COCO Chanel once said “the most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud”. Except if you’re a fashion designer, she might have added.
It may have been brave of Irish designer Paul Costelloe for example, to say that, “Irish women wouldn’t know style if it tottered up to them in 10-inch heels”, but alienating your customer base isn’t usually part of a successful business plan.
And feeling alienated is understandable when the man you buy your suits off describes you as “only a couple of generations out of the bog”. There’s a reason we’re seeing so many Costello Dressage coats on the racks at TK Maxx. Karl Lagerfeld is the latest designer to take heed of Coco’s maxim, which is fitting as he’s head of the House of Chanel. Karl said earlier this week that he thinks the singer Adele is “a little too fat”. It wasn’t that surprising at the time. Most fashion designers, whether or not they have the gumption to admit it publicly, tend to think most women are a little too fat. But still the reaction to his comments forced him to apologise yesterday, saying he had been taken out of context, adding that he was, in fact, Adele’s “biggest admirer”.
The only real surprise in the ‘fat’ comment, however, was that it was so tame — for Lagerfeld.
This, after all, is the same man who once described himself as “a fashion nymphomaniac”. Who calmly informed assembled journalists that “chic is a kind of mayonnaise”. Even in the world of high fashion, a planet that bears no more than a passing semblance to our own earthly reality, Karl Lagerfeld is the master of the instantly memorable, sartorial non-sequitur. If he had announced Adele was a hat-stand, or an intergalactic Christmas tree, we would have understood. Calling her a little too fat is below par for Lagerfeld, frankly.
The real question beneath such silliness is this; does the world really need the wit and wisdom of people who make clothes? I don’t get betting tips off the postman. I have never sought medical advice from my plumber. I forebear to ask my doctor how best to accessorise and I have never, ever, troubled the woman behind the counter at the AIB for her views on the situation in the Middle East. This is because, when I interact with these people, I remain cognisant of their professional capacities.
This is a simple question of occupation, it is not intended in any way to circumscribe the unique personalities of these individuals outside of working hours, just an acknowledgement of the things they do while they are there. Designers make dresses. Also: blouses, coats, bathing suits, skirts, cardigans, and bustiers. And culottes, every time they come back in. This is what designers do. They envision articles of clothing, and they draw pictures of them and then they make a pattern and buy some fabric and they bring those clothes to life. And very good they are at it, some of them.
People, being people, sometimes ask designers questions about the clothes they make. We can all agree that it is probably acceptable for designers to open their mouths and answer these. Even then, however, we may be on shaky ground.
Fashion designers have an unfortunate tendency to sound like idiots, even when they are talking about fashion, the thing they know best in the world.
In recent years however, journalists have started asking designers for their opinions on subjects besides clothes.
Things like pop culture, politics, and the state of world affairs. This is incredible on many levels, but the reason behind it is simple. Fashion designers are by nature outrageous. They give good quotes.
Journalists like good quotes. When someone prominent says something outrageous, papers are sold. Hence we get Tom Ford’s take on 9/11: “I’m not sure it will be good for fashion. This attack is making people sincere.”
And Vivienne Westwood’s appraisal of all things: “I don’t have space to enter into the examples or the history of this, so I’m left with having to make the bold statement that culture is extinct.”
Such profound insights into the current state of civilisation notwithstanding, in order to take statements like this at face value, you have to discount something that we all know. Fashion designers, in the main, are mad. Not all of them, but most of the good ones, certainly.
Marc Jacobs is one of the richest and most successful designers in the world.
He is a 48-year-old man with a SpongeBob SquarePants tattoo, and one of a giant red M&M. M&M as in the sweets, yes.
Everyone knows Karl Lagerfeld is raving, but just in case you needed proof: about 12 years ago he lost six and a half stone in under a year so he could start wearing a certain kind of suit.
Coco Chanel was a drug addict with an irrational hatred of foreigners who had herself tied to the bed at night when she went to stay at the Ritz.
Yves Saint Laurent — the genius of style who put women in Le Tuxedo and Le Smoking — had such a taste for hash and carousing that when he and his partner Pierre Bergé went to Morocco every summer, he would go to his room and ask Bergé to lock him in.
And Bergé would oblige, but when he’d come in the next morning he’d find the bed empty and the window open, and YSL at large in the fleshpots of Marrakesh.
When John Galliano ended up in court for an anti-Semetic tirade while head of the House of Dior last year, his lawyers pleaded drug and alcohol abuse as part of his defence. Doubtless they were hoping for a judge with some sense of historical context.
Being a famous anti-Semite never hurt Chanel. But 21st century France took a different view, and telling your fellow drinkers “I love Hitler” doesn’t go down well in Paris.
They threw the book at Galliano and he was fired from Dior. Not the first designer to say something outrageous, but the first one to pay the price.
“An evening dress that reveals a woman’s ankles when she is walking is the most disgusting thing I have ever seen.” — Valentino
“I started with Africa in winter. I’ve never been to Africa so it was an imagined world.” — Lanvin designer Alber Ebaz, describing his decision to set his A/W 2010 show in Africa, despite the fact he’d never been there
“Fantasy is better than reality.” — Karl Lagerfeld on why he decided to do the same thing with India for a Chanel show last year
“I don’t design clothes, I design dreams.” — Ralph Lauren
“The best thing is to look natural, but it takes make-up to look natural” — Calvin Klein
“A woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future.” — Coco Chanel
“Drink whatever you like so long as it co-ordinates with your nail varnish.” — Victoria Beckham