My brilliant career: Lynn Barber meets Amanda Harlech

She could have been a ballerina, a pianist or an artist. Instead she married a lord and became the style-savvy muse to two of the world's leading fashion designers. Here, Amanda Harlech tells Lynn Barber why she left John Galliano for Karl Lagerfeld, why she's as happy in Shropshire as Paris and why we'll all be in jodhpurs next season

I still for the life of me can't understand what Lady ('Call me Amanda') Harlech does. She is usually described as 'muse' to Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel, but she says she doesn't like that word - 'I find it rather old-fashioned. I think I'm more amusing.' She talks about being a sounding board, or a wall against which Lagerfeld bounces his ideas - she is very fond of metaphors from which it is often difficult to unpick the truth. She says her job is extremely challenging and that after each trip to Paris she feels as though her eyeballs have been flayed. But whatever her job is, she is universally agreed to be very good at it, and very well paid, not only with money but - and this is the point at which I start hyperventilating with envy - with a permanent suite at the Paris Ritz.

The suite is used by other guests between her visits, but the manager, Manfred, reserves it for her during the collections, and the housekeeper, Martine, puts away the hotel clutter she loathes and replaces it with her books, scented candles and sheets, which are stored for her at the Ritz. She stores most of her couture clothes there because, she says, it has proper closets whereas she has clothes moths at home. Pretty good, eh? And she has been doing this muse lark for 10 years for Karl Lagerfeld and, before that, for 12 years for John Galliano, which is just about as good as it gets in Paris fashion terms.

Moreover, she doesn't have to work in Paris for more than half the year. She is expected to be on hand for the collections, and Lagerfeld has more than any other designer - six for Chanel, four for Fendi and four for his own label - but between times she stays at home in Shropshire with her two horses, two dogs, two cats and two children. She rides (she used to hunt), she cooks, she paints, she gardens, she does yoga, she shops in Shrewsbury, and then every few weeks she swaps her riding boots for Manolos and flies off to Paris to be a muse.

So how do you get to be a muse? Why can't I be one? I suppose it helps that she is effortlessly chic, tiny, beautiful and manages to look elegant whatever she is wearing. She is also - and this I find much harder to acknowledge - friendly, charming, intelligent, good company and all the things I was rather hoping she wouldn't be. She apologised for 'dragging me down to Shropshire' and said the least she could do would be to meet me off the train and give me lunch - a delicious lunch, it turned out, of fish stew and home-grown salad from the garden.

But I realised we came from different planets when she was telling me about her divorce and suddenly broke off to announce: 'You know, I never normally talk about this, but I love your green necklace and I feel a connection. I do! Because I was expecting someone so different, so frightening, but I love all the colours you're wearing - you are a true soul.'

Oh, believe me, Amanda, I'm not! I am only wearing the green necklace because I forgot to collect my blue trousers - which I would have worn with a red necklace - from the dry cleaners, so I was forced to wear brown. It is the purest chance that I appear 'a true soul'. I find it frightening that anyone can attach so much importance to clothes. Although when she shows me her boudoir, with all the rails of fabulous Galliano, Chanel and vintage dresses, the drawers full of Manolo shoes, the antique kimonos, the wonderful ivory-silk embroidered coat she wore for her wedding to Lord Harlech in 1986, I am almost, almost converted. And these are not even her best clothes - her best clothes are in Paris. But she keeps them all because: 'The dresses are not haunted, but invested with something that I don't want to let go - happy times, I suppose.'

She tells me she hardly thinks about clothes between collections and seldom buys new ones. But then as the collections approach, 'I know I'll be dissatisfied with something and will have to rejig it for what's coming. But you're six months ahead of when those clothes are going to be in the shops, so you have to do it yourself, from vintage and current, and a pair of scissors in my case. And once you see the right proposition, there is no other way of dressing. So, coming up, I think it's jodhpurs and a tiny jacket, so dig out your tiny jacket and wear it with some breeches, and wrap a scarf round and you've got a look - and you can do it yourself now, before the things come into the shops.' But I thought that to be chic you had to have your own style, not be a slave to fashion? 'Yes, but your style is your take on how clothes are moving on. So if this was your perfect dress 10 years ago, you might have to do something with the length now, because skirts are a lot shorter. Skirts are either going to be long or short - I have a feeling they'll go quite long, actually.'

