What is it like to work alongside some of the most creative and fertile fashion masterminds of today? Amanda Harlech spent 12 years as John Galliano’s right hand woman and the last 20 years at Karl Lagerfeld’s side at Chanel. When she gave an interview to Tim Blanks at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum last week, it was clear that her own influence on the fashion landscape of the last 40 years has been significant in itself, from her early days as a stylist for Harpers and Queen magazine to her current work as a freelance stylist, still working for Chanel.
She appeared, in signature style, slim as a hatpin in a long black gown with a white collar and cuffs, stiletto sandals flashing beneath. As images of her work appeared in slide show behind her, it was clear that monochrome looks and romantic, black and white imagery have been a key feature over the years, and clearly a tendency shared with Chanel and Lagerfeld himself.
As a child she dressed her dolls, and those of neighbour Jasper Conran. Growing up in London’s bohemian Camden Town in the 1970s, her mother made her own clothes and when she did shop, Harlech herself would frequent the local charity shops, relishing the opportunity for DIY adaptations that they offered.
She studied at Oxford and was intellectually gifted enough to have considered staying on for a PhD. Instead she took the somewhat unexpected step of applying for a secretarial job at Harpers and Queen magazine, gradually rising through the ranks to become a highly successful stylist. Her eclectic and vast range of intellectual resources come into play in her work. Her romantic images hint at stories untold, beauty interrupted by brutality, an Edwardian frock coat enveloping an avant garde dress.
Everything changed when she saw John Galliano’s Les Incroyables 1984 degree show. They cemented their alliance over tea and for his third show, The Ludic Game (AW 85-86), Harlech was his stylist. She talked with great passion about some of the shows she had loved the most.Pin Up Show (SS 1995) celebrated the dishevelled glamour of Blanche Dubois, tragic heroine of Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar Named Desire. Harlech also devised the backstory for Galliano’s AW 94-95 show when his lack of financial backer forced him to produce a collection from a minimal stock of black satin in a borrowed Parisian mansion. As the super models glided through fallen leaves strewn around the empty hallways, their kimonos, flapper cloches and ox-blood lips were set in Harlech’s concept of the recently-bereaved Japanese woman, striding her halls in grief. It was a game changing moment both for Galliano (positioning him for his imminent move to Givenchy) and for the runway show which from this point onwards was forced to become more concept-driven.
Chanel came calling shortly after that and Lagerfeld himself was hard to resist. Reading between the lines, it sounds as if she needed to draw fully on all her resilience and passion in making the transition from the creative and somewhat anarchic fervour of Galliano’s workroom to the highly-tuned fashion machine of a traditional Parisian couture house. To the Petits Mains she was the Rosbif but for Lagerfeld, she was the grit in the oyster, the disruptive element that delivered the creative spark.
What is next for this extraordinary creative force? Harlech still works as a freelance stylist. She also hinted that we may soon glimpse another aspect of her artistic gift – she has recently completed writing a novel. Next month she will return to Lagerfeld’s side as he prepares to show Chanel’s Haute Couture collection in Paris. So what would her advice be to an aspiring stylist today? Work with a young photographer to create images that resonate and then publish them online. Stay true to your passion and what motivates you most deeply and you won’t go far wrong. Sage advice from one of the most respected and highly articulate talents in the industry.