Lunch With Amanda Harlech

The trendsetter discusses being a “muse” for Karl Lagerfeld, and the line between art and fashion.

Amanda Harlech.
Amanda Harlech arrives at the British Fashion Awards at The Savoy Hotel on November 28, 2011 in London, England.
Photograph by Tim Whitby/Getty Images.

Dover Street Market is an exclusive shopping precinct in central London that aims, in the words of its director, the Japanese fashion designer Rei Kawakubo, to bring together “creators from various fields … in an ongoing atmosphere of beautiful chaos”. It is also a refuge for those who seek to persuade themselves that the country’s financial predicament is not so bad after all.

I take a look around its four floors of high-end fashion and discover, in rapid succession, a cream cashmere scarf that costs £750, and a brightly coloured shoulder bag illustrated with an African woman pushing a wheelbarrow, emblazoned with the words “Live Your Dreams”. A discreet label reveals the price – £395 – and the quaint observation that the panel was “embroidered by women in Africa”. It is a pungent reminder that fashion has little to do with good taste.

On the fourth floor of the market is the Rose Bakery, a muesli-and-sandals establishment – is it ironic? – offering wholesome refreshment for foot-weary shoppers. This is where my guest Lady Amanda Harlech has chosen to have lunch, and she comes in just a few minutes late, apologising profusely, straight off the red-eye from New York. I am sipping on a mineral water, she impressively orders a green tea and an espresso, a thrillingly weird aperitif combo that I can imagine becoming a shoppers’ cult (“Wake up and zip those oxidants! All at once!”)

Harlech, 52, is a taste-maker. Not one of those whose name is plastered over clothes or perfume bottles, but a behind-the-scenes player whose views are lavishly respected. She is routinely described as a “muse”, lending her evidently unerring eye for fashion success first to John Galliano, whom she met early in his career, and latterly to another industry supremo, Karl Lagerfeld, who directs operations at Chanel and Fendi.

Her surname and title comes from her 12-year marriage to Francis Ormsby-Gore, 6th Baron Harlech, which ended in a messy divorce in the late 1990s. Other than the inevitably gossipy coverage that was prompted by that break-up, she prefers to keep a low-ish profile. Today she is wearing a checked shirt with its collars turned up, which I thought had gone out in the 1980s, but what do I know, and a long, dark red velvet skirt. A looped earring on the upper part of her right ear gives a refreshing hint of unconventionality.

She says she likes the restaurant not because of its chic environs but because its food resembles home cooking. “It is organic, and cooked with care. Things need to be cooked with love, and also harvested in a nice way. I’m sorry, I’m going all … ” She waves her hands around and moves her head from side to side. Mystical, I say.

“I used to be a waitress,” she continues, undeterred by her funny moment. “I was one of the bunny girls at Browns in Oxford.” That was one of my favourite haunts as a student, I tell her, and I don’t remember any bunny girls. “You know, we had our towels tucked at the back of our aprons and had them pulled.” Did that happen to her a lot? “Not so much.” A male waiter, whose seriousness seems designed to remind us of changed times, takes our order and we both go for the special, a goat’s cheese and chard tart with salad.

After leaving Oxford University in the early 1980s, the story goes, Harlech, born Amanda Grieve, could have become anything she wanted. She was glamorous and charismatic, and had excelled in school and university at art, music, literature, dance. But she chose fashion and a job at Harpers & Queen magazine, which is how she met the young Galliano, then a student at Central Saint Martins. And in fashion she has remained, despite occasional forays into other fields.

One of those has her co-curating a show, the Krug Happiness exhibition, at the Royal Academy of Arts later this month. Celebrity patrons as diverse as Tony and Cherie Blair, Michael Gambon and Manolo Blahnik, have been asked to donate an object that embodies happiness to them. Proceeds will support the redevelopment of the Royal Academy Schools. It’s a tricky subject, I say. She agrees. “I think the artistic process comes from disorder. When you are happy, it’s not always a feeling that you can identify. It’s like a dog sitting in front of a fire. Pain isolates you but it can also clarify things.”

Does she still practise art herself? “I do quite a lot of art, with a small ‘a’. I guess that is how I was dredged up, with paints and crayons. Even when I was at nursery, I knew instinctively how to mix colours, how to make purple or orange.”

I was and remain hopeless, I say. She pounces: “Do you know how to make orange, using primary colours?” I think it is red and yellow, I say feebly. “There you are! If I were to ask you to draw my portrait right now … ?” You really wouldn’t want that, I reply, and move swiftly on to an old chestnut. Having flirted between the two, what does she see as the difference between art and fashion?

“I think fashion, mishandled, can be quite toxic,” she replies. “It becomes about image, and the cult of celebrity. I think when an artist is seen at a lot of parties as a celebrity, I find that worrying. I think it can limit them.” Art, she says, can invest “heart, emotion, something risky” into a fashion item, “when there is nothing there in the cloth or the bottle of perfume or the handbag.”

She also worries about fashion blatantly placing its products in films, “which compromises the films”, although she is sympathetic to the fundraising dilemmas of the filmmaker. Of my original question, she says finally, “I actually think they can make insincere bedfellows. Fashion is perceived to be very hard-nosed and superficial, when it is full of incredibly sensitive and visual people. But it is not always their voices that get heard.”

It seems to have an increasingly prominent role in the world, I say. The Chinese can’t get enough of it. “It’s an aspirational thing. Luxury brands give the golden key to the dream life. The interesting thing is, how long before the Chinese start to buy their own luxury brands?” She gives it 10 to 15 years. “This is the last of the golden periods for Europe and America.” Poor old Europe, I say. “Yes, twisted and flawed Europe, with its shortcuts and alleyways. It’s so precious.”

