Karl Lagerfeld, the German-born fashion designer who is the subject of this year’s Met Gala, liked to court controversy, his achievements on the runway often outshone by offensive blunders and tone-deaf remarks.
His missteps could be monumental — in a literal sense. Consider the 28-foot-high “iceberg” that hovered imposingly over his fall 2010 ready-to-wear show. The set piece, sculpted from 240 tons of snow and ice reportedly sheared off a glacier in Sweden, was intended as a comment on global warming. But the gesture missed the mark, as it took six days and a continuously maintained temperature of 25 degrees to ensure that the ice blocks would arrive on his runway intact — delivered, of course, via 15 tractor-trailers.
As vividly inscribed on fashion’s consciousness was his spring 2015 Chanel show in Paris, staged as a feminist protest. Set as a crowd scene inside the Grand Palais, it featured a megaphone-hoisting Cara Delevingne leading a phalanx of models shouting for freedom, some waving placards that read “History Is Her Story” and “Ladies First.” The stunt raised eyebrows, decried for trivializing an urgent political movement.
Mr. Lagerfeld may well have shrugged. “Everything I say is a joke,” he once claimed.
But the joke seemed to be on the designer when, in 1994, he sent Claudia Schiffer down the runway in a Chanel dress embroidered with a sacred Muslim text, igniting an international controversy. Mr. Lagerfeld, who said at the time that he had no idea what the text meant, issued a rare apology.
He had previously drawn inspiration from hip-hop and rap, taking bling to the runway, festooning the models in Chanel’s fall 1991 show in hefty gold chains. Critics alleged cultural appropriation (though that term hadn’t yet become the buzzword that it is today).
There was no apology then. “Rappers tell the truth,” Mr. Lagerfeld said after the show. “That’s what’s needed now.” A few years later, the designer, who had appeared in a music video with Snoop Dogg, revisited rap, his spring 1994 Chanel show rife with chains and other ill-considered references to gang affiliations.
Ever intent on ruffling feathers, in the early ’90s, Mr. Lagerfeld cast the Italian porn star Moana Pozzi in a Fendi show. At least one of his guests stalked out in a huff, but the designer appeared unfazed. “I admire porn actors,” he told Vice in 2010, adding, “There would be much more crime without prostitutes and without porn movies.”
Other pronouncements were just as provocative, delivered with a self-assurance that brooked no contradiction. Some were in line with Mr. Lagerfeld’s persona, which seemed a deliberate parody of an imperious late-20th-century fashion designer. “I am like a caricature of myself, and I like that,” he said. “It is like a mask.”
Beneath that mask, though, there sometimes lay real cruelty. His tartly unfiltered remarks betrayed a few of his more retrograde convictions. Notoriously fatphobic, he defended his use of size 0 models, claiming in 2009 that “no one wants to see curvy women.”
On another occasion, he elaborated, “You’ve got fat mothers with their bags of chips sitting in front of the television and saying that thin models are ugly.” Clearly, he went on to imply, fashion had never been meant for them.
Mr. Lagerfeld was no fan of the #MeToo movement, either, inquiring in an explosive 2018 interview why some women took years to publicly share their stories of sexual assault. “I’m fed up with it,” he told Num?ro magazine. “What shocks me most in all of this are the starlets who have taken 20 years to remember what happened. Not to mention the fact there are no prosecution witnesses.”
Gay marriage was another target. “I’m against it for a very simple reason,” he said in 2010. “In the ’60s, they all said we had the right to the difference. And now, suddenly, they want a bourgeois life.”
Few revered icons were spared his disdain. In an interview with New York magazine, he said of Diana, Princess of Wales, “She was pretty and she was sweet, but she was stupid.” Nor did he hold back on Andy Warhol: “I shouldn’t say this, but physically, he was quite repulsive.”
He admired Kate Middleton, but not her sister, Pippa, saying that he didn’t like her face and that “she should only show her back.” As for Lana Del Rey, “Is she a construct with all her implants?”
Mr. Lagerfeld could often be as hard on himself.
He claimed that he had no vaunted ideals. “My only ambition,” he said, “is to wear size 28 jeans.” He would write no memoirs: “I have nothing to say,” he stated flatly. And, as he hinted, contentment often eluded him.
As he said, “I’m a kind of fashion nymphomaniac who never gets an orgasm.”