Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Karl Lagerfeld, the creative director of Chanel, died on Tuesday. He was known for his introduction of the now-iconic “CC” logo, his severe black-and-white ensembles and his intensely misogynistic views on women and their bodies.
There seems to be a point at which a person can erase their contributions to oppressive infrastructures with wealth and fame. When faced with the dissonance of respecting and celebrating people who made a habit of disrespecting others, society tries to restore balance by highlighting all of the good things that person has done.
But it’s not a dichotomy. A person can be very influential in their field — and still participate in prejudice. Their death doesn’t erase the toxic and damaging messaging that they’ve added to their field, either.
Recently, there was a Twitter conversation between actresses Jameela Jamil and Cara Delevingne, on the appropriateness of criticizing Lagerfeld after his death. Delevingne argued that even though Jamil had salient points about Lagerfeld’s shortcomings, there was no need to discuss them so soon after his death.
Though taking part in such discussions may be difficult for people who were close to Lagerfeld or felt as though he changed their lives in a positive way, his death means his accomplishments will be paraded through the news for the next week or so. Lagerfeld may have been important to many people, celebrity or otherwise. But the fact remains that his work, no matter how iconic, is tinged with his legacy of discrimination.
The immediate aftermath of a person’s death may not be the best time to debate their faults. But racism and sexism aren’t just character flaws, they are institutions that undergird society as we know it. No one gets to engage in prejudice and then escape it simply by being famous and dying; the discriminatory work and ideology that they furthered continues to exist.
In some cases, people do further harmful messages, then learn differently and apologize for their previously discriminatory actions or words. Lagerfeld said and stood by his words as recently as last year.
Yes, it absolutely would have been better to address Lagerfeld’s problematic nature while he was alive. But even if his comments made the tabloids one day, current cancel culture is not strong enough to combat capitalism or society’s deep love for luxury products. So it has to happen now.
Maybe the fashion industry can continue on the path it’s on, promoting designers and brands — like Christian Siriano and Savage x FENTY — that cater to consumers of many sizes, races and ethnicities and refuse to take part in harmful messages directed toward women. As consumers, perhaps this is a call to know what famous people have done before we celebrate them or support their products. A famous, prejudiced person who has passed away should be remembered for who they are and what they stood for in their entirety, not just the parts that are sparkly and inspiring.
Jasmine Baten is a junior English major. She can be reached at email@example.com.