A Look Back at Karl Lagerfeld’s Biggest Runway Controversies at Chanel

Défilé Chanel, Haute-Couture, Automne-Hiver 1995
Pat/Arnal/Getty Images

From the moment that he assumed leadership of Chanel, in 1983, to his death at age 85 this week, Karl Lagerfeld always took care to pay homage to the house’s most storied hallmarks, from quilted leather to bouclé tweed. He also always took care to do so in his own, very distinctive way, which more often than not ended up leading to controversy. The legend’s troublemaking wasn’t limited to Chanel, of course; Lagerfeld’s choice to cast the Italian porn star Moana Pozzi in one of his Fendi shows in 1993 offended at least one of its most high-profile attendees so much they simply up and left. Still, it was at Chanel where Lagerfeld’s moves made the most waves—if only because they stood out in such stark contrast to the ways of his predecessor, Coco Chanel. It’s hard to imagine, for example, the house’s founder using her namesake logo to simply obscure a model’s nipples, or allow a crucifix-bearing Naomi Campbell to continue parading down the runway without attending to her nip slip. Before the houses passes into the hands of Lagerfeld’s successor, Virginie Viard, revisit some of the highlights of Lagerfeld’s ever eventful reign, here.


The ’90s marked the height of Lagerfeld’s experiments with many of the most storied Hallmarks of Chanel, including the house’s classic chains. It wasn’t Helena Christensen‘s belted waist or short shorts, though, that caught the eye during the house’s spring/summer 1996 show, but instead the proto-shutter shades she wore that came complete with a muzzle-like extension for her mouth.


Say what you will about Chanel’s fall/winter 1995 collection, but you can’t deny that Lagerfeld didn’t place emphasis on the house’s logo. The most striking example of which was an itsy bitsy bikini worn by Stella Tennant, whose nipples were just barely obscured by a pair of interlocking C’s.


To be fair, at least Lagerfeld made sure that Tennant had company.


Though Lagerfeld later protested that he “had no idea what the original meaning was,” that didn’t change the fact that his spring 1994 couture collection for Chanel featured three dresses printed with what turned out to be passages from the Koran, thereby sparking an international controversy. Eventually, Lagerfeld conceded to “apologize to Muslims” and Chanel destroyed the extant versions of the dress.


Chanel’s spring/summer 1993 couture show saw Naomi Campbell parade her nipple down the runway just as proudly as the crucifix around her neck.


While full of Chanel’s signature chains and pearls, Chanel’s spring/summer 1991 collection saw Lagerfeld take inspiration from hip-hop and rap. Needless to say, not everyone approved of his source of inspiration, and criticisms of cultural appropriation soon followed. As usual, though, Lagerfeld stuck to his guns: “Rappers tell the truth—that’s what’s needed now,” he said backstage after the show.


A few years later, Lagerfeld—who later appeared in a music video with Snoop Dogg—proved he wasn’t finished with referencing the “theme” of rap. His spring/summer 1994 collection for Chanel featured not only chains, but also bandanas that seemed to be a high-fashion (and tone-deaf) take on signifiers of gang affiliations.


Lagerfeld’s reimagining of the classic Chanel bouclé tweed suit reached new heights in his collection for spring/summer 1994, with hemlines that seem likely to have cut down the house’s costs on fabric that season.


Of all of Lagerfeld’s reinterpretations of the classic quilted Chanel leather bag, the most, um, singular was the hula hoop version that appeared during Chanel’s show for spring/summer 2013, which promptly became the talk of the season. The bag, Lagerfeld later explained, “is for the beach! You need space for the beach towel. Then you can put it into the sand and hang things on it.”


Several years before Fendi debuted the baguette bag, Lagerfeld showcased an early version of the oblong object, making the case for redubbing the Fendi version the demi-baguette.


To set the scene of what he intended as a “feminist” protest, Lagerfeld handed models signs emblazoned with slogans like “history is her story” and “ladies first.” However pure his sentiment may have been, the move did not go over well, prompting many to criticize Lagerfeld of attempting to co-opt a serious and timely political movement.


It wasn’t so much the clothes that caused a stir at Chanel’s fall 2010 show, but rather the enormous 265-ton, 30-foot tall iceberg that Lagerfeld took great pains to import from Sweden, as a symbol of sorts for global warming. (Never mind that it took six days and a careful maintenance of a temperature of 25 degrees Fahrenheit for it to make it all the way to Paris.)


Climate change apparently forgotten, Lagerfeld put the emphasis of Chanel’s spring 2018 show on clear plastic, which covered that season’s collection as if it were a squeaky couch.