She describes the great fashion visionaries, a class in which she includes Lagerfeld, as “jet fighter pilots, able to see really far ahead. It is a whole strategy, they are planning three, four, 10 years ahead. I only know what is happening in the story of cloth.”

And does the story of cloth have anything to do with the story of the rest of the world? “Of course it does. What you wear is a cultural response.” So is it really true that recession leads to more glamour on the catwalks? “That is one response. Or things can get more eccentric and frivolous, in denial that the end of the world is nigh.”

That’s a decadent response, I say. “That’s what has happened in the past. The transformative powers of dressing up or down have never really changed. Our idea of happiness, some of it, is very tied to the cult of celebrity: there is this golden, wonderful life that I want and if I dress like that I’m on my way there.”

That is false though, isn’t it?

“It is. Well, it is not entirely false. Because that feeling of looking it, and being it, it is a very real feeling. So hey, if that makes you feel like you’ve got there, why not? Why not?”

I’m not entirely sure what “it” is, and where “there” is, but I am sceptical. Surely to be in thrall to celebrities’ dress codes makes it hard to put together an individual look?

“Well, you have.” She turns her practised eye on me. “I like the pattern of that shirt, I’m intrigued by that pixelated look, it is like one of those flyleafs inside a 19th-century novel. And I like the grey and the brown. If I were painting your portrait, there is this really great grey background behind you.”

Again with the portraits. I’m not sure why, but I tell her I am wearing Paul Smith socks. “You see? I bet they are not black.” She looks under the table. (They aren’t.) “There’s a whole look going on here. You drive a vintage car, don’t you?”

No, but while we’re on the subject, I would love an Aston Martin, and thank you for reducing me to a stereotype. “No, no, no. But your socks have got you the car. A little bit.”

Mmmm. So, I say, tell me about this mysterious four-letter word beginning with “m”. She looks up at the ceiling for a moment. “Moat?” No, not “moat”. Why, does she have a moat? “No. I don’t have a moat. I meant dust-mote.”

And I mean “muse”, of course. It is a strange word, a funny old way to describe a serious and successful career. She raises her eyes and gives a sigh. “It’s very passive but I’m not like that at all. I am very hands-on, very down-to-earth. I like the doing. Karl is very challenging on every level. And he wants somebody who is not there all the time, who can look at a collection with a – quote-unquote – fresh eye.”

This has the feel of a weary and well-rehearsed response. How on earth does she keep a fresh eye in a world as intense and incestuous as fashion? “Well, geographically I’m not there [Paris] all the time. And I’m eternally curious. When I’m asked, ‘What do you do, Amanda?’ I say I am an arch assimilator. I’m quite good at understanding what somebody means. Fashion is the process of articulating an idea, and a proposal of what to wear. Who is that woman in Karl’s head? Or that spirit? Or that idea? That’s what fascinates me.”

But “muse” is a patronising word, isn’t it? “It’s what women have traditionally been. But men too, now. Let’s talk about men muses.” Who are they? “Well, er…” Was Bosie a muse to Oscar Wilde? “Perhaps he was. It is someone who can light an inspirational fuse. It is important to surround yourself with those people.”

Harlech, who has two children, Jasset and Tallulah, divides her time between a rural idyll in Shropshire, where she rides, and Paris, where, it is regularly reported, she has a suite at the Ritz. That is a stupendously cool lifestyle, I say, but she replies that the hotel room is not hers, it is used by other people all the time, and that the headboard is greasy. “I like it very, very much. But the Ritz is closing for refurbishment soon so I’ll be homeless.” She manages to make that last remarkable statement sound unaffected, which is quite a feat.

She loves Paris because it is like “a well-preserved courtesan, a little down at heel. Or like an incredible bottle of wine that is slightly past it, but when you pull the cork, just for a moment, you get the scent of the beauty that was.”

I think I get a glimpse of what a muse does. She is the liaison officer between the fabric and the fantasy, the figure who allows a certain piece of stitching to give access to the lush dreams of better living. Our entire lunch has been peopled by a rich set of characters – the jet fighter pilot, the vintage car-driver, the ageing beauty – whose wardrobes have been designed to the tiniest detail in Harlech’s imagination. I can see them in the tranquil, magic-hour setting of a Bafta-winning period piece. They are beautiful.

She is writing a novel. Set in the fashion world? “No, no. It’s gothic.” She is self-deprecating about the amount of editing required of her first draft, which is appealing. I am guessing, from what little I know of Galliano and Lagerfeld, that a successful muse must also put ego to one side.

We have both wolfed down the tart and the scant lettuce leaves on the plate and don’t seriously contemplate any kind of pudding. Instead we wrap up with more coffee. I say I once sat next to her ex-husband, when we were of primary school age, at a British Embassy garden party in Washington (Francis’s father David was ambassador in the early 1960s, my father worked at the embassy.) We watched Lady and the Tramp together. But sadly I never made the reception that was given to The Beatles on their first US visit.

“That was very David Harlech. The Kennedys. Cool dudes. Dark glasses.” Another sartorial screenplay is forming in her head. And then she says wistfully: “I think in some respects those must have been some of [Francis’s] happiest days, a golden time. At home there was this photograph of him, sitting on a flight of steps in shorts, looking so happy.”

She has to move on to another appointment. It is about five tables away, where she is looking at the new work of a young jeweller. “You should write about him!” she says, after introducing us. I look at a ring that looks like a stag beetle and wonder where the story will lead this time.

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.