Watch CBS News

Who was Karl Lagerfeld? The 2023 Met Gala theme explained

Wintour unveils new exhibition for Met Gala
Anna Wintour unveils Karl Lagerfeld exhibition ahead of Met Gala: His work "deserves celebration" 10:57

Celebrities, designers and high-profile media executives gather each year for the ultra-exclusive Met Gala, a themed fundraising event that marks the annual opening of New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute's latest exhibition. The event, organized by Vogue magazine's editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, is a who's who in style, fashion and influence.

While past themes like "camp" and "punk" have given attendees broad creative leeway, this year's theme honors not a concept, but a person: "Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty" is intended to honor the late designer, who died in 2019 at age 85. He is widely credited with having revitalized Chanel as the fashion house's long-time creative director and was known not only for haute couture but for his myriad controversies surrounding comments he made about women, immigrants and other marginalized groups.

British Fashion Awards 2015 - Red Carpet Arrivals
Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld attend the British Fashion Awards 2015 at London Coliseum on November 23, 2015, in London, England.  Mike Marsland/WireImage via Getty Images

Last month, the High Fashion Met Gala Twitter account — the "official page of high fashion Twitter's Met Gala event," according to the bio, though they are not associated with the Met Costume Institute — which has nearly 40,000 followers, announced that they would not be "celebrating this year's met gala as our values don't align with the selection of Karl Lagerfeld as the theme."

At the announcement of Lagerfeld as the 2023 theme last November, actress Jameela Jamil took to Instagram to express criticism at the selection, writing, "This man... was indeed, supremely talented, but used his platform is such a distinctly hateful way, mostly towards women, so repeatedly and up until the last years of his life, showing no remorse, offering no atonement, no apology, no help to groups he attacked... there was no explanation for his cruel outbursts."

"Why is THIS who we celebrate when there are so many AMAZING designers out there who aren't bigoted white men?" asked Jameel. "What happened to everyone's principles and "advocacy." You don't get to stand for justice in these areas, and then attend the celebration of someone who reveled in his own public disdain for marginalized people," she added.

With Lagerfeld representing both an immense talent in the fashion world, and also emblematic of an older generation of men in power who loudly proclaimed views deemed wildly offensive — in a society that has dwindling patience for such positions — thus begs the following questions: Who was Karl Lagerfeld, and why is this year's Met Gala theme honoring his legacy?

Who was Karl Lagerfeld?

Karl Otto Lagerfeld was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1933. His foray into fashion started in the early 50s after seeing a Dior show that sparked his interest in designing. He moved to Paris in 1952 and took first prize for a coat design in what is now the International Woolmark Prize — gaining the attention of European fashion houses.

In his earlier years, Lagerfeld designed on a freelance basis for well-known brands that included Chloé and Valentino, before being hired by the Italian luxury house Fendi in 1967 as a consultant director.

Lagerfeld is best known for holding the position of creative director at Chanel from 1983 until his death, as well as eponymous lines of his own clothing and accessories. 

Why was he controversial?

While Lagerfeld was revered by many as a fashion darling, others took issues with the designer's brazen and oft-offensive comments, which he made loudly and proudly in interviews across his career.

In 2005, Lagerfeld published a dieting book entitled "The Karl Lagerfeld Diet," which detailed his experience of losing 92 pounds in just over a year.

"The Karl Lagerfeld Diet"
"The Karl Lagerfeld Diet" Amazon

"One fine morning I woke up and decided that I was no longer happy with my physique. Although I was overweight, I had gotten along fine and had no health problems. But I suddenly wanted to dress differently, to wear clothes designed by Hedi Slimane….But these fashions, modeled by very, very slim boys—and not men of my age—required me to lose at least eighty pounds," says Lagerfeld, quoted in the book's Amazon description.

Lagerfeld was very vocal about what he believed to be a linkage between fashion and body image, saying he believed junk food and television to be more dangerous than anorexia, and called fashion "the healthiest motivation for losing weight" in his book. He often offered unsolicited critiques of those whose bodies he felt did not fit a specific standard of modelesque beauty — predominately women. 

He called award-winning singer Adele "too fat," later back-tracking by saying he confused her with fellow singer, Lana Del Rey. He called supermodel Heidi Klum "too heavy" and said in a 2009 interview with the German magazine Focus that "nobody wants to see curvy women." 

While Lagerfeld was known for his history of fatphobic and misogynistic comments, he also drew controversy in 2010, when he put German model Claudia Schiffer in blackface and yellowface for the magazine Stern Fotografie.

In 2017, Lagerfeld called Muslim migrants in Germany an "affront to Holocaust" victims on a French talk show.

Additionally, as the #MeToo movement gained popularity globally, Lagerfeld offered his opinion of the reckoning against powerful and abusive men, saying he was "fed up with it" during an interview with Numéro Magazine

"If you don't want your pants pulled about, don't become a model! Join a nunnery, there'll always be a place for you in the convent. They're recruiting even," Lagerfeld said.

What is Lagerfeld's history with the Met Gala?

This is not the first time Lagerfeld's name has been a mainstay in a Met Gala theme. In 2005, "The House of Chanel" theme was sponsored by the brand, with Lagerfeld working alongside Wintour and actress Nicole Kidman as co-chairs for the event. 

"Period examples will be juxtaposed with the work of designer Karl Lagerfeld, who in 1983 revitalized the spirit and identity of the house," said a press release from the Met about the exhibition. 

2005 Met Costume Institute Gala
Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld attend the Metropolitan Museum of Art's annual Costume Institute gala in 2005. Steve Eichner/WWD/Penske Media via Getty Images

"It is Lagerfeld's masterful and often irreverent citations of Chanel's work, as well as his combination of influences from high and low culture, that re-articulate Chanel's innovations. Through his interpretations and refinements, the historic importance of Chanel is both defined and asserted for the modern woman and the world in which she lives," the statement read.

The illustrated book accompanying the exhibition also included essays, illustrations and photographs by Lagerfeld himself.

How and why does this theme honor Lagerfeld's legacy?

In an interview with "CBS Mornings" on Monday, Wintour and Andrew Bolton, the exhibition's curator, gave CBS News a preview of the Lagerfeld exhibition, talking about Lagerfeld's legacy, the exhibition itself and briefly addressing the controversy behind Lagerfeld.

Anna Wintour and Roger Federer looking at item belonging to Karl Lagerfeld.
Vogue magazine editor Anna Wintour and tennis player Roger Federer look at items of Karl Lagerfeld on display during the press preview of The Costume Institute's exhibition titled Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City on May 1, 2023. Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

"When we go back and we look at the work that he has created over so many years, I think that deserves celebration," Wintour told Gayle King.

The show features 200 of Lagerfeld's pieces — narrowed down from a selection of over 10,000 — and the guest list features "the people that have known and loved and supported Karl over so many years," according to Wintour.

"Karl was provocative, and he was full of paradoxes. And I think sometimes he would say things … to shock, and not necessarily things that he believed in," Wintour added. "Karl was a complicated man."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.