A new project is highlighting the fault lines in a community shaken by controversies around race and prejudice in the fiber arts.
One year after his death, legendary designer Karl Lagerfeld is still stirring up controversy.
It all started with a collaboration destined for the seemingly innocent sphere of the DIY knitting world. Before he died in 2019, the creative chief of Chanel, Fendi and Karl Lagerfeld Paris was working with The Woolmark Company — the Australian textile organization that awarded a young Lagerfeld its inaugural Woolmark Prize in 1954, setting him up for future stardom — to develop a do-it-yourself kit called “Knit Karl.”
The elegant kit would be packed with everything a person needed to whip up one of four Lagerfeld-designed unisex patterns: a cable-knit sweater, a beanie, a headband or a scarf. Its bento-box-like compartments would include balls of squishy black merino yarn, two pairs of knitting needles and several enamel pins, including one of a cartoon sheep wearing the Kaiser’s signature sunglasses. Another would say, in bubbly black-and-white letters,”Wool is the New Cool,” a nod to Lagerfeld’s observations of models, such as Cara Delevingne, knitting backstage.
“Lagerfeld was involved in the project from ideation through to complete prototype,” Stuart McCullough, Woolmark’s managing director, tells Fashionista in an email.
In February, Woolmark and the Karl Lagerfeld brand announced they were giving away 777 limited-edition Knit Karl kits in a digital scavenger hunt that would run from Feb. 7 to March 7. (Seven was Lagerfeld’s favorite number.) Participants could scour the real and digital worlds for codes, entering them into the website knitkarl.com for a shot at winning a box. On the day of its launch, the website crashed due to overwhelming demand, but apart from frustrated comments left on social media, response was by and large laudatory.
Until it wasn’t.
“Why are you promoting a man who was fatphobic, Islamophobic, racist and opposed the #MeToo movement?” one person wrote on an Instagram post, a lone voice in a sea of heart-eye and flame emojis.
Other comments echoing those sentiments began to pour in, most of them from Instagram’s knitting community. Among those voices was Jacqueline Cieslak, a plus-size knitwear designer and anthropology graduate student from Charlottesville, Va., who found the project in bad taste after the knitting community’s own fraught reckoning with diversity and inclusion over the past year.
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It was only last January, after all, when a white knitwear designer named Karen Templer blogged lyrical about an upcoming trip to India, which she compared with a “flight to Mars.” Some readers took issue with her tone, criticizing her for fostering a “colonialist mindset.” But Templer’s post sparked a larger conversation; soon, racial-, sexual- and gender-minority knitters were sharing accounts of racism and prejudice in the DIY community.
Things escalated from there: Last June, Ravelry, a leading website for knitters and crocheters, announced it was banning content that supported the Trump administration, which it equated to “support for white supremacy.” (Coincidentally, Ravelry has also blocked discussions about Knit Karl on its forums, explaining in a note that Lagerfeld was a public figure whose “values do not align with Ravelry’s.”)
Some knitters have blasted such policies as “hypersensitive SJW leftist crybaby nonsense,” using an acronym for “social justice warrior.” Others say they “make inclusiveness safe” for marginalized groups who face discrimination.
“After the year [we] had, where we talked about transparency and entering into ethical partnerships with fellow creators who share values of inclusivity, promoting a project that is tied to someone with a racist, misogynist, fatphobic background just seems like a gross step backward,” Cieslak says over the phone.
In life, Lagerfeld was known for his flippant and insensitive remarks. No topic was sacrosanct, not short men nor swans nor Meryl Streep. He could be downright offensive, evoking the Holocaust when criticizing Germany’s opening of borders to migrants or describing women such as Heidi Klum and Adele as “too heavy” or “a little too fat.” In 2010, Lagerfeld styled Claudia Schiffer in blackface and an afro for a photoshoot.
