How Karl Lagerfeld cleansed Chanel of its antisemitic and Nazi past

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How Karl Lagerfeld cleansed Chanel of its antisemitic and Nazi past

German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld helped to clean up the image of one of the world's most famous brands, founded by Coco Chanel who was viewed as an “incorrigible antisemite”.

Karl Lagerfeld (Wikipedia/Christopher William Adach)
Karl Lagerfeld (Wikipedia/Christopher William Adach)

Chanel wasn’t always beloved by upwardly mobile fashionable Jews. Coco Chanel, despite her contributions to the development of modern fashion, was, as other writers have put it, a “ wretched human being” and an “incorrigible antisemite”.

Not only was she, literally, in bed with the Nazi cause, but there is strong evidence to suggest that she actively worked for the Nazis as a secret agent.

And yet it was a wealthy French Jewish family, the Wertheimers, who helped finance her prolific rise and still control the company today.

And it was, ironically, the German Karl Lagerfeld, who died in mid-February aged 85, who made the brand so iconic and polished that it was easy to forget everything problematic about Chanel herself.

In 1924, the Wertheimer family provided financing to produce Chanel’s first and most iconic fragrance, Chanel No. 5, in exchange for a 70 per cent share of the perfume division of her company. Theophile Bader, the Jewish businessman who introduced Chanel to Pierre Wertheimer at a racetrack, received an additional 20 per cent as a finder’s fee, leaving just 10 per cent for Chanel herself. Chanel was not involved in the production of the perfume, but she soon came to resent the agreement, both because of her latent antisemitism and the financial success of her perfume business. She began trying to take back control of her company, unsuccessfully suing the family so often that the Wertheimers reportedly had a lawyer dedicated solely to dealing with her litigious efforts.

Before the Nazis invaded France, the Wertheimers escaped to family in New York. Nazi laws forbade Jewish ownership of property and businesses, and in 1941, after the invasion, Chanel petitioned the Vichy government and Nazi officials for sole ownership of her perfume company.

But even that effort proved fruitless — the Wertheimers had bequeathed full control of their stake to a French Christian businessman named Felix Amiot, himself a collaborator  who sold arms to the Nazis, for the duration of the war.

Chanel, for her part, would go on to spend the rest of the war years as the lover of Nazi officer Hans Gunther von Dincklage. But according to Hal Vaughan in his book “Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War,” there is evidence that Chanel was an active Nazi intelligence operative.

Despite her involvement with Nazis and her underhanded tactics to usurp the Wertheimers’ control of her company, about a decade after the war the Wertheimers – in a move that was part business, part turning the other cheek – helped Chanel re-establish the House of Chanel, even going as far as financing her daily living expenses and paying her taxes for the rest of her life.

But following her death in 1961, the brand languished, searching fruitlessly for an appropriate successor who could be trusted with continuing her legacy.

It was only in 1983, 22 years after Chanel died, that a young Lagerfeld – by then already known as a fashion wünderkind – was chosen to head Chanel, fresh from establishing the heritage French brand, Chloe.

Lagerfeld’s first couture collection played on the tight-and-trashy look that was in vogue in Paris at that time – a trend that Lagerfeld had helped shape before he joined Chanel. The skirt suits were slimmer and sexier and worn with wide obi belts; evening dresses were flounced and tiered and topped with tulle boleros; gems were sewn onto a dress bodice as a trompe l’oeil of a necklace; white pique four-leaf-clover flowers were pinned onto the shoulders of suits.

This debut collection for Chanel received mixed reviews. Some believed the Chanel brand should have died with its founder, since she and her aesthetic were irreplaceable, while others thought that Lagerfeld’s touch paid proper homage that also showcased how he would shape the brand in the years to come.

It was the latter opinion that proved to be the most accurate.

That initial couture collection, with notes of verve and excitement usually reserved for ready-to-wear collections, was a success, setting in motion a lifetime contract with Chanel. Within a few seasons of Lagerfeld’s tenure, Chanel became the most exciting and coveted ticket at Paris Fashion Week.

Over the years, Chanel shows – mostly housed in Lagerfeld’s favoured venue of choice, the Grand Palais – became grand productions, and the brand could appeal to a multitude of clients: old and young, staid and trendy.

But Lagerfeld’s greatest service to the Chanel brand was his ability to erase the negative associations with Chanel, including the founder’s antisemitism. In fact, his contribution was so extensive that his work often eclipses that of Coco Chanel herself.

This isn’t to say that Lagerfeld didn’t have his own brushes with racism and bigotry. In 2017, he used the legacy of the Holocaust to attack German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy, saying, “You cannot kill millions of Jews and then take in millions of their worst enemies afterwards, even [after] decades.”

But now that Lagerfeld is dead, the future of Chanel is again in peril. Who can replace a man who was such a virtuoso that he made Chanel into the most important, most recognisable brand – both in name and aesthetics – in fashion today?

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