Events this past week in Paris remind me of my step-sister Amanda, Lady Harlech, who is usually described—much to her chagrin—as the “muse” of the 85-year-old gay kaiser of the fashion world, Karl Lagerfeld.
On Thursday—Thanksgiving Day in America—Lagerfeld switched on the Christmas lights in the Champs-Élysées. He had been invited to do so by the mayor of Paris. As usual, he wore black sunglasses, and black everything, including his trademark black leather fingerless gloves. Amanda—sans doute—was somewhere nearby. She usually is.
The color of the lights this year—which run like veins along the branches of the plane trees that line the grand boulevard leading to the Arc de Triomphe, down which the triumphant Nazis marched in June 1940—is red, the color of communism and of blood.
The color was chosen to match an advertising campaign marking the launch of a limited-edition red bottle of Chanel No. 5. “It’s a very pretty color. It brings to mind a red French wine, and all sorts of things,” Lagerfeld, creative director at Chanel since 1983, told French TV station France 3.
Two days later the violent protests that had erupted across France the previous weekend, in one of the biggest uprisings in years, reached the Champs-Élysées, and beneath those red Christmas lights there was fire and destruction and tear gas—and, yes, real blood.
The protests are against 40-year-old President Emmanuel Macron, the ex-banker, who in order to save Europe wants to replace the nations of Europe with an E.U. empire.
The protesters are angry in particular at his increases in tax on diesel fuel to combat climate change, which have driven the price at the pump up by 25 percent this past year, and in general at his failure to defend the French people from the devastating effects of globalization on their standard of living. According to the polls 77 percent of the French support the protesters, whereas only 25 percent are satisfied with Macron, whom they regard as a puppet of the global elite, or what someone like Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, defines as the “Party of Davos.”
The last time I saw Amanda was back in 2016 in Britain at her mother Anne’s funeral, three months after the Brexit vote. One of the most influential people in the world of couture, Amanda shed no tears at the crematorium as the coffin containing her atheist 83-year-old mother disappeared slowly through the velvet curtains and off into the fiery furnace beyond. At our house afterward, during the wake, she quickly disappeared to remove her black clothes and dive into the swimming pool. Then she was gone. As always.
She has somehow survived and thrived in the gilded cage of the fashion world that has destroyed the lives of so many people—or that attracts people destined to destroy their lives.
In July, for example, her friend Lucy Birley, the aristocratic model and ex-wife of Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry, died at the age of 58 from “depression”—as it was mysteriously reported in the press, but she was just the latest in a long line of high society, high profile fashionista deaths.
No doubt you have not heard of Amanda Harlech (née Grieve).
But such is her allure that when Lagerfeld took her on in 1996 to assist him at the legendary French fashion house Chanel, he also financed for her a permanent suite at the Ritz in Paris, where she kept her most precious clothes wrapped in tissue paper. When the Ritz closed for renovations between 2012 and 2016, she transferred to Le Meurice in Les Jardins Tuileries, where I think she remains.
Amanda knows everyone who is anyone in the fantastical world of fashion. And they listen to her. Anna Wintour, for example, the British editor-in-chief of U.S. Vogue, is a friend.
I do not really know why. But I am not alone.
As U.K. Vogue put it in March 2014,
There has often been confusion about exactly what Harlech’s job role is with Lagerfeld. She tried to explain it in an interview with the Financial Times: “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?”
She is, according to Lagerfeld himself, his “outside pair of eyes”—or to use the technical term, his creative consultant. He rarely speaks about her in public but told The New Yorker in 2007, “She is an inspiration, because she wears the clothes I make, and she mixes them with other things and is very inventive herself. . . . And she creates an atmosphere that is very important.”
Yet as the same article noted,
Lagerfeld’s determination to stay current requires ruthlessness and a lack of sentimentality. He periodically rids himself of art, objects, and places that, previously, had been sources of inspiration and pleasure. People are not exempt. “He kind of passes on, because he doesn’t like the past,” one of the people who travels in Lagerfeld’s circle says. “So then he decides you’re the past and then he just puts you in the trash.”
Why on earth, I wonder, has he not put her in the trash can as well?
The way I imagine it is that she is like the 1967 Lou Reed love song “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” as sung by Nico:
I’ll be your mirror
Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know
I’ll be the wind, the rain and the sunset
The light on your door to show that you’re home.
Amanda—60 this year (despite her Wikipedia entry, which says she was born in 1959)—is constantly jetting around the world, as I can see when I periodically google her.
Last January, for instance, she was in Hong Kong, says the South China Morning Post, for the world tour of Chanel’s Mademoiselle Privé exhibition about its founder, Coco Chanel, a tour which also took in Seoul.
