How Did Nostalgia For ’90s Chanel Become So Controversial?

Photo Courtesy of ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed but '90s Chanel is a thing and if nostalgic social media posts are anything to go by, it looks like Claudia Schiffer, Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell in bubblegum-coloured co-ords, sky-high mini skirts and bucketloads of bling. There’s a reason why this particular moment in the French fashion house's history is causing so much fanfare. Today we know Chanel as a timeless classic but before Karl Lagerfeld revived the brand in the '90s, putting supermodels in crop tops and giving tweed sex appeal, it was fast losing relevance, looking increasingly like a redundant label for rich old women.
"Nineties Chanel has a distinct personality: a girly, playful style that was so different from what we expected from Chanel at the time," says Shreya Shrivastava, who has a blog called Let's Judge Fashion. Shreya got into fashion after browsing '90s Chanel looks on Pinterest. "If you open any social media app someone will always have posted a picture of it," she says. Images from these high voltage fashion shows are easy to fawn over and many do, on Twitter, regularly. While it could be a heady blend of our never-ending '90s obsession, propensity for nostalgia and love for the original Supers, Karl's early tenure has been so prolifically worshipped online that it's taken on a cultlike life of its own, becoming so meta that making fun of people who post about it is now a meme on high fashion Twitter.
"It’s easy to hate," Shreya says. "It can get annoying for people who aren’t obsessed with it. I remember once I shared something about '90s Chanel and then I thought, Oh my God, people are getting tired of this, okay that’s not good!"
You could say that this happens to almost anything that’s immensely popular online. One day everyone posts the same thing, then everyone posts about how bored they are of that thing. If the subject is really popular, people might post about how bored they are of people posting about how bored they are. Really, we’ve all just been in lockdown for too long; we'd be bored of anything that circulated online too much (banana bread and sourdough, anyone?). However the love/hate dichotomy of '90s Chanel goes deeper than this.
Lagerfeld was a problematic figure. He made Islamophobic comments about Syrian refugees; he said he was "fed up" with the #MeToo movement; he was repeatedly disrespectful about women’s bodies and described those who criticised unrealistic beauty standards in fashion as "fat mummies". When Lagerfeld died in 2019, many didn’t think it was appropriate to mourn him publicly because of his damaging comments – Cara Delevingne and Jameela Jamil argued about it on Twitter. Many people are more than just tired of seeing '90s Chanel on their timeline; they don’t think it deserves to be there in the first place.
"Although I, as well as other people on high fashion Twitter, can admit he was a great designer, it’s disheartening to see his designs overshadow all the negative impacts he’s made on the industry," says Chloe Kennedy, a curator for @HFMetGala. "His work tends to go viral on Twitter every few months without any context to who he was as a person," she says. Chloe worries that the fashion industry often suppresses the messy track records of big brands when they should be held to account, and putting '90s Chanel on a pedestal is a prime example.
She’s not alone in her concern. A growing group of fashion lovers are making progressive ethics a key priority for their favourite brands. "High fashion Twitter is made up of a diverse group of people from all over the world and not only do we talk about high fashion, we also talk about social issues," says Cydnie Cole, a film student who’s part of high fashion Twitter. "I don’t think people want to separate the artist from the art anymore; as a Black woman myself, I’m not prepared to do this." Cydnie has seen many posts about '90s Chanel on Twitter and has felt compelled to teach those who share them about Lagerfeld’s history. "I’ve commented saying, 'As a person of colour I have to ask you, are you aware of what he’s said about plus-size women and diversity?' Many said no and I don’t mind if people are ignorant but if you know, you shouldn’t overlook that."
Another problem with everyone posting '90s Chanel is that it can distract people from new and more inclusive designers that deserve our attention. After all, attention is finite and the Twitter algorithm prioritises posts with the most likes and retweets, which inevitably includes posts about Chanel, a brand whose appeal reaches far beyond the niche of Twitter’s fashion obsessives. "People – not just on high fashion Twitter but people all over Twitter – will like a picture of '90s Chanel and I think big accounts just post it for the traffic. But if you have that many followers you should want to expose people to new designers who are part of the diversity conversation," says Cydnie.
There is merit to our tendency to indulge in nostalgia – fashion’s cyclical nature means we’re more likely to shop vintage and recycle our clothes, and in troubling times we all look to the past for comfort – but it’s possible to enjoy '90s fashion without fixating on Chanel’s aesthetic. "It’s not just Chanel that is experiencing a resurgence; many of the most popular styles from the '90s have come full circle and have been reworked or remarketed for today's consumers," says @90sanxiety, one of Instagram’s most popular nostalgic accounts. I’m sure that posting about '90s Chanel will soon go out of fashion; hopefully, like low-waisted jeans, it will be a trend that doesn’t come back.

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