Eight years later, he came to the defense of Karl Templer (no relationship to the knitwear designer Karen), a stylist whom multiple women accused of touching them inappropriately or pulling down their clothes without their consent. “If you don’t want your pants pulled about, don’t become a model!” Lagerfeld told Numéro. “Join a nunnery, there’ll always be a place for you in the convent.” It’s for these transgressions that his detractors want him held to account, even posthumously.
Most Instagram knitters learned about the Knit Karl campaign after Vogue Knitting, a popular knitting magazine, and two prominent knitwear designers — Josh Bennett (@joshbenntnyc) and Melanie Berg (@mairlynd) — posted pictures of the kits they received as part of Woolmark’s publicity outreach. Many reacted negatively.
Sabrina Thompson, a stay-at-home mom from Mississauga, Ontario who spoke to Fashionista over the phone, questioned Bennett’s support for a man who, among other things, employed an “extremely specific white, hyper-skinny aesthetic.” In response, Bennett, who declined to be interviewed, wrote that while the issues Thompson raised were “indeed serious and reprehensible,” he had “no evidence that those views are being carried out by any of the hardworking designers and staff of The Woolmark Company or [the Karl Lagerfeld label].”
But then he appeared to laugh it off. When one of his 66,600 followers wrote, “Good grief, people need to get a grip,” Bennett quipped, “On their knitting needles!”
KatieBea Mazza, a Lancaster, Penn.-based knitwear designer who champions inclusive sizing, says she was one of dozens who responded to a post by Berg with dismay. To see leading knitters fete Lagerfeld after marginalized knitters had fought for the right to be heard was nothing short of “insulting,” Mazza says in a phone interview. “It felt like they were ignoring people’s pain and hurt.”
The kit is exclusionary, too, she says. “Unless they’re some kind of magical skeins,” the amount of yarn provided limits the size of the sweater design, making it a non-option for the average American woman, who wears between a size 16 and 18. (Karl Lagerfeld’s ready-to-wear garments, including knitwear, top out at a size 12.)
Berg, who has 84,200 followers and lives in Germany, later apologized in the comments section for hurting people’s feelings, explaining she was able to admire his work because of his outsized impact on fashion. Neither did she see “the things that hurt [people]” in his designs. She didn’t respond to multiple requests for an interview and subsequently scrubbed all comments, including her own, from the post, which she left up.
“I loved her designs; I was a fan of hers,” Mazza says. “But everything — from posting about it in the first place, to defending him and his beliefs, to not replying and then deleting everything — is just so disappointing.”
Vogue Knitting, which did not respond to my DMs or emails, took a step further, expunging its entire Knit Karl post from Instagram after upset fans inundated its comments. For days, the publication avoided the subject of the deletion, posting about a knitting scholarship, an upcoming excursion to Norway and cardigans from its winter issue instead. A week later, prompted by recommendations from its diversity advisory council, it offered an apology for “silenc[ing] our community.” Comments on the post, however, were turned off.
Knitters such as Sultan Alrasheed, a former yarn dyer from Chicago, condemned Vogue Knitting’s apology as “vague” and “meaningless.” Bennett and Berg’s, too, he says in a call, showed insufficient understanding of people who aren’t white or straight-sized. But was he surprised? Not really.
“There are the willfully ignorant who refuse to acknowledge or interact with these issues because their lives are not affected by it,” Alrasheed says.
It’s an age-old dilemma, one that keeps getting re-litigated in the age of #MeToo: How do we separate the art from the artist? Should we?
“I think people should be considered in totality, that they shouldn’t be excused or exempted,” says Vanessa Friedman, fashion director and chief fashion critic for The New York Times in a phone interview. “But I also think it’s up to individuals to decide, according to their own value system, how they feel about the people making these consumer products. It’s very simple for consumers to vote with their wallets.”
Certainly the fashion industry as a whole has had its share of gaffes, some more controversial than others. Yet Gucci and Prada, which promoted designs that recalled harmful racial caricatures, have managed to avoid permanent cancellation. Despite insulting black people, gay parents, Japanese designers, Chinese people and Selena Gomez in short order, so has Dolce & Gabbana. Even John Galliano, who was suspended by Dior in 2011 after erupting in an anti-Semitic rant at a Paris bar, now stands at the creative helm of Maison Margiela.