“Wearing little make-up, and with her jet-black hair tied up, Chanel’s creative consultant is all upper class English elegance,” the newspaper eulogizes, as if speaking of royalty. “[B]ut then there’s that famous, almost punkish irreverence—apparent in her attitude, those flat boots, white tweed biker jacket (Chanel obviously) and the twinkle in her eye.”
And in December 2017 she was in Hamburg—Lagerfeld’s birthplace—for his Métiers d’Art show, described by hey woman! as “a living legend and yet kind of unknown to the public.”
Her mother, Anne, once tossed a famous magazine my way, which I am fairly sure proclaimed Amanda to be one of the 30 or so most beautiful women in the world. In 1997 she was inducted into Vanity Fair’s prestigious Best Dressed Hall of Fame, and she rarely misses the annual Met Ball in New York, nicknamed the “Oscars of the East Coast,” in celebration not of film but of fashion.
The funny thing is that while she has 209,000 Google entries, I have 539,000. Surely there must be some mistake! For who am I, compared with her?
The explanation for her relative lack of Internet traffic is, I think, that she loves to be near but not in the limelight. She wants power but not the throne. She is afraid of the throne.
Her mother had married my father, Tom Farrell, a dentist, when Amanda and I were in our early teens. We were the same age, and both went to expensive boarding schools—she to Marlborough College in Wiltshire, I to King’s Canterbury in Kent. Afterward, I “went up” to Gonville & Caius College Cambridge to read history, she to Somerville College Oxford to read English. She excelled at art, music, ballet, and literature.
Amanda’s family—though not connected with the aristocracy—was much posher than mine, and her father, Alan Grieve, a Cambridge graduate, was a top London lawyer who founded the Jerwood Foundation in 1977, which has funds of £90 million to distribute to the arts.
My father, on the other hand, was from a dirt-poor family and had somehow risen up through the ranks to achieve comfort and status.
It was quickly apparent that, like her father, Amanda had ruthless ambition.
“I will marry a Lord,” she used to say. And lo, so she did.
My father and her mother bought a beautiful old English cottage on the South Downs between London and the English Channel, near Sir Winston Churchill’s home, Chartwell, in the county of Kent, but which was just over the county border in—Oh My God, No!—the county of Surrey.
While Kent is perfectly acceptable to wannabe aristocrats, Surrey is totally vulgar, thanks to its nickname “The Stockbroker Belt” and its association with people forced—poor things—to commute to London each day to work.
Amanda could not bring herself to write the word Surrey on the envelopes of her exquisitely crafted letters home from boarding school, written to her mother with some fancy fountain pen and illustrated with little doodles, and bursting with metaphors quite impossible to decipher. And so she always put “Kent” instead.
Of course, I fell for her straight away. But she was not interested in me, not in the slightest—or so I thought until many years later.
Yes, she was beautiful, but not drop-dead gorgeous as so many have said. Her face was fabulous like a Chinese mask, thanks to her up-turned eyes and high cheek bones, and her smile irresistible. But she had a boyish figure and was prone to forego eating.
And yes, naturally, she was very intelligent and very arty. Unlike so many, she had iron in the soul within that frail body and behind that silky smile.
But she has an extra great gift which I am convinced has propelled her to the top in the mercurial and precarious world of fashion: She listens to what you say as if you are the most important person in the world, and she is able to respond with ideas and observations that enhance and progress whatever it is that you are saying to her. She makes you think that, however pitiful the little way to death, your life—to paraphrase Hermann Hesse in Steppenwolf—is at its kernel noble, and turns not on trifles but on the stars.
We used to spend hours talking about everything—especially our parents and divorce. One Christmas, I remember, she gave me a Roxy Music record—Stranded.
But I never really saw much of her after that one summer when I, at 17, showed up at her father’s stunning villa in the orange groves above Dénia on the Spanish Costa Blanca with a couple of school friends and our rucksacks.
There she was on the veranda with a group of her effete school friends doing things like playing the violin and the flute tous ensemble, or reading the poems of Lord Byron or the novels of Henry James.
And there was I with my friends attempting to be Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, complete with ponchos and cheroots but no weapons—not even guitars. The only thing we had in common with Clint was that we had nothing much to say!
It was a clash of cultures. Or so I thought. Even if it was not. Not really. As she would soon demonstrate.
By now we had both started smoking.
Her mother, my step-mother, who would have cling-wrapped everything—even life—if she could, absolutely detested the smell of cigarette smoke.
Yet Amanda was allowed to smoke in the house wherever she chose because she smoked Gauloises, which were French and smelled nice and tout ça—said Anne—and I smoked Marlboro, which were common and stank.
