It’s Karl Lagerfeld’s joke and feminism isn’t in on it

The ‘protest’ at the heart of Chanel’s ready-to-wear show in Paris illustrates how Lagerfeld has no qualms about using his brand of pseudo-feminism to sell clothes. Stella McCartney’s complex vision is more admirable

 

On a sunny September afternoon in Paris, a feminist demonstration was held; not in the streets, but on the catwalk.

The Chanel ready-to-wear show is always a spectacle of leviathan proportions, and the spring-summer 2015 show was no different. The collection, shown on the Boulevard Chanel – a fake Parisian street mocked-up inside the Grand Palais – was a luxurious reimagining of the student demonstrations of 1968.

Rebellion and expensive perfume hung in the air. Ever-so-elegant models wore tweed trouser suits and vibrant watercolour silks. It was a typical mix of beautifully wrought textiles and slightly blurred silhouettes.

It was the quiet before the feminist squall. At the finale, the women stormed the catwalk with ferocity, holding placards bearing vaguely empowering slogans and shouting into megaphones. The crowd was split down the middle: people were either seduced or stunned. For the first time in recent memory, a Chanel finale fell a bit flat.

 

Feminist snake oil

Those who loved the show were entranced by the grandiose spectacle. Those who did not were disgusted, interpreting it as feminist snake oil, a co-opting of an important movement in the name of commercial gain. The placards held up were equal parts serious and derisory. “Be your own stylist” marched beside a Simone de Beauvoir quote. The slogan, “Men can get pregnant too” was handled with the same care as “Votes for all”.

It caused a storm, but perhaps not the one Karl Lagerfeld expected. The redoubtable Kaiser Karl, head designer and creative director at Chanel, is well used to generating controversy and taking the many slings and arrows hurled in his direction. Even so, he may not have been prepared for such a negative reaction.

The day before, Stella McCartney held a one-woman demonstration of her own when she was quoted backstage after her Paris fashion show. She said of her unrelentingly soft collection of breezy, beachy silks in a palette of muted pastels and plaids that “strength on its own in a woman is quite aggressive and not terribly attractive all the time. This collection is really celebrating the gentle side.”

This statement was leapt on immediately. McCartney was derided. Despite being seen as a women’s designer who deals in unrestrictive clothing and the occasional comfortable shoe, she was letting the side down, the argument went. Chanel and McCartney have propelled into public consciousness a worldwide fashion debate that will not be concluded amicably. Feminism and fashion are both divisive topics. And yet, it is not as simple as stating that Karl Lagerfeld pokes fun at feminists (even though he does), or that Stella McCartney hates strong women (which she does not). There is always more to the story.

McCartney’s quote was taken out of context in several publications. Lauren Cochrane in the Guardian recorded the backstage conversation, and what McCartney actually said was this: “Strength on its own in a woman is quite abrasive and not terribly attractive all the time. This collection is embracing the gentler side. All of those looser pieces, all of that soft movement, all of those pale colour palettes and these gentle checks.

“It was much more about celebrating the softness in a woman and her fragility. For me, that gives you a strength.”

It’s a complex idea, but it makes sense. McCartney’s collection is a celebration of women’s ability to be vulnerable and the paradoxical bravery in showing that vulnerability to others.

 

Unrepentant

Lagerfeld, meanwhile, is unrepentant in his determination to make jokes at feminism’s expense, unhelpfully stating that his mother was a feminist, so he can say whatever the hell he wants. “I couldn’t care less if people are for or against. It’s my idea. I like the idea of feminism being something light-hearted, not a truck driver for the feminist movement,” he told Fashionista.

Lagerfeld, the master of postmodern irony, has no qualms about using his trivialising brand of pseudo-feminism to sell clothes. It’s his joke, and we’re not in on it.

While fashion is about commerce, design and notions of beauty, the stock-in-trade of the fashion industry is ideas, and contradictory ideas are what propels it forward. This is why Lagerfeld and his button-pushing antics for Chanel are so popular: he generates both controversy and turnover.

The jury is still out on whether fashion is an appropriate platform to discuss feminism, but it is still an ideal venue to discuss ever-malleable notions of femininity, that part of a woman’s identity that reaches beyond stereotyped visions of bland Stepford women, cowed and coiffed. Women play with our identities. We can be strong. We can also be soft. It is one of the rare privileges afforded to our gender.

Feminism is a serious movement and should be treated appropriately. It is an exploration of what it means to be a woman in a man’s world. No designer has managed to pull off a totally unchallenged feminist collection. Yet. Karl Lagerfeld will probably not be the first.