“There’s a certain sense that that their genius gives them more latitude,” luxury market expert Pamela Danziger tells Fashionista over the phone. “Because they are doing things that are so outside of the ordinary and so unexpected.”
Still, Lagerfeld wasn’t hateful, says Caroline Lebar, director of image and communications at Karl Lagerfeld and Lagerfeld’s assistant for nearly four decades. He was just a man from a different time — “almost of the 18th century” — who made being prickly and provocative a deliberate part of his persona.
“This is a very French exercise, when you say something for the beauty of a sentence, even if it’s mean,” she says. Certain comments, Lebar insists in a phone interview, were taken out of context or “1,000% lost in translation.”
Lagerfeld himself once suggested that his affect was self-created. “I am like a caricature of myself, and I like that,” he said in 2007. “It is like a mask. And for me the Carnival of Venice lasts all year long.” Another frequent bon mot, according to Kaiser Karl: The Life of Karl Lagerfield, was “I only sell the facade; personal truth is for myself alone.”
McCullough from Woolmark says neither the organization nor the Karl Lagerfeld brand support racism, bigotry, sizeism or sexism “in any form.” Rather, the project “celebrates the legacy of a designer who changed the course of 20th century fashion through his designs.”
But the knitters I spoke to say none of this exonerates Lagerfeld, who, whether meaning to or not, helped foster an industry that judges women for not being thin enough, youthful enough or white enough.
“Just because someone is deceased doesn’t mean that their actions and words are just erased,” Tina Tse, a knitter who works in the sporting goods sector in Detroit, says over the phone. “You’re saying that what someone did for art is more important than his words.”
Cieslak, the designer from Charlottesville, says she doesn’t even know whom Knit Karl is targeting, since most of the influencers she’s seen with the kits — barring Bennett and Berg — appear to be non-knitters who may snap a picture for Instagram and then chuck the boxes into the trash. (Though to be fair, a few of them appear to be learning to knit, which Woolmark says it wanted to encourage through the campaign in the first place.)
Cieslak’s biggest grouse, however, is the fact that knitters of influence would welcome such a campaign when the fault lines from last year’s inclusivity and equality debate are still so apparent.
One bisexual knitter, who asked not to be named because she feared for her safety, told Fashionista in a call that she received death threats after she announced she was teaching a workshop at a fiber show last year. An anti-Ravelry group on Facebook, she says, regularly “throws horrible transphobic stuff” at Ravelry co-founder Cassidy Forbes, who came out as a trans woman in August. And when two dozen Asian knitters took a group photo at the yarn show Stitches West a few weekends ago, two attendees walking by declared, “Oh, so what’s going on here? Did the tour bus just let out?”
Some attacks have been subtler: Knitters I spoke to told me that the names of yarn dyer Maria Tusken’s so-called “polarized knits” were intentional digs at people who had been vocal about racism and whitewashing in the community. More directly, “SJWs” have been accused of bullying and destroying the livelihoods of “anti-woke” knitters like Tusken, who had defended Templer. (Ravelry and Tusken did not respond to requests for comment.)
Cieslak doesn’t think knitting attracts controversy more than any other social group. It just so happens that the intrinsic closeness of the people who practice the craft makes them “especially open to caring about the way we relate to each other,” she says.
This energy has manifested in constructive ways, including Operation: Social Justice, a collaborative effort by 180-plus yarn businesses to raise money for progressive and charitable causes. An initiative called BIPOC in Fiber recently raised £32,039 in crowdfunding to spotlight the work of Black, Indigenous and people of color working in the fiber arts.
“Addressing social inequality… is only controversial in a world built on inequality,” Cieslak says. “We in the knitting community are trying to build a different, more just world.”
And from the looks of it, a world where opinions like Lagerfeld’s aren’t welcome.