – not just handbags and sunglasses – I think it’s safe to say that ethics do matter.

Will the new creative director, Virginie Viard, heed the winds of change and bring inclusion to the runway? Or will CHANEL dig its black booted heels in, and stay the course of exclusion – trying to appeal to a market that thrives on a sort of “Mean Girls” take on fashion?

PR Plans?

As the purchasing power of non-white groups, plus size women, etc, grow – it will be fascinating to watch how fashion houses utilize their enormous PR budgets to appeal to this demographic. What sorts of revisionist marketing will we be seeing in a decade, I wonder?

My Take

I think that we’re (finally) seeing a shift in fashion. Buyers expect to see “exclusively inclusive” themes from luxury and couture houses.

I’m interested to see if houses like CHANEL take note, and approach the runway with more inclusiveness? And will they do it in time?

Or will a new inclusive take on fashion require a new generation of houses and designers to blow everything up and start over?

Stay tuned…

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