amanda harlech is a fashion insider, informer and inspiration

Close friend and creative consultant to Karl Lagerfeld, Amanda talks to Jo-Ann Furniss about language, ladylike-ness and the muse misconception.

by Jo-Ann Furniss
|
31 July 2015, 10:20am

Does being a Lady actually come in handy? "Not really," says Lady Amanda Harlech. "They still can't find your reservation at a bloody hotel!" To use Amanda Harlech's full title is actually rather disingenuous - I have never known her to parade it herself. Rather, she is more often known as 'Amanda Harlech' or most frequently 'Amanda'. Never Mandy - that's going too far. Personally, I like to think of Lady Amanda as something of a 'drag name' for Harlech. Although the title is real - she gained it after marrying Francis Ormsby-Gore, 6th Baron Harlech in 1986, the two are now divorced - before that she was not-so-plain-old Amanda Grieve from North London.

What's in a name? Well, quite a lot. Amanda Harlech has often found herself in a slightly difficult position because people make assumptions about her and cannot quite name what she does… She has been a 'creative consultant' for a number of years, both with John Galliano and then with Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel, since before that term had really gained any parlance. And it is a phrase that Lagerfeld certainly does not use. She joined Chanel in 1996 and Karl Lagerfeld describes Harlech as his "outside eyes," bringing an inspiring view from the outside world to the inner workings of Chanel. Many talk about her as 'a muse' - but Amanda Harlech would certainly never refer to herself in such a way, she practically huffs when I bring it up, "Oh not that again! This is very well trodden ground…" She then explains, "Karl does not have muses in that classical sense. I think he likes energies and people, a certain sky or something he has read can be equally inspiring. Everything he has seen goes into this visionary computer and comes out as a thought that he can then translate as either cloth or a series of images, or a film or a book, or any of those things he does. I think I am just one of those images, or a sound that makes part of the song."

As to the Muse-like wafting around in clouds of chiffon and perhaps holding a lyre, she does not do that either, "I have always been a hands on person." As Donatella Versace once said, 'To be the muse is not amusing,' and Harlech clearly does not like accusations of 'wafting' either. "But what is on the outside and dressing is also part of being hands on," she clarifies. "I really love fashion, and I really love clothes, and it is never because of its status or because it's a tribal thing. It's simply because it's transformative, and that might sound a bit hackneyed now, but I do wish that people understood this transformative power of clothing more."

And it is clear that clothing has had this transformative power in her own life. In something of that pre-war way, Harlech is also described as 'a great beauty,' and she certainly is. High cheek-boned, clear skinned and fantastically lovely, both in the sense of its outward physical manifestation and in her inner character, she is impossible not to like. She is also incredibly stylish, with an eye for and an attitude to clothing that is distinctly her own - she was named to the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame in 1997 and actually deserves to be on there.

At this point, without knowing Amanda Harlech, she might seem so sick-making (i.e. you're envious) you might want to punch her - although in real life you wouldn't. And her accomplishments continue: a degree in English Literature from Oxford, a talented stylist, writer, pianist and an expert horsewoman… I could carry on. You may really want to punch her now. But as the milliner, Stephen Jones, once said of Harlech: "She is the real deal. She has everything. If you're a woman, who wouldn't want to be Amanda?" And that is the point: she might inspire envy, but she also inspires admiration. And while many fashion houses have empty-headed clotheshorses galore, Harlech has the ability to be an actual 'role model' at Chanel.

There is also a reality to Amanda Harlech that cuts through a lot of the folderol. She might be wearing Chanel haute couture - and it is part of her contract that she is fitted for and receives a piece each season - but she'll also be wearing trainers and carrying plastic bags. She will rarely be photographed outside shows looking 'just so' - instead she'll be carting stuff about behind the scenes backstage 'just not so'. She'll also be self-deprecatingly funny and swearing about the stuff that she has to cart about. In short, Amanda Harlech is not exactly 'ladylike' - and in her case, that is meant quite literally - rather she confounds expectations.

I first met Harlech during the walk through for the 2012 Chanel Cruise Collection show at Versailles. She was running through the spectacular palace gardens and hollering after one of the young models. "She needs to be channelling more Buenos Aires junky streetwalker than she is!" she laughed before dashing after the girl once more.

And what Harlech most frequently exercises is Coco Chanel's maxim: 'The most courageous act is still to think for yourself - aloud.' You can see that this too is what attracts Karl Lagerfeld to his friend, collaborator and consultant, especially as he is somebody else who is not afraid to think for himself - aloud. "For Karl, it's what's inside that counts," she says as a general observation of the people Lagerfeld warms to. And Amanda Harlech is no exception.

Of their working relationship, that began almost 20 years ago, the creative consultant still clearly feels very blessed by it. "It evolves; it's very different now than it was in 1998," she explains. "As you get to know somebody, there's that strange, liminal space of beginning to know people's edges; of knowing where they fire up, or curve away, that is part of the fascination. In a way I don't know Karl - something that I am obsessed by is the fact that you can't really know anybody. So we had better well start with knowing ourselves, and Karl knows himself very well; that is a good starting point. For me it is part of the process of creating stuff, of being part of his process. It is sometimes challenging, but always compelling, continually fascinating and it can be provocative. It is something that has fed back into my life and what I have done by myself, and that is a state of grace and a gift. That is how I define my role with Karl."

One of the most startling qualities that Amanda Harlech has is her great gift for language - who else do you know who talks about/knows about 'liminal space'? In the past she has described herself as a 'pathfinder' and it is perhaps this, together with her gift for narrative that really defines what she does. I have certainly experienced her 'fashion talking cure' - got a problem with a piece of writing? Amanda has an uncanny knack of talking you through it and showing you the way. And out of the many 'Amandas' that people think they know and make assumptions about, it is this one, that has nothing to do with the clothes she wears, or the way she looks, or how she is photographed, that is the most significant. While clothing might have a transformative power for Harlech - and today she plays the part of a bourgeois lady in autumn/winter 15 Chanel ready-to-wear - it is actually language that will always reveal the truth about her. And I mean that in the best possible way.

Credits


Text Jo-Ann Furniss
Photography Alasdair McLellan 
Styling Julia Sarr-Jamois
Hair Tina Outen at Streeters London
Make-up Fulvia Farolfi at Bryan Bantry
Nail technician Geraldine Holford at The Wall Group
Photography assistance Lex Kembery, James Robjant, Nick Brinley
Styling assistance Ashlee Hill, Bojana Kozarevic, Lauren Davis, Katelyn Gray, Xenia Settel
Make-up assistance Ryan Reye
Production Leone Ioannou at Pony Projects
Assistant Producer Oscar Correcher
Retouching Output Ltd
Amanda wears all clothing Chanel.