There was a flurry of “OOH GROUNDBREAKING!” buzz when these pix hit the wires, given that Crystal is nominally plus-sized and Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld has made some colorfully fat-phobic comments in the past.
A quick rundown of Karl’s hatey-hatey, to refresh your memory:
On demands for larger models: “These are fat mummies sitting with their bags of crisps in front of the television, saying that thin models are ugly.” (Interview with the German magazine Focus, re-reported here.)
Expressing his horror at H&M for producing his line (a mass-market line he’d made exclusively for the company) in larger sizes: “What I designed was fashion for slender and slim people,” Lagerfeld sniffed. “That was the original idea.”
On the fact that eating disorders certainly are not a problem in the fashion industry: “[Models] have skinny bones.”
On the importance of being skinny: “My only ambition in life is to wear size 28 jeans.”
Lagerfeld is a famously former fattie who lost 92 pounds in 13 months when he became obsessed with the super-streamlined designs of Hedi Slimane and NEEDED to fit into them. He co-wrote The Karl Lagerfeld Diet (published in Europe in 2004 and in America in 2005), which included such advice as starting with around 800 calories a day, having your chef make you quail in aspic, refraining from any exercise since it makes you hungry, and sprinkling cold water on your breasts to tone them. (I’m going out to stand naked in the rain right now! OK, I’m back.)
All this is spectacularly quote-worthy, and Lagerfeld knows it. There’s a reason he dresses like an unholy combo of cowpoke, Teutonic Thomas Jefferson and Spanish fan dancer. There’s a reason he’s still relevant at his cryogenic age of 147. The man’s a master media manipulator. Of course he clothed punk-rock porker Beth Ditto, despite his hatred of the non-skeletal: She herself fascinates the media and is a hugely magnetic personality, and he wanted some of that sugar by association. Thankfully, she herself seems to understand her place in cyclic, disposable high fashion: She told the New York Times that he made fat-phobic comments to her, though he also called her “an extreme beauty.” Ditto knows she’s merely a pet, a token, but apparently has the perspective to get what she wants out of the relationship. “What if, come tomorrow, he hates me?” she told Scotland on Sunday. “Well, I don’t really care because he’s not my friend. It’s not like a break-up. He’s just a person who makes dresses for me sometimes…I wouldn’t say he’s a really cool person but he’s a really cool artist. I appreciate a lot of art by really shitty people. And I’m not so weak to think that this is going to last or they’re going to love me forever.” So, yay for mutual using. And yes, I’m depressing myself.
Where I’m going with this: I suspect Karl can’t ignore Crystal anymore. She’s getting huge — figuratively if not literally. She’s on the cover of this month’s American Glamour, she’s done covers of international editions of Bazaar and Elle, and (I say modestly) a lot of people are talking about her book. So despite all his comment about the horror, the horror, the profound hein that is the plus-size, le voila, c’est Crystal in his show. She’s not as big as Beth Ditto, but she’s certainly as big as Beth Ditto. (Though we’ll have to see whether Karl uses Crystal in his more important ready-to-wear and couture shows in Paris, or whether he just relegates her to San Tropez.)
I have no interest in getting into a whole megillah about the fact that Crystal, at maybe a size 10 (she’s thinner now than when we did the book) is actually plus-size. In high fashion, she’s plus. Anything above a six is plus. Yes, this is insane, and I am wildly sick of talking about it. You know why? Because it never leads to a substantive discussion about how plus-size models are still normative hourglass cellulite-free beauties who are rarely above a size 14 US, and it doesn’t lead in any meaningful way to talk about real bias against genuine plus-sized humans. (The book does go into that, and Crystal is actually a genuinely tolerant and broad-minded human, but no one really wants to TALK about the fact that being slightly overweight is correlated with better health than being “normal-weight” or thin, or about the fact that yo-yo dieting is correlated with much more health risk than being slightly overweight. There are lots of real questions about mega-obesity’s cause and effect, too. We’d prefer to hand-wave vaguely about “health” and “the societal costs of the obesity epidemic” than to look hard at actual well-done science. Folks still dismiss Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon, Ph.D, and Rethinking Thin, by NYT science reporter Gina Kolata, because an actual paradigm shift in how we think about weight is too terrifying to contemplate, and also way more boring than just thinking about celebrities and their thighs. Because hey, we’re celeb-obsessed, and also hey, I may have just written the longest parenthetical ever but I just had two cups of coffee.)
So, uh, back to Crystal n Karl, Karl n Crystal. I’m delighted that Crystal’s career is booming. But what does it signify? I don’t believe Beth Ditto’s fascination for the fashion crowd will lead to a greater tolerance of anyone larger than a size 12 (OK, maybe a 14, since Ashley Graham is so spectacularly hot). Actual cellulite and rolls of chub still gross these people out beyond all measure. But perhaps Crystal’s success will presage an increased use of size 4-10 models. As I said, fashion goes in cycles (you know, a Hegelian dialectic set on endless repeat) and I’m not really sure we can get any thinner in this cycle, unless we start animating mostly-decomposed skeletal zombies and sending them down runways. (And you KNOW some designer has a call in to David Cronenberg about this.) So yay, slightly bigger girls on runways and in mags. Tepid yay.
But I think Andre Leon Talley really has it right when he says what Crystal’s success really presages is “the return of personality models encouraged to be themselves instead of robotic look-alikes.” Crystal is really distinctive — not just because she’s not a size 0, but because she’s got those brows, that hair, that intelligence, that stare. She knows how to “work her angles,” as the nutty fashion people say. At Sassy I sat in on shoots with teenage models and saw how hard the photographer had to work to get them to move well and present different poses and options; watching Crystal at work is a whole other animal. She can do anything, and she only looks like herself, even as she can convey a zillion moods, from fierce to twinkly-Glamour-accessible to super-romantic. It’s been a very long time — the late 80s and early 90s, in fact — since there’s been a real crew of supermodels with truly distinct faces and serious abilities to Work It. As a very casual fashion-watcher, I hope Andre is right and we’re in for more Gloria Swanson-channeling (“I am big! It’s the pictures that got small!”) models.
But does this mean anything at all for actual plus-size humans? I’m gonna go with nah.