'It’s like mission impossible,’ gasps Lady Amanda Harlech. It is the day after the Chanel Haute Couture show in January. Rain is pelting down. The car sent to collect her was late. Apologies tumble out. She’s had enough of Uber, there’s never a hope in hell of a taxi in Paris and as for the Métro – not in these heels! She drops an overstuffed bag on the floor, throws off her Simone Rocha coat, collapses onto the sofa. Exhausted.
We are in a top floor room in Chanel HQ on Rue Cambon. It is walled with mirrors and Amanda is up on her feet again, appraising her outfit – not vainly, merely reviewing herself with the utmost critical eye, perhaps for the first time that day. She attempts to pat down a rebellious halo of jet black hair but it refuses to comply. Opening her black Chanel jacket – bespokely made for her tiny frame – she reveals a T-shirt that reads ‘The future is female’ which she stole from her 29-year-old daughter Tallulah. ‘I’m not really a message on a T-shirt person, but it’s very good quality cotton,’ she concedes. Then she flops back down on the sofa and crosses her legs exposing a pair of neon yellow socks. ‘Oh these? No, they’re not Vetements. They’re my Nike exercise socks, I bought them on Amazon.’
Creative collaborator to the world’s most famous fashion designer, Amanda Harlech first met Karl Lagerfeld in 1996. ‘I don’t know if you ever do meet him,’ she counters, ‘it’s more like how much of Karl he allows you to meet.’ The occasion was a party at his grand maison, his former home on Rue de l’Université where he’d regularly fill his ballroom with ‘the great and good of fashion’, anyone from the beau monde who sparked his interest. ‘And there he was, the designer I knew from images of him – behind dark glasses, fan in hand, hair in an 18th-century ponytail – like a king surrounded by his friends. We didn’t speak apart from a hello,’ recalls Amanda. She had been invited to the party as a guest of John Galliano with whom she had been working for a decade, tearing up the fashion rule book ever since the British designer’s Central Saint Martins’ graduation show.
At that point, they were both employed at the Paris fashion house Givenchy. But Galliano had secretly signed a contract to move to ‘his dream job’ at Dior. Karl made his move on Amanda at their second meeting, a dinner to celebrate Elton John’s birthday. ‘He flew me to Paris, put me up in the Ritz – I’d never stayed at a hotel like that in my life – and somehow he’d heard – because Karl hears everything – that I was having problems [negotiating my contract] with Dior.’ Karl offered her a contract on the spot: ‘“Tell Dior to match this!” So I did, and they rang back and said, “Is this a joke?”’ And then in a Devil Wears Prada moment she called Anna Wintour for advice, who barked: ‘Amanda, do something professional for the first time in your life.’ The whole contract situation coincided with the breakdown of her marriage to the late Francis Ormsby-Gore, 6th Baron Harlech. ‘So you see I had to do it, I was losing my home, the children were so vulnerable.’ And did Galliano understand?
‘I would like one day for him to understand.’
I wonder what Karl saw in Amanda, a woman he’d only met only twice – and for only a few hours at most? ‘Karl’s got a very sharp instinct, I guess. The thing is just to walk through those doors. And never look down. But these things have always happened in my life.’
Born Amanda Grieve, the daughter of a solicitor and a beautifully-dressed mother, she grew up with two brothers near Regent’s Park in North London, where neighbours included Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller and the Conrans – she often played dress up with Jasper Conran. Gifted at ballet, painting, acting and playing the piano, she won a place at the Royal Ballet School, but could have gone to the Slade School of Fine Art, the Royal College of Music or Oxford. She chose Oxford and read English. She fell into fashion by accident when she assisted a friend at Harpers & Queen and was made junior fashion editor within months. Of that time, she has said: ‘But I was a difficult, tricky, over-idealistic editor who would dig her heels in and refuse to do things, so at the point where I think they were going to fire me, I met John who was the visual response to everything I could have imagined. He did shows which were stories and adventures so I went with him.’
