As the saying goes, behind every great man is an equally great woman. For legendary designer Karl Lagerfeld, that title (pardon the pun) goes to Lady Amanda Harlech. Since 1996, the British aristocrat has worked by his side as a trusted confidant and creative consultant for Chanel as well as Fendi (part of her contract entitles her to one piece of custom Chanel Haute Couture piece per season – can you imagine her closet?) Her talents go beyond fashion and she’s even penned a few books (one with Lagerfeld), designed jewellery and even made it into the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame.
Amanda may appear to live a charmed and glamorous life, but her personality is strictly down-to-earth. When she’s not wafting down the corridors of Chanel’s headquarters on Rue Cambon, she can be found galloping through the English countryside or tending to her organic garden at her big country house in Shropshire, England.
She also shares similar traits to her co-collaborator and is fiery, intelligent, forthright and extremely eloquent (she can easily talk about a fabulous pair of tights and then seagueway into a conversation about contemporary art). Oh and did we forget to mention, she is incredibly funny.
We met with Amanda after Chanel’s Front Row Only autumn/winter 2016/7 show and chatted about the real Karl, the speed of fashion and preserving culture in China. Read on to find out more.
WHEN you were young you aspired to be a ballerina or ride horses. You eventually ended up reading English at Oxford University. What drew you into the world of fashion?
I can remember the moment when I absolutely thought fashion is my next step. Being a writer is about knowing how to move or touch people through a story, and fashion is quite similar. I loved dressing up (it was always in Oxfam) and I was telling my own story through my clothes.
However it was only when a friend of mine Sophie Hicks, who worked at [magazine] Harper’s & Queen, invited me to a shoot, that I felt it. I didn’t do much – I mostly hung around and made tea. But what surprised me was her ability to use an image to effectively make another person feel what she was saying. It was about communicating an idea, a feeling and it seemed hell of a lot quicker than writing a novel. That idea of creating poetry in fashion is still what sits with me and I am happiest doing that.
You worked as a fashion editor at Vogue and later as a consultant with John Galliano for 12 years, before joining Karl. What was it like when you first met him?
Karl was someone you knew from afar, probably in the same way millions of people do now. He’s clearly a genius, with a ferocious appetite for the new. He grasps the next thing before it’s even hit the ground. So there I was at a party, with this awesome icon sitting across the room. When I was introduced to him it was like meeting a God. He’s the real celebrity – a celebrity is someone who presides over a mystery. In the old days they were the shamans and high priests. People were drawn to them like a cult leader, and there is an element of that with Karl.
Did you know much about Chanel before you started working with the brand?
Chanel has always been so aspirational, with a clear idea of a woman to relate to. For me Chanel has always been something I’ve longed to wear and see. Even as a 10 year old you’d see a woman in a Chanel suit and there would be a faultlessness to her, she embodied freedom and intelligence. Chanel is not about anything superfluous, and that intelligence is what I find deeply attractive. It’s like talking to an insanely clever person and never running out of things to say. That’s the dialogue I have with Chanel. It keeps going on 20 years later.
What is the biggest misconception people have about Karl Lagerfeld?
People think he’s cold and despotic – he’s not. This man has the biggest heart, but people with very big hearts who are deeply genuine are also sensitised to protect themselves. He used to have a fan, now he has his wit. He keeps his distance and mystery and I applaud that. He doesn’t email for example, he doesn’t do instagram. He’s private. I am always surprised by his sense of humour, quickness, resilience, inventiveness, his mental acrobatics to be creative, and his enthusiasm and love for the present. He wants to be surrounded by people who have that enthusiasm and energy. Working with Karl means you have to be prepared to take risks. What I’ve learnt over 20 years is that doesn’t matter if you offer up something that maybe he thinks is irrelevant, he is always willing to listen.
You don’t like being referred to as a muse. So how exactly would you describe your role at Chanel?
I am one pair of [Karl’s] outside eyes, but there are many. We all bring different things to the table and he has the depth and breadth to pick from all of those. What I do is very unstructured although I see him more now than before because there are more shows to do and therefore more things to be done.
My job actually starts as soon as Karl sends a collection down the runway because he already has a vision for the next. The conversation then begins and I am involved at various stages. I love the fabric meeting, and also creating the press pack which we shoot a week before the shows. It’s like a dress rehearsal, and we can see everything come together with hair, makeup and accessories. During this time he likes to hear I get it because it means that other people will get it. We have fittings everyday and it’s like watching a painting come together or the final edit of film. It’s a narrative that just continues.
Nowadays there is this pressure to create this narrative faster as fashion weeks move faster and collections get more frequent. Does this affect how you work?
The only thing I’m not happy about right now is this talk about pushing to extend New York Fashion Week which means Haute Couture will go completely. I’m not being disloyal to New York designers but from what I’ve seen it doesn’t match the artistry of Haute Couture. There’s no bargaining that!
These changes have also included the rise of “see now, buy now” collections. What are your thoughts on the topic?
I’m a stylist so I am cut out from this whole idea. At the same time, if this continues, I feel there’s another part in the creative chain that could get lost. A designer will offer up his or her proposition first, then a great editor and stylist will set it in a world. They are not necessarily duplicating the way it’s shown on the runway but giving it another context. We open the look up, so it can filter down to real life and how a woman wears it. This will often feed back into the designer’s next collection. If you cut that bit out, in a way you are only creating a celebrity front row and a duplication of outfit as shown. I don’t believe women today have to be dictated to like that.
What is your definition of luxury?
Freedom of expression. Freedom of thought is beyond a price.
You’ve visited China a few times. What are your thoughts on the fashion industry there?
China has a huge fashion industry that’s now burgeoning internationally. We are seeing many great designers coming here as well as models like Fei Fei Sun. I would like to see more of that being able to come out of China. Equally I think [the Chinese] really need to embrace the true identity of China. I’d like to see more of the Chinese makers, embroiderers, the craftsmen. It’s about continuing a heritage. China could be a centre for that.
Photos courtesy Chanel