A career spanning 65 years is always challenging for a retrospective to encapsulate. But what can an exhibition do when the artist draws not only fashion designs but also Islamophobic caricatures? When he hides his family’s Nazi past to make a career in Paris after World War II?
These are the pressing questions in light of the upcoming exhibition Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, opening May 5, 2023. The exhibition will be preceded by the famous Met Gala benefit tonight, May 1. From the museum’s recent public announcements, it is clear that this exhibition is a celebration of Karl Lagerfeld (1933–2019) and his work that allows no space for criticism.
Lagerfeld’s life holds not only the story of a multi-talented and commercially successful designer but is also a political biography yet to be properly uncovered. To start, consider Lagerfeld’s handling of his family’s Nazi past. On a German talk show in 2012, he told this anecdote from after the Second World War: On the way to the dentist, he and his mother ran into his teacher. “Can’t you even tell your son to cut his hair?” the teacher asked the mother. She pushed back and replied, “Why? Are you still a Nazi?” Lagerfeld gave the impression that the mother stood up to the Nazis, but at this moment, he concealed the fact that his parents were actually Nazi sympathizers.
Only research after Lagerfeld’s death provides reliable insight into his family’s history. In a biography published in 2020, journalist Alfons Kaiser wrote that both the designer’s mother and aunt shared a positive attitude toward National Socialism. While his aunt turned away from the Nazis after the pogrom against Jews in November of 1938 — known as Kristallnacht or the Night of Broken Glass — his mother remained loyal to Nazi ideology until the early years of the war. His father, Otto Lagerfeld, became a member of the Nazi Party in 1933, the year it began controlling the German parliament. Karl Lagerfeld was also born that year. As the founder of a condensed milk company, his father hoped that membership would bring him business advantages. His parents went out of their way to demonstrate their allegiance to the system, flying the swastika flag on their property after the annexation of Austria (Anschluss) on March 12, 1938. After the war, his parents are said to have lied to the Denazification Commission and thus escaped possible punishment; his father posed as a critic of the regime and his mother hid her membership in the party.
Karl Lagerfeld cannot be held responsible for the shoddy work of the Denazification Commission or the misdeeds of his parents, but he became an accomplice by remaining silent. He grew up in a household of convinced Nazis. He could have publicly criticized such socialization and would not have been the first to do so. A retrospective of his work should show how the designer benefited from his family’s political and economic opportunism during and after the Nazi era. It is important to consider how Karl Lagerfeld’s privileged background allowed him to move to Paris in 1952 and begin his career there.
And when the author Hal Vaughan proved in his 2011 book that Coco Chanel collaborated with the Nazis, attempted to Aryanize her company, and had an affair with a master spy, Lagerfeld had already been Chanel’s Creative Director for 30 years. He was not known for his willingness to come to terms with Chanel’s past.
For him, the antisemites were always the others, like the Muslims who have been fleeing to Europe since 2015. Of them, he said on French television in late 2017, “One cannot — even if there are decades between them — kill millions of Jews so you can bring millions of their worst enemies in their place.” He reinforced these Islamophobic and xenophobic statements with his cartoons, such as a woman in a hijab at the borders of Europe. He also criticized then-Chancellor Angela Merkel for her humanitarian refugee policy. At one point, he illustrated her wearing a hijab and wrote in German: “Mrs. Merkel’s new migrant-friendly look … and you don’t have to go to the hairdresser forever.” Although his visuals and arguments are right-wing populist, in other cartoons he blamed Merkel for the rise of right-wing parties.
In the last years of his life, Lagerfeld wrecked his reputation at a breathtaking pace. Whereas in previous decades he refrained from making political statements in fear of damaging his business, he shocked the public with his reactionary views before his death. Will The Met follow the credo of his successful years and banish the political, lest it hurt the museum’s business? Will the retrospective hide his crude views behind haute couture for the super-rich, sophisticated fashion for the economic upper class? Or will The Met live up to its claim as a museum and undertake a critical contextualization of Karl Lagerfeld’s work?