The transition from Galliano to Lagerfeld wasn’t easy. ‘I felt that I went from doing everything with John to almost nothing with Karl, initially.’ She paints a hilarious picture of one of her first fittings – a ceremony whereby a model wearing the latest prototype is brought before Karl for his approval, in front of a deeply respectful studio team. Unaware, or perhaps stifled by the protocol, Amanda suddenly leapt to her feet, took hold of the model’s jacket and wrapped it tight like a ballet cardigan. The entire room gasped. ‘You have to imagine nobody did that, nobody ever got up to touch the clothes. The tailoring premier looked at me like a 1,000 scissors were coming at me.’ By the end of her first year, the studio settings resembled an auditorium with a giant audience watching the Kaiser’s every move. ‘And Karl was beginning to feel the pressure so he said, “Come with me” and we went outside, between the kitchen and the loo, and he said, “Go in and tell them that if they don’t leave, I’m not going to come back in.”’ So Amanda, naïve newcomer, did precisely that. It didn’t make her very popular with anyone. Except Karl.
Amanda has always struggled to define exactly what she does, or to pinpoint who she is to Karl. Years ago, she told me she felt like a geisha, implying her role was merely to entertain and flatter – which she does with immense charm, but that nowhere near covers it.
I’ve seen her in action, always by his side at his big black desk in the Chanel studio – even at 2am (he prefers to work through the night if necessary, in the run-up to a show), batting around ideas and suggestions, mediating, negotiating, keeping up his mood as well as those in the tight team of specialists around him. But even today, she is wary of labelling her role. ‘Maybe the thing I can claim to be, what I can offer, is a point of view or a perspective about proportion. I feel fashion very passionately, if you ask me about colours, or shapes or anything like that I’m really interested and I would do that for hours and hours. I love the work, I never really think of it as work.’
To most people Karl Lagerfeld must seem as aloof and austere as his iconic image. The shock of it is that he is anything but. Amanda says she has rarely witnessed ‘the deep freeze’ as she calls it. ‘He’s more likely to say, “I’m in a bad mood, does it show?”’ According to her it doesn’t because he never screams, shouts or throws tantrums, but has a huge capacity to absorb things going wrong, which they frequently do – even at Chanel. ‘The worst thing is not giving Karl 110% because he can always if you've got another agenda. The more you're breaking a sweat thinking, "I've got to leave! I've got to make my flight!" the slower he'll go. And he's right. You might be really tired, it might be 2am, but you know what? Give him as much as you can to make what he wants happen- it's taken me a long time to learn that one.'
Over the past 22 years, her main challenge has been keeping up with Karl, the indefatigable 84-year- old fashion superhero who must dream up six blockbuster shows a year for Chanel, plus the two for Fendi in Italy, his other design gig where Amanda is employed as his ‘outside pair of eyes’. In the beginning, she would come to Paris just four times a year to work on the ready-to-wear and couture shows – and stay in a suite at the Ritz – but since Chanel started adding more collections to the roster (10 in total), she now sees him every couple of weeks and stays in a ‘grace and favour’ apartment in Paris, which Karl kitted out with an easel to encourage her painting.
He also made sure there was a piano there for her. Indeed, he has always encouraged all of her passions – nurturing her writing (‘Don’t over edit, don’t overwrite, just say it,’ he tells her), buying her a camera, in fact three (‘You’ve got such a good eye – use it!’) and sending her boxes of books to read when she’s at home (‘because what else is there to do in the middle of nowhere but read?’). Home is a working farm in Shropshire where she keeps horses, sheep and a dog. ‘I go from Paris, the court of manners, to the rain hammering on the window, a very touchy wood burner that smokes and to picking Brussels sprouts that are freezing cold and hard as bullets.’ She switches off from fashion there, swaps her Manolos for wellies and enjoys creating enormous collages in her painting studio (also built by Karl) or playing Schubert on her Steinway Grand. ‘One Easter, I opened the door and Karl’s two lovely, smiling removal guys, Romain and Tabor, were standing on my doorstep having driven [the Steinway] in a lorry from France.’
As the interview draws to a close, Amanda tells me about her favourite times with Karl, holidaying at his South of France home; how it became their thing, every summer outside of the Chanel hothouse. ‘I’d surf all day with the children and we’d come back from the beach to find him sitting beneath the lime trees in his garden reading, and we’d have tea.’ Then she mentions seeing him just before Christmas and how she thanked him for all he’d done for her. ‘And do you know what he told me?’ she remembers, as if slightly startled by his emotion, because Karl is not one for nostalgia or sentiment, ‘that friendship is the most priceless gift of all’. Before she heads off, I ask about Karl’s succession. She has no idea who might take over from him and the idea, although inevitable is too upsetting for her. ‘All I can say is he rescued me, this touching, generous genius. I’m not ready to think about a world without Karl.'