She has only once, as far as she knows, made a serious fashion mistake. She bought a pair of Manolo round-toed court shoes which made her think of Eva Peron, but Karl said: 'You look like a secretary' and she was so appalled she took them straight back. 'They were fabulous but Karl was right: they weren't me, they were too chunky for my leg - I didn't see myself correctly.'

This same precise eye is very apparent in her house. The exterior is quite ugly, even grim (she thinks it is two farmhouses knocked together with an Edwardian facade), but inside is the sort of dilapidated splendour that English aristos do so well - tattered curtains, dressers of lovely unmatched antique china, walls stripped back to the original plaster but still stained with traces of old paint, great jugs of sweet peas. There is a pile of empty fruit crates in the hall, placed there because she likes the colour - ditto a man's waistcoat thrown on the back of a chair which she describes as 'Beau Brummell beige'. Most of the furniture is ancient, collapsing, but there is a very smart new Steinway piano given her by Karl Lagerfeld - she plays the piano, too.

The kitchen is, of course, vast, with an Aga, a refectory table and two leopard-print dog beds for her whippets. The one discordant note is a huge blackboard which has all the usual stuff about phoning the plumber, fixing the lawn mower, but also a complicated list of dates and sums. These are her fuel bills, 'because as a single woman it's terrifying how much it costs just running this house, and I'm trying to cut the fuel bill every way I can - it's £700 every two months. If I lose my job, I wouldn't be able to do that, so I'm just going to turn the heating off. I'll survive - I will survive. I'll just wear lots of woollies.'

She has had a charmed life. Born Amanda Grieve in 1959, the daughter of a successful solicitor (who now runs the Jerwood Foundation) and a beautiful mother, with two brothers, she grew up in Regent's Park where her neighbours included Alan Bennett, VS Pritchett and George Melly and Jonathan Miller, who stopped her in the street one day and said: 'You know, opera is the most amazing, orgasmic thing!' She was only 11. She played dressing up dolls with another neighbour, Jasper Conran, and remembers cutting up one of her mother's couture dresses to make a witch's costume for Halloween - her mother didn't mind. But the Regent's Park idyll ended when her parents divorced and moved to the country, and she had to switch from her London day school, South Hampstead, to board at Marlborough.

As a young child she planned to be a prima ballerina and (of course) won a place at the Royal Ballet School, but her mother was worried she would develop turned-out feet, so introduced her to riding. She was also good at painting, acting, piano - you name it - and says when she left school it was a toss-up whether she would go to the Slade School of Fine Art, the Royal College of Music, or Oxford. (Are you throwing up yet? I almost am.) She chose Oxford to read English, which she loved so much she was tempted to do a PhD on 'Henry James and moral bankruptcy', but then her friend Sophie Hicks got a job as fashion editor of Harpers & Queen and asked her to come and help. 'It was electrifying. So then the visual thing happened.' With typical Amanda luck, Sophie Hicks soon moved to Vogue so Amanda took over her job as junior fashion editor, which meant working with all the new designers, such as Bodymap, and photographers, such as Mario Testino. 'We'd shoot these things that were like fairy tales, really. But I was a difficult, tricky, over-idealistic editor who would dig her heels in and refuse to do things because they were too much like advertising, so at the point where I think they were going to fire me, I met John [Galliano] who was the visual response to everything I could have imagined - he did shows which were stories and adventures - so I went with him.'

Galliano couldn't afford to pay her, but by this time she was married to Lord Harlech and 'provided I had my train fare back to Shropshire, I had a roof over my head'. Her husband was Francis Ormsby-Gore, son of the British ambassador to Washington (she fell for his 'gypsy brown eyes'), but his father died in a car crash during their engagement so she became Lady Harlech on marriage. They had two beautiful children, Jasset and Tallulah, and were idyllically happy for the first few years, living on the family estate in Shropshire and spending summers at the other ancestral seat, Glyn, in North Wales. But, like so many aristocrats, they were land rich, cash poor, so Amanda kept working to pay the school fees and luckily when Galliano moved to Givenchy he was able to pay her more - her son went to Eton, her daughter to Cheltenham Ladies' College. Jasset is 21 and doing graphic design at Central Saint Martins, aiming to work in advertising; Tallulah, 18, hopes to be an actor.

