Why the 2023 Met Gala Theme Is So Controversial

Karl Lagerfeld

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The late Karl Lagerfeld’s legacy has become an increasingly controversial topic.

This year’s Met Gala theme honors an icon in modern fashion: the late designer and sartorial legend Karl Lagerfeld.

Lagerfeld is best known for his work helming the Chanel brand for over 30 years — not to mention his immediately recognizable sunglasses-and-ponytail signature look. By the time the German fashion designer died in 2019, he’d also developed a reputation as a creative genius who was honest and opinionated, sometimes to a fault.

From that lens, it makes perfect sense that the Met Gala would eventually honor Lagerfeld’s legacy. But many argue that’s not the only lens through which we should view Lagerfeld’s life. Critics point to Lagerfeld’s decades of interviews and argue that some of his inflammatory statements make him a controversial choice as a Met Gala theme.

People on both sides of the Lagerfeld debate are using the international fashion event as an argument for — or against — honoring the fashion designer’s legacy. And while the Met Gala has certainly been a hotbed of controversy before (hello, Kim Kardashian wearing Marilyn Monroe’s gown), it’s rare for an actual Met Gala theme to be the subject of so much disagreement.

To help sort through the fraught terrain, here’s a breakdown of Lagerfeld’s troubled legacy and how it’s impacting this year’s Met Gala.

Why the 2023 Met Gala theme is problematic — a brief history of Lagerfeld’s controversies

Lagerfeld’s legacy, massive as it may be, is marred by a long list of statements that could be viewed as racist, sexist, antisemitic, and fat-phobic. The Chanel designer was known for criticizing non-thin bodies: He called Adele “too fat,” claimed sweatpants were “a sign of defeat,” argued that eating disorders like anorexia were nowhere near as dangerous to one’s health as eating junk food, and said he was “fed up” with the Me Too Movement. In 2009, he told Harper’s Bazaar that Coco Chanel “wasn’t ugly enough to be a feminist.”

Other comments and decisions drew even more extreme criticism: In 2010, he put model Claudia Schiffer in blackface and yellowface for a German magazine. In 2017, he criticized then-Prime Minister Angela Merkel’s decision to admit Syrian refugees into Germany, going so far as to say, “The greatest thing Germany invented was the Holocaust.” It’s easy to understand why so many are outraged at the fashion designer placement at the heart of this year’s Met Gala.

Why is Karl Lagerfeld the 2023 Met Gala Theme?

The first Met Gala was held in 1948, as a means to raise funds for the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As the decades passed, the Gala slowly became a more publicly celebrated event, with stars like Cher, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Sarah Jessica Parker, and many more serving up increasingly over-the-top looks.

Now, the Met Gala is the year’s biggest fashion event, and a major social media spectacle. This year, as in recent years, there’s a laser focus on the Gala’s theme, which informs how attendees dress. How is the theme decided?

Each year, the Met Gala theme is selected by the Costume Institute’s chief curator, Andrew Bolton, who makes an official recommendation to the director and president of the museum. (You can get an inside look at Bolton’s work in the engrossing 2016 documentary The First Monday in May.) These themes can range quite a bit from year to year, but Bolton has previously noted that he tries to make sure the themes are able to generate buzz. He also said in a 2020 interview with Vogue that each Met Gala theme and subsequent exhibit should generate “debate.”

What the Met Gala curator has to say about Lagerfeld

In a recent interview, Bolton explained how he plans to celebrate Lagerfeld’s legacy. Spoiler alert: You shouldn’t expect to see a nod to the darker side of the fashion designer’s persona.

The curator said that the Lagerfeld exhibit that this year’s Met Gala theme focuses “on the work rather than the words or the man.” In practice, that will look like approximately 150 original looks on exhibit, as well as samples of Lagerfeld’s original sketches and multiple video interviews of Lagerfeld playing on a loop.

The Costume Institute hasn’t released an official statement on the controversy over Lagerfeld as a theme, but Bolton did personally respond to it in a recent interview on the Business of Fashion podcast. “Yeah, he was problematic. There were things he said that were, yeah, difficult. And, again, did he mean it? Or was it a deflection? I don’t know, it’s hard to know,” Bolton said.

In the weeks leading up to the Met Gala, the widespread criticism against Lagerfeld gained momentum: A large swath of journalists, activists, and fashion lovers have questioned the decision to highlight the designer at the biggest fashion event of the year, without a nod to his complicated legacy.

One such group is the HF Twitter Met Gala. The HF stands for “high fashion,” and the account is run by a collection of twenty-something fashion-obsessed individuals who’ve announced that they won’t share updates on the Gala for the first time in several years, as a form of protest.

One administrator of the group, 23-year-old Rebeca Spitz, explained to The Washington Post why she thinks it’s “unfair” for people like Bolton to so cleanly separate Lagerfeld’s legacy from his hateful comments: “It’s not like his design career is to the left, and then his problematic history is to the right,” Spitz said. “It’s this entangled thing that happened over a series of years, and it’s completely incorporated into his career and legacy.”

How the Lagerfeld controversy fits into an ongoing argument about artists and art

The Lagerfeld controversy is emblematic of a centuries-old debate regarding whether we can ever truly separate an artist from their art, and whether it actually matters if an artist is a “good” or “bad” person, or if that’s irrelevant in the context of the art they produce. This debate has only grown in tenor and pitch in recent years, as the rise of social media channels and progressive political reckonings have inspired arguments over controversial creators like J.K. Rowling.

Karl produced an incredible amount of very influential and important work, but he was also an asshole with some really bad ideas and some really racist, misogynistic, and homophobic opinions about pretty much every topic imaginable,” writer and editor Emily Kirkpatrick told TIME magazine. “It’s easier for us to consume pretty things without reckoning with the horrible story behind them.”

Meanwhile, celebrities have been mostly mum on the controversy, presumably either because they support the theme or are hesitant to wade into such a culturally fraught conversation. Gigi Hadid, for example, is a supermodel known for wading into politics on more than one occasion (she frequently speaks out against Israel on behalf of Palestine, for example) — and has recently nodded to Lagerfeld’s memory on her social media page.

“Tomorrow we celebrate Karl at the Met Gala,” Hadid wrote on her Instagram stories over the weekend. “I feel so lucky to have experienced this legend! He is so very missed… I can’t wait to see all the fashion houses pay tribute to him creatively.” 

Paris Hilton, too, wrote of Lagerfeld, “Karl has always been a fashion inspiration to me. Such an icon and innovator. Love that he is the theme of this year’s #MetGala.”

Lagerfeld undoubtedly contributed so much to the world of fashion, and but did publicly espouse rhetoric against a number of marginalized groups. So where does that leave us? Regardless of where you fall on the topic, you can still choose to find joy in the colorful, larger-than-life, and (let’s face it) extremely ridiculous level of pomp and circumstance on display at the Met Gala each year — but many argue it’s better to first properly examine the forces behind it.