The dread of being a high school senior in the midst of the college application process seems never-ending. Many will sit through multiple nerve-wracking interviews in boujee coffee shops, mentally repeating their prepared responses while smiling and nodding at the interviewer. Thus, it was a pleasant surprise last Sunday when I found myself in an engaging conversation with my interviewer. It began like this:
Me: “I have a friend who is a fashion connoisseur and she came up with the idea of this community service project.” (Our project involved collecting homecoming and prom dresses for high school students to borrow for school dances.)
Interviewer: “Speaking of fashion, you mentioned earlier that you might be interested in fashion consulting. Did you know that Chanel had ties with the Nazis?”
A fascinating discussion surrounding different designer brands and their collaboration/resistance against the Nazi Party ensued. I did a bit of my own research surrounding the issue:
Also known as “Hitler’s Tailor,” Hugo Boss joined the Nazi Party in 1931. Although the company were not responsible for uniform designs, they produced black uniforms worn by SS units, brown shirts worn by SA storm troopers, as well as black and brown uniforms for the Hitler Youth. Hugo Boss’ collaboration with the Nazis saved the company from bankruptcy. During the war, Hugo Boss used forced laborers to produce these uniforms. Most were women, but they also used French and Polish prisoners of war. According to first-person reports, worker conditions were awful; factories suffered from poor hygiene and insufficient food, and there was no medical treatment for children and pregnant women.
Fortunately, Hugo Boss issued a formal apology regarding their exploitation of forced labor. However, Hugo Boss’ son, Siegfried Boss, commented “of course my father belonged to the Nazi Party…But who didn’t belong back then?” Siegfried’s perspective falls in line with those who look at Boss’ involvements with the Nazis through an economic lens: Boss was motivated by commercial reasons, as companies were awarded contracts for collaborating with the Nazis, and Boss believed that Hitler would lift Germany out of poverty.
Chanel dated a German military intelligence officer and used her connections for two reasons:
- For business interests like her perfume line
- To release her nephew from the German stalag
Together, Dincklage and Chanel recruited new agents from around Europe for Nazi Germany. As a German spy, under supposed “business reasons,” she traveled to Madrid under the mission to gain political information from her colleagues. Chanel also used her connection with England’s prime minister, Winston Churchill.
After the demise of Nazi Germany, Chanel attempted to erase her past and never suffered consequences for her ties with the Nazi Party. Despite her actions, she was financed by the Wertheimers, wealthy French/Jewish businessmen, and Chanel became a French fashion icon.
There’s no hiding the facts; there is no gray zone as to whether or not Chanel and Hugo Boss collaborated with the Nazis. However, should we accept the “economic pragmatism” perspective that people like Siegfried Boss hold? Were the commercial reasons enough to justify collaboration with the Nazis, if “everyone else” did it as well? Is an apology enough? Or, should we as consumers make an active effort to boycott these brands?
But in the era of call-out culture, why is there so little focus on designer brands’ collaboration with the Nazis? Perhaps these brands have become too established, too iconized to bring down. How telling of our generation–we value luxury and comfort over inconvenient ethical actions.
McAuley, James. “The Exchange: Coco Chanel and the Nazi Party.” The New Yorker, 31 August 2014, https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-exchange-coco-chanel-and-the-nazi-party
“Fashion’s Hugo Boss expresses regret at Nazi past.” Reuters, 22 September 2011, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-hugoboss-nazi/fashions-hugo-boss-expresses-regret-at-nazi-past-idUSTRE78L3ZD20110922
The Associated Press. “Hugo Boss Acknowledges Link to Nazi Regime.” The New York Times, 15 August 1997, https://www.nytimes.com/1997/08/15/business/hugo-boss-acknowledges-link-to-nazi-regime.html
Walters, Guy. “Shameful truth about Hugo Boss’s links to the Nazis revealed: As Russell Brand is thrown out of a party for accusing fashion designer of helping Hitler.” Daily Mail, 5 September 2013, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2413371/Shameful-truth-Hugo-Bosss-links-Nazis-revealed-As-Russell-Brand-thrown-party-accusing-fashion-designer-helping-Hitler.html