This is a moment of speaking out and freaking out. Today’s off-the-cuff comment is tomorrow’s outrage, and in a world where everyone is a brand, one of the weapons of choice has become the consumer boycott.
Recently Kanye West spurred calls for a boycott of Adidas, his sneaker partner, when he announced in an interview that 400 years of slavery “sounds like a choice.” When Donna Karan put her foot in it on the red carpet after the Weinstein sexual harassment revelations by wondering if women were “asking” for trouble because of how they dressed, a petition was circulated on Care2 for Nordstrom and Macy’s to drop DKNY (even though Karan had not been associated with the brand since 2015).
Calls to boycott the Ivanka Trump brand by the group #GrabYourWallet began after Donald Trump’s leaked comments about grabbing women in a sexually aggressive manner and continued after Trump became president (even though Ivanka Trump had also stepped away from her brand, after the election).
Dolce & Gabbana even made it an official meta-trend by creating #BoycottDolce&Gabbana T-shirts after a movement had begun to — yes, boycott the brand thanks to its relationship with Melania Trump, the first lady.
And yet there is an exception to the rule.
Karl Lagerfeld, the longtime creative director of Chanel and Fendi and founder of a namesake brand, is known to be “the greatest talker in Paris since Oscar Wilde,” or so said Godfrey Deeny, the global editor of the Fashion Network. But while he can be terrifically quotable and entertaining, he also has a tendency to utter outrageous things. And lately, that type of comment seems to be escalating.
Last week, Lagerfeld gave an interview to the French newspaper Le Point in which he said he was considering renouncing his German citizenship because of the 1 million Muslim immigrants that Angela Merkel, the chancellor, had accepted into Germany, a decision he linked to the rise of neo-Nazism in the country.
The comment made the German newspapers and followed similar statements Lagerfeld made last year on a French television talk show in which he said, “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.”
That declaration came just after Lagerfeld, an accomplished cartoonist, had drawn a sketch for the German paper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of Adolf Hitler thanking Merkel for inadvertently allowing the far-right party into parliament. Which itself came before another interview, with the French magazine Numéro, in which Lagerfeld dismissed the #MeToo movement and asserted, “If you don’t want your pants pulled about, don’t become a model.”
It’s as if he’s sticking his finger in the light socket to see what will happen.
But here’s what does: not much.
Every time Lagerfeld makes an incendiary statement, there’s a flurry of upset online, but it is contained and focused on him and not on the brands that employ and enable him. There is no call for a boycott of Chanel, Fendi or even his namesake label. The companies themselves don’t even bother to issue the now seemingly de rigueur “We don’t agree, but he is his own person and has a right to his views.” They just tuck their heads in and have no comment or don’t respond. How come?
There is no doubt that Lagerfeld occupies a singular space in the style universe. He is someone who has shaped the fashion industry as we know it (and our wardrobes as we know them), alongside names like Giorgio Armani and Rei Kawakubo, and is probably about as close to a living legend as exists in fashion.
A certain tolerance of idiosyncrasy goes along with that — a certain “Oh, it’s just old Uncle Fester doing his thing” — as well as fear when it comes to criticizing the power player in the room. Especially when that power player works for a brand, like Chanel, that is enshrined on a power pedestal.
Indeed, a friend who privately expressed outrage over Lagerfeld also said: “Don’t quote me, please. I don’t want to lose my fifth row seat at Chanel.” When Sara Ziff, the founder of the Model Alliance, spoke out against Lagerfeld’s comments on models, she said she received a lot of support via direct messaging from contacts — who then said they could not make their feelings public.
Still, no brand is untouchable. Last May, Chanel came under fire in Australia for cultural appropriation after it created a $1,325 Chanel boomerang and was forced to make a quasi apology, announcing “it was not our intention to disrespect the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.”
And just because the fashion world quivers in its stilettos at the idea of calling time, that doesn’t mean the consuming public should. Which suggests that there is something else going on, and it may have as much to do with the current cultural and political reality as the boycotts do.
Yes, I am talking about Donald Trump.
As with the president and his tweets, Lagerfeld has been saying outrageous things so regularly for so long and with such gumption, everyone is numb to the substance. It’s almost expected; he has positioned himself as a provocateur; it’s part of his brand.
And before you can really digest one statement, he is on to the next, all of it said with enough volume and certainty to clear a way through the excess chatter in its path. (West does this, too, but doesn’t get away with it quite so often.)
We seem to be living in a weird dual reality. Just as we have become more sensitized to the experience of different social groups, we are also more inured to the growth of uncivil discourse, wherever it may originate, on Fox or in fashion.
Still, when it comes to fashion, Deeny thinks there are at least signs of change. “It was striking that after Chanel’s most recent cruise show, staff informed journalists at the after-party inside the massive cruise liner in the Grand Palais that they could ‘seulement saluer,’ or only greet, Karl and not ask him any questions,” he said, noting that this had the result of minimizing the risk of what Lagerfeld might say.
“After 25 years of meeting Karl before and after shows for WWD, Vogue Hommes, Le Figaro and now Fashion Network, I cannot remember the last time that ever happened.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.