Women We Love: Amanda Harlech

©Miriam Marlene Waldner

Karl Lagerfeld describes Amanda Harlech as his “second pair of eyes”. In this interview with Veronika, she talks about him, fashion and Chanel

Admire an icon from afar – and then get the chance to meet them. It sounds like a slightly unrealistic chapter from a manual entitled How To Turn Your Dreams Into Reality. That book may not exist in the real world, but it is a true story. My story.

Now I wish I had read my horoscope that week to see if some mild-mannered stars and planets might have had something up their sleeves. It was just a week before Chanel’s highly anticipated Métiers d’Art show in Hamburg, where the story of Karl Lagerfeld began. I received an email announcing when and where she was going to be available for an interview. I had to re-read it. It was really going to happen, Lady Amanda Harlech – Karl’s muse, or as he prefers to say, “his second pair of eyes” – and I having a conversation. In the same room.

My excitement very quickly backed itself into “level-9 mental rigidity” – as in 9 out of 10. In theory, I had collected a million and one questions for Amanda since I had first heard about her. Actually, I didn’t exactly “hear” much about her: It was more a whisper here and there, well-connected fashion people talking about this woman with the magic touch. It was a complex situation, being a living legend and yet kind of unknown to the public, and it sounded very chic (and even more clever) to me.

So, what does one ask a person of this caliber? I didn’t want to bore her with the usual questions, like “what does a muse do?”…but I also didn’t want to look like a stalker by saying that I am obsessed with the dark and romantic world of the 17th century and the romanticism of the 90s that she has brought back to fashion.

Now that it’s happened, I know that all of my worries were for nothing. I was lucky to learn another lesson about how great people are also the most kind. After I asked about Ida May, her beautiful grey horse that gloriously turned up on her Instagram feed a few weeks ago, we couldn’t stop chatting away, and especially after the official interview was done and we explored the Speicherstadt district of Hamburg around the Wasserschloss by foot, taking in the beautiful grey mood of the day. So much so that our sound guy – sorry, Adam! – possibly still has a horse phobia.

As I feel my written words cannot do it true justice, I am even happier that we produced evidence in the form of spoken words and images – from the very source, herself. Please enjoy 4 minutes and 22 seconds with Lady Amanda Harlech:

Et voilà, some more interesting mid-interview details that didn’t make it into the film clip:

What is your favorite decade in fashion and why?

The time that I started in fashion is now sort of an era… it’s really weird. The romanticism of the 90s, and when the Japanese first came on the scene, that was a very exciting time. Well, for me that seems very near to where I am now, but in fact it’s not. I love the 20s, I do. Maybe because my great aunts were alive then and they were, in an imaginative way, very impactful on my life. Maybe I kind of exoticized their past. One was an artist and one was an artist’s muse, and I have some of their clothes, a Fortuny dress, that kind of thing. I have seen tiny little footage of them and they looked so amazing, clever suffragettes. I’m sort of proud of that. I also like the 17th century. I think I was alive in the 17th century, on a horse riding sidesaddle. [laughs] I love the embroideries.

And I love now as well, the “about to be” – this collection. I really, really want that collection. It is very revealing about Karl. It is about all the things we know he likes and loves. You have the red brick of these warehouses transposed into tweed, but also you have the “sailors on the dock,” but in an idealised, romantic version. It is so elegant and so chic – like the black silk sailor pants, that come sort of mid-calf, so then you have got your slender ankle and the most beautiful shoes. Oh my god. They are just divine. And they’ve got sailor hats, and they have sort of a veil over them so the whole thing is, like, seen through this grey December fog. For me, it’s like a dream. But it’s the “about to be.” When Karl gets this tipping point between past and future in this extraordinary present, that is where he is really good.

I also love that he does not just look left and right. It is his way and somehow it is always relevant.

I am really excited. Even if I am not going to get the clothes to wear for ages, because they don’t go into the shops for so long.

If you had to get dressed in 60 seconds, what would you look like?

Where? Because I am a logical person. Am I at home? Am I in Paris? Am I in Hamburg?

Let’s say at home. A friend arrives and you have 60 seconds – you just got up. What do you do?