But working in Paris meant Amanda was away a lot and her husband went into decline - according to Catherine Wilson of the Telegraph, 'From being a rakish, Heathcliffian figure, he descended into the demi-monde of alcohol and drugs.' He was convicted of drink driving several times and of possessing heroin on Crewe railway station. (His sister had already died from a drugs overdose, and his brother by shooting himself in the mouth.) Then one weekend Tallulah, aged eight, asked Amanda why this other woman was sleeping in Daddy's bed - apparently it had been going on for two years. 'I didn't want to get divorced, but at the point where your children are part of it, you have to do something. I would really love it not to have happened because it haunts you, it will never go away, and it is probably the biggest failure, and I have to live with that.'

As a peer, her husband's property was all entailed to the Harlech estate, so there was no question of her keeping the marital home. She had to rent a tiny cottage down the road and squash in with the children. 'It was hard at times, because they didn't have a big house like their friends: it was a shoebox. It meant they kind of lost their childhood early, but now they're really proud of me, and they come home often.' After the divorce she was 'an outcast' from the aristocracy, but she didn't mind - she rarely uses her title in England, though it comes in useful in Paris. Her ex-husband has since sold all his English estates (their old home was knocked down) and lives at Glyn. He has never remarried. 'I think,' says Amanda, 'he agrees with me that neither of us is very good at relationships. But we love our children, and that's the main thing.'

The end of her marriage coincided with, and in fact caused, her move from Galliano to Lagerfeld, but she couldn't say that at the time and Paris was abuzz with rumours. The same weekend she found out her husband was having an affair, Galliano was negotiating a contract with LVMH to move from Givenchy to Dior. 'I understand,' she sighs, 'that anybody who has just got the job of his dreams is not going to say: There's this English girl that I need on the payroll. And I remember ringing up and saying, "Don't do this to me! I really need to be financially independent now!" And Karl Lagerfeld knew I was having problems and all he said was: "Look, get Dior to take you seriously. I'd love you to work for me, but you have a very special relationship with John, and I respect that. But this is what Chanel would offer you. Take this contract to Dior and say, 'Match this.'" So I did, and they rang back and said: Is this a joke? So I asked round lots of friends, like Anna Wintour, and they all said: "Make a professional decision for the first time in your life, Amanda", and I did. It was scary. But I had to do it, I had to, I had nothing, and I couldn't go on working for 30 grand.' Was Galliano upset? 'Very. He saw it as a betrayal.'

But they have gradually become friends again, especially since the death of Galliano's assistant Steven Robinson last April: 'Steven was his right-hand man, and it was awful. Then Isabella [Blow] died - it's been a bad year.'

At first she found working for Lagerfeld very different to working for Galliano. She and Galliano had started from scratch together so they were almost like brother and sister, and part of her job was to boost his confidence and say, 'You can do it!' Whereas Lagerfeld was old enough to be her father and already knew he could do it: he had been Kaiser Karl presiding over his court in Paris for years. Moreover, the courtiers were not exactly welcoming. 'I'd come in to work and find they'd stuck up pictures of roast beef in my office, which they thought was funny, or I'd find them giggling over a portrait of me that Karl had done. But that's in the past. They've realised that I'm not a threat - I don't want their jobs.' Did she tell Lagerfeld about the pictures of roast beef? 'No, Karl is someone who believes you either swim or you sink. You do not expect him to protect you; you protect yourself.'

After her divorce, she had a long relationship with Neil Gittins, a local farmer she met hunting, but that ended last year. 'So I'm by myself. I am not good wife material because I'm fiercely independent and like to go off and do my own thing. I'd come back from a trip and be tired and have no more to give him. Or I'd be in the stables all day - we had eight horses - and crawl into the kitchen at seven, exhausted. Happily exhausted, in a way, because I'd managed not to think all day, kidding myself that manual labour frees the mind, but in the end it imprisoned mine. So, understandably, he found someone else. It's sad. Eight years is a long time.' How long did her marriage last? 'Twelve. Not doing very well, am I?'

No. In fact it rather confirms my theory that people who are very keen on clothes aren't very keen on sex. But then she perks up and says, 'But it's good for writing. You know that gap between where you are and where you'd like to be? Within that gap, there is an ache and an aspirational leap which is very good for writing.' Ah, her writing. She is keen to talk about it, and keeps raising the subject, whereas I have been putting it off for as long as possible. She has written the texts for two photography books, one called Palazzo by Lagerfeld, and one called Sicily by Michael Roberts, both to be published this autumn. They are good on atmosphere and metaphor - 'He felt isolated in this painted catacomb where meaning walked backwards like servants performing ancient rituals in the shadows' - