On Tuesday, September 30th, 2014, Karl Lagerfeld presented the Chanel Spring/Summer 2015 ready-to-wear collection at the Grand Palais in Paris. He created a massive set to look like a pretty Parisian street inside the Grand Palais, with the runway adorably named “Boulevard Chanel.” For the most part, the aesthetic of this year’s show seemed relatively conservative (remember when Lagerfeld placed a giant iceberg in the middle of the runway in 2010?) As models in boxy tweed suits and dresses strutted down the “street,” it almost felt like this year’s show was all about the clothes and not the gimmicks…until the end of the show, that is.
After models made their final roundabout on the runway, Lagerfeld paraded in, joined by his pin thin models picketing what appeared to be women’s rights. Gisele Bündchen, Cara Delevingne, Kendall Jenner, and Joan Smalls were amongst the group, as they chanted, “What do we want? Tweed!” With slogans like “Feminism Not Masochism,” “He For She” and “History is Her Story,” Lagerfeld might’ve been able to get away with the show’s grand finale as a feminist gesture. In fact, Joyann King of Harper’s Bazaar wrote, “If fashion can make the woman, Lagerfeld’s is as empowered as they come.” Yet many other journalists and women’s groups around the world are up in arms about the superficial fashionista protest mocking feminism, which is considered a serious human rights issue.
Chanel has generally been considered a brand that celebrates women. Adopting fabrics and silhouettes that were only found in men’s wear at the time, founder Coco Chanel’s garments had movement and comfort. They were clothes you could imagine a French woman wearing as she perused the Parisian streets. Unlike the eccentricity and impractical styles that go down our runways today, where there was Chanel, there was class. And whether or not the designer realized it, her looks were forcefully feminist. During the war, women rarely wore trousers unless they were in the work place. Not only did Coco Chanel confidently wear wide-set trousers out and about, but she also sent her models down the runway wearing them. If we were to look at the Chanel Spring/Summer 2015 collection (disregarding the staged protest) – a galore of tweed suits, neck ties, flat shoes, and sling bags – it was absolutely a contemporary nod to the brand’s founding designer. While the clothes kept Chanel’s feminist ethos, one can’t help but wonder what was the intent behind the show’s closing act? And why did it leave such a sour taste in our mouths?
Given Beyonce’s recent performance endorsing feminism at the MTV Video Music Awards, and Emma Watson’s “He for She” United Nations speech, feminism is finally entering the (mainstream) social dialogue. In other words, it’s a hot topic, and therefore, “trendy.” If there’s anything we know about the word trendy, it’s that fashion and trends are inextricable from one another. That itself already subverts Lagerfeld’s rally. Is it genuine? Who knows? But the point being is that regardless of whether this was for performance value or for humanitarian reasons, Lagerfeld is fueling and perpetuating all the misconceptions of what it means to be a so-called feminist.
Lagerfeld was sued last year for his “defamatory and discriminatory comments” against fat people. His famous comment “Nobody wants to see round women on the catwalk.” was the subject of much controversy, and even celebrities such as Madonna have blasted him for his questionably misogynous comments. One has to question exactly what his point was in trying to mix a “feminist protest” with his latest catwalk collection – with comical signs like “What do we want? Tweed!”, “Ladies First” and “Be Your Own Stylist” mixed in with slogans such as “History is Her Story,” it does appear to be mocking feminism more than celebrating the very women that can actually afford to buy the extremely pricey Chanel collection looks. As Suzy Menkes reported for Vogue UK, “At first, I had a grain of discomfort about the idea of Karl using these protest slogans at a time when demonstrations in Beijing for democracy, and campaigns for women’s worldwide education in particular, are literally life and death issues.”
Perhaps Lagerfeld was just having a bit of fun with the whole idea, yet with signs like “Women’s Rights Are More Than Alright,” juxtaposed with “Boys Should Get Pregnant Too,” the protest of supermodels could be considered a staged satire of feminism, not only negating it but mocking the very issues that women are fighting for. In many countries, women still have to fight for the right to education, there are global initiatives, such as the I Am A Girl initiative, a human rights effort fighting to give girls access to clean water, food, healthcare, education, and protection from violence and exploitation. In the United States, female workers are still only making 77% of what male workers make; that means for every dollar our male counterparts make, a woman will only earn 77¢. And then there are the ongoing debates about women’s health rights, campus rapes, marriage equality, sexism, mansplaining, and the shocking fact that the Equal Rights Ammendment still has not passed in the United States.
We can’t help but agree with Alexander Fury of The Independent with his criticism of the show’s finale, “The co-opting of protest polemic as a tool instigating you to buy, as opposed to question why, struck a bum note. Was tweed all we should read into this collection? Should a fashion show just make you want to go out and charge something, rather than change something?… It was the artifice of anarchy. A joke, sure, but not an especially funny one.” To have the faux rally at the end of Chanel’s show symbolizes an ideology that just doesn’t seem quite feminist and mixing feminism with the promotion of retail fashion seems almost grotesque any way you look at it. “Make fashion not war!” doesn’t exactly feel empowering, does it?