This time of the year, about three sweaters, a man’s shirt, these Danish compression socks I love, and a scarf probably. In my room this morning I had my yoga pants, some yellow compression socks, my trainers, and a t-shirt from Holland & Holland that says “weasel” on it. I was really upset that I was given “weasel” because it’s not an animal that I liked particularly. I was like, “Thanks Stella” (Tennant). But my daughter googled “weasel” and it actually has mythical qualities. It was an animal that was worshiped by Native Americans for it’s psychic powers. So I was like “Ok, I am a weasel.” Because I actually wanted the “hedgehog”…

You spend most of your time with work, so it’s great when it’s also your hobby and your passion and what you love doing the most.

Exactly. And Karl is never happy with what he has done, maybe for a flicker of a second and then he wants to go on. And fashion is like that. Fashion never stands still. Like time.

Except the house of Chanel. I would like to know more about your view on fashion now compared with fashion ten or twenty years ago. Chanel, of course, is an exception…

Yes, because it is not driven by shareholders, so in a business sense it has its unique way, because the vision of Karl is paramount. You know obviously the Wertheimers are great old friends and Bruno Pavlovsky has worked with him wonderfully for years and years, so there is a dialogue there. I think this is quite unique. I think nowadays when a designer arrives at a house, often the business side of things can push too hard or be too demanding to get a return. You know, the insistence on the bestseller – the It-Bag. I often think fashion has a quite slow burn. Sometimes it is good to be thoughtful. Sometimes a designer needs time to get into his stride. I think they need to know the spirit of the house. People do not buy clothes from only one fashion label now. I think we all like to make our own style and mix it with old and new.

How has the house developed throughout the years? Chanel does not seem to go with the crazy changes, but that’s a good thing in this case.

I think there is a whole trend that is happening, certainly in my daughter’s generation. Tallulah is a very gifted stylist, but works in a different way from me and she often says the whole thing is less about buying the latest thing of the runway, or even pre-collection, which has more of a profile saleswise than the ready-to-wear. It’s about lifestyle, and more kids are interested in clothes becoming a part for their life forever. The eco-movement is never something that sounds very desirable to the fashion industry, but you know the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry after the petrochemical industry, and we can actually change the planet. How fabulous is that! Not only by recycling, but actually by creating fabrics out of plastics. The things that are effectively damaging the planet can actually be put to great use.

I am positive about the industry. The film True Cost was very upsetting to see – even the chrome on a buckle can even produce terrifying polluting effects. And I also believe fashion is like farming in a sense: How you grow your food and how you cook it is like how you grow your cotton, how you weave it, how you color it, how you sew it, how you embroider it. If that is all done – and it sounds too saintly to say “with love” – but with an attitude that is a positive, then I think those clothes will be “forever clothes”. And possibly, and this sounds really kind of mad, be invested with a sort of love that makes you never want to put them in the bin. We have to stop throwing out our clothes. The big question is: How many t-shirts can you posses or how many coats – in your whole life? How many? What do you think?

I don’t know. I have been thinking a lot about that lately, because when I am in London I have a smaller closet and I am already struggling. But I also think you can totally minimize it and I think it feels good, because you are quicker in the morning.

I do a good edit. When you buy something, ask yourself a lot questions about that. We work in fashion. We know that there is this trigger of desire which is aspirational, which is about a transformative thing, which is about a dream. And all those things are good things. But if you buy something, you need to ask yourself questions – “well, is there something in the back of the closet?” – and give it to a charity shop or somewhere it can go on and have another life. And cutting up things and remaking them is also a great thing to do. I have got a lovely woman in the village. She is very used to me coming with a bag of stuff and she even made me a wonderful patchwork quilt made out of bits of dresses that were really tattered and danced to a sort of death. But they were beautiful, beautiful fabrics, so it is like the story of a dress in a patchwork quilt. So, there are many things that you can do.

Yes, it is a very good way. What I also love about fashion nowadays is, like you said, that we actually think about that now and that it is important, whereas years ago it was not even considered. People didn’t want to even mention it because it could possibly ruin sales. Now it is the opposite.

I think it’s a great change and I think it’s wonderful to see actually a future where fashion can make a huge difference.

Ok, let’s get a little bit into social media. Of course I follow you on Instagram. Your images are very mysterious, very dark. Is that how you see the world?

