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Chanel, Vuitton and SHEIN: The global clothing market and its fatal oblivion of history

In times of much — and particularly “bad” news, a desire for an ideal world constitutes an especially salient wish. Pick up a magazine, read the newest bestseller or turn to the big streaming platforms, everywhere two modes dominate “Doom and Gloom” or “Imagine living in a perfect world”. Streaming/Pay TV providers currently chime in with a heavy focus on the fantasy genre, with a gulf of new shows arriving now also in your living room. These often perform better than some of the latest Hollywood productions. And the same goes for films and exhibitions about the figureheads of the fashion world of Parisian couture. As the London Guardian wrote in February 2024: “couture and public transport don’t have much in common, but the adage that you wait forever for a bus and then three come at once has some recent overlaps. In January, a drama series about Spanish designer Cristóbal Balenciaga and the 1930s Balenciaga worked in Paris premiered on Disney+. This will be followed shortly after by the Apple TV+ drama “The New Look” which tells the story of Christian Dior and his contemporaries during the Second World War. Later this year, Daniel Brühl (of Good Bye, Lenin!; All Quiet on the Western Front fame) will play Karl Lagerfeld in a series with the working title Kaiser Karl, which will show the rise of the late, extroverted designer in the Parisian haute couture fashion world of the 1970s.” But the story of Coco Chanel stands out above all others. Historians and journalists have been studying the life of the Nazi collaborator and vicious antisemite Chanel for 40 years, but the urge for new and revisionist interpretations seems unchecked. This has probably also encouraged the Atlanta Ballet and choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa to stage “Coco Chanel: The Life of a Fashion Icon” for North American audiences. And so, in a danced version, we are told about the supposedly torn character of the fashion designer, who was in a liaison with Hans Günter von Dincklage that lasted well into the post-war period after the German occupation of Paris. The self-styled baron was not only a close confidant of Coco Chanel, but was heading the secret service of the SS in Paris and was well-established as Hitler’s trusted propagandist in the French capital. Besides managing French collaborators and general intelligence work, he also oversaw the storm troops and their actions against the Resistance and to find Jews for deportation from France to the Nazi concentration camps. Dincklage’s raids against Jewish fashion companies and the expropriations of Jews was in the interest of Coco Chanel, who hoped to dispossess the Jewish Wertheim family of the priced Chanel fragrance company. It goes without saying that Chanel had, and still has, an extraordinary influence on the world of haute couture fashion. But is this standing enough to eradicate her antisemitism and her collaboration with the Nazis? Does it justify that one of the most renowned ballet houses taps into its cultural capital to make Chanel’s misdeeds disappear? Given the resurgence of antisemitism in cultural and educational institutions across North America and Europe, this question becomes especially pressing. The recent attempt to prevent the opening of the Holocaust Museum in Holland is just one example of this. Looking back at the work of Coco Chanel, she clearly speculated on preparing her post-war career without Jewish producers and designers in post-war France, just as the German fashion manufacturers used the fact that 2,900 Jewish fashion companies had been expelled from Berlin to relaunch themselves in the now “Jew-free” Berlin. These are facts. In view of these facts, wouldn’t it be conceivable to make a cinematic reappraisal of the industry’s involvement in Nazi crimes known to a wider public? Why do fashion design universities still shy away from explaining to students that the fashion companies of the Nazi era financed the forced labour camps, collected profits and were in part built on slave labor? That would certainly be a step forward for the fashion industry. And would such a change cause enough psychological confusion of a Jew-hating Coco Chanel to fall out of the repertoire of ballet performances in Atlanta? It is hard to avoid the impression that the very world of now globalized fashion producers Chanel, Vuitton and SHEIN: The global clothing market and its fatal oblivion of history is encouraging a frightening tendency here. The longer our own history is concealed, the more intensely a new revisionism of denial, ignorance and trivialization of Nazi crimes grows. The foundations for this were laid by the German occupation of France,among othe things. Although the German occupation groups were expelled from France in 1945, the facts on the ground remained and were widely recognized, not only but also, by Coco Chanel. Not only was haute couture already chronically anti-Semitic in the 1920s, Coco Chanel’s professional colleagues, for example at Louis Vuitton, collaborated with the Nazi puppet Marshal Philippe Pétain, who led the French Vichy regime loyal to Adolf Hitler. Louis Vuitton’s suitcase and handbag collections (LV) were and still are popular and expensive. At the time, the travel accessories perfectly matched the Chanel models. LV’s managing director, Henry Vuitton, was a highly decorated collaborator of the German occupation regime. Jewish companies, especially in Paris, were closed and expropriated, and the employees and managing directors were deported to forced labor. Although the LVMH Group is now a global corporation worth billions of dollars, it has yet to make a clear commitment to its own history. And so, the list of Nazi collaborators in the fashion sector goes on and on. The German company Hugo Boss, now just BOSS, was once one of them. Another example of this is the sport-wear producers Adidas and Puma, both founded by the Dassler brothers, who both were NSDAP members. Adidas, nevertheless, remains a beacon of German pride. While hardly anybody talked about the most recent loss of the ADIDAS sports outfit contract with the German national soccer team to NIKE in the US, Germany was shaken by it. The outrage by far outweighed any outrage the German public could ever muster over the Dasslers Nazi ties and involvement. The fact that today it is not only haute couture that is having such a hard time dealing with its own past, through secrecy and marginalization, through whitewashing and trivialization of anti-Semitism in the fashion industry for more than 100 years, is unacceptable. Fashion reaches many younger people, especially today, and could do important educational work here. After all, creative fashion is essentially a liberal and pluralistic form of artistic expression. Diversity should not allow the exclusion of individual groups. Jews have helped shape fashion, particularly in Europe and worldwide, and there should be no room for any kind of self-absorbed anti-Semitism in films or ballets. This is the only way that “Never Again” makes sense, even on the catwalk. The same goes for the often well-intentioned and honest efforts to fight back against the flood of cheap producers on the global low-cost fast fashion market. Because they have no interest in historical facts. At least that’s how Prof. Ken Pucker (Fletcher School at Tufts University, Massachusetts) sees it, “According to the Financial Times, SHEIN’s (Chinese apparel market giant) revenues will reach 45 billion dollars in 2023, which corresponds to a 30-fold growth in six years. In other words, an average annual growth rate of almost 75%”. The same applies here: most global fashion consortia make huge profits with cheap forced labourers in production camps somewhere in Asia, Latin America, or Africa. These are the winners. At the end of the day, however, society, and therefore all of us, lose.


Uwe Westphal is a journalist in Berlin and London

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