Her first job after Oxford was as a journalist with Harpers & Queen, but what launched her star-spangled career was meeting in 1984 the brilliant young fashion designer John Galliano, who had just graduated from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London and whose degree show, Les Incroyables, inspired by the French Revolution, launched him and her to stardom.
“We sat and had tea, as the light thickened outside and the sky turned navy-blue,” she told the Independent in 2012.
It was probably one in the morning when we finished. He brought his drawings, his paintings and his scraps of fabric, his story. Suddenly it was someone who was talking, speaking the same language as me. And my feelings were: “I don’t want to let him go, I can’t possibly exist without him,” because he electrified everything that I had felt. Here was the stuff that I dreamt of.
The two became inseparable and from then on collaborated every step of the way, from original sketch to finished product. She was much more than his muse. She was the essential cog in his machine.
Obviously, she married her Lord—in Venice, where else?—in 1986: Francis Ormsby-Gore, 6th Baron Harlech, second son of the former British ambassador to the U.S. who, after the assassination of President Kennedy, had fallen in love with Jackie Kennedy but been rejected in favor of Aristotle Onassis.
They lived at one of this famous Welsh aristocratic family’s piles in Shropshire and had two children. He looked and behaved like a gypsy and carried a knife tucked into his right boot. “How could I resist him?” she once told me. “He was Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.”
But theirs was a star-crossed marriage.
Lord Harlech, who never really worked and had inherited the title because his heroin-addicted elder brother had shot himself dead in 1974, was always strapped for cash thanks to enormous death duties on the Harlech estate. “Frank,” as he was known, drank too much and took drugs, too, and was often in trouble with the police.
Their marriage was in deep trouble when in 1996 Galliano was poached as head designer from Givenchy, where he and Amanda both worked, by the great French fashion house Dior. He offered her only peanuts to follow him—as she told me, whatever the official version—and she felt betrayed.
Frank and Amanda’s eight-year-old daughter, Talullah, educated at the exclusive private school Cheltenham Ladies College, and now an actress, had asked her mother why another woman slept in the matrimonial bed when she was away working, which she often was. “For the sake of the children, I had to act,” she once told me with clinical precision.
The couple finally divorced in 1998, which meant that she was no longer Lady Harlech, just plain Amanda, Lady Harlech.
By chance in that traumatic year she met Lagerfeld for the first time at a party in his house in the Rue de l’Université in Paris.
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,
recalled Amanda in an interview with Grazia. But that one word “hello” was all that it took.
Soon afterward they met again at another party in Paris to celebrate Elton John’s birthday, which he insisted that she attend. As she told Grazia, “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 . . . with Dior.” He offered a contract on the spot and told her, “Tell Dior to match this!” Dior did not. She rang her friend Anna Wintour for advice, which she said was the best she had ever had: “Amanda, do something professional for the first time in your life.” Did Galliano understand? “I would like one day for him to understand.”
She has been with Lagerfeld ever since, and they have become friends. She divides her time between a farm in Shropshire, where she keeps horses and whippets, and goes fox-hunting (Lucy Birley was a neighbor), and Paris.
Lord “Frank” Harlech died young, only 61 in February 2016—the same year as Amanda’s mother—as a result of his years of alcohol and drug abuse. Amanda’s son, Jasset, now 32, who went to Eton, is the new Lord Harlech.
As for Galliano, who to my knowledge has never acknowledged the importance of Amanda to his success, he was arrested in 2015 after a drunken antisemitic rant directed at a Jewish woman and her Asian partner in a bar called La Perle in Le Marais in Paris. Dior sacked him as a result, and he was later convicted of antisemitism (a crime in France) and fined. He has never managed to resurrect the cult status he used to enjoy, despite strenuous efforts to atone.
Gosh, please forgive me, I nearly forgot. Amanda is also said to have been for the best part of the past decade—though who really knows?—the girlfriend of British Oscar-winning actor Ralph Fiennes, who played Lord (ha, ha!) Voldemort in the Harry Potter films.
It was in 2009 on the Greek island of Ithaca where Penelope waited for Ulysses to return from his odyssey that I last had a proper conversation with my step-sister. I was there with my Italian wife and our four children. (We now have six.)
Chance, destiny, the hand of God? Whatever. Ithaca that year—not that I knew—was the “in” place to be for fashionistas. There we met numerous times, and we talked and talked.
“You know I really did actually fancy you,” she told me at one point. “I even asked my mother if it was OK for step-siblings to get together.”
“It would be so good to see each other more often,” I said.
“I know where to find you,” she replied.
And with that she was gone, as always.
In France, meanwhile, outside the gilded cage, the people are angry. They are seeing red this Christmas.