No. I am not really somebody who uses social media. I am somebody that sometimes gets so overjoyed by what I see that I have to post it. And I didn’t grow up with computers – I grew up with paper, a fountain pen and ink, a paint brush, and a camera with film. So for me it is sort of a joy. And I must say the whole thing of instant gratification, being able to post a picture online, is a fantastic thing. And it’s certainly why I got into fashion in the first place, because I was at university and I was really going to be a writer. It was only because Sophie Hicks took me on a fashion shoot that I realized how much quicker it was it to get your ideas across in a photoshoot, much quicker than sitting in my little tiny room writing for six months or a year. So the thrill of being able to see what you had in your mind’s eye is something that I find very exciting.

Having said that, my photographs are largely about what I see out of my window at home, hence a lot of a certain tree. I love that tree – I see that tree in every light of every season. Somebody once wrote something really horrible and said: “You look so sad. You’re always leaving, and that stupid tree again”. I was really stung by that and it stayed with me for a whole Saturday that somebody criticized me. And then I thought about it and I thought: “No, I’m sorry for you that you can’t see it in all the different lights, in all the seasons. The passing of time, the passing of light, is what is so magical to me.” Another thing: I am obsessed with flowers. I have a garden, not a huge garden, but I love my roses particularly. They all tell stories. I once did a book called The Things My Mother Told Me and the Things My Mother Didn’t Tell Me, which was about flowers. Because sometimes she couldn’t say things, and she would explain it through a flower instead. So it is a book of pressed flowers and things like that, so flowers, horses… I am like Edie Campbell, who’s a brilliant horse woman…

You own horses?

Yes, I am riding one I bred, the little grey Ida May. She’s five.

What kind of horse is she?

She is a sports horse. Her mother was a race horse, so she is very thoroughbred and hence extremely impatient, very opinionated – quite like Choupette: a princess, a very big diva. She doesn’t like the rain, for example, so if you’re riding her and it pours with rain, she just chucks down the toys like a child: “I’m doing this anymore.” And when I say “No, no, no, we’re halfway home – you’re going keep going forward. Go on, trot on” she then takes it out on my other horse and tries to kick him to bits. But you don’t often see pictures of me riding because I am not like Edie, who obviously has someone to her side taking the picture. I think it is her trainer. And I haven’t got that. I think Amanda Brooks has a GoPro on her head, so you often see the horses ears. In Mary McCartney photographs, obviously she is holding the camera… I don’t carry a phone when I’m riding: I don’t want to fall on it. But I should try, the best sight of the world is between the horses’ two ears.

I am interested in the parallel between fashion and horses. Certainly when you’re doing dressage and things like that, they say the whole picture counts. So I do see a parallel, and I think it is very good for anxious people like myself to get on a horse. I cannot take the baggage of my worries and fears onto the back of another creature: It’s not fair. I have to be totally present.

And it’s also not good when you bring all of your fears to riding, because then the horse overreacts. So you need to calm down. I sometimes tell myself it’s like forced yoga – you need to breathe.

Yes, and also to tell yourself you are doing a great job.

Another highlight of this trip was receiving Amanda’s new book Die Renaissance einer Stadt (The Renaissance of a City), published by Steidl. For the book, Karl Lagerfeld had asked her to visit Hamburg and take images of her favorite sights before the show. Needless to say, she shot everything in mysterious black and white.

CHANEL Métiers d’Art Show – Paris Hamburg 17/18 Collection‎

If you want to find out more about the world of Amanda Harlech, you can follow her on Instagram (@amandaharlech).

Interview PHOTOGRAPHER: Miriam Marlene Waldner
Interview: Veronika Heilbrunner
Production Manager: Julia Knolle


Born and raised in Munich/Germany, Veronika’s professional career has developed from being a model to a fashion editor, to online luxury retailing and most recently style editor of Harpers Bazaar Germany. She currently lives in Berlin where in the beginning of 2015 she started a company with Julia Knolle, the ex-editor at large of Vogue Digital.
Oh, and she loves pugs!

Please send all inquiries via instagram.com/veronikaheilbrunner. The email address info@hey-woman.com will no longer be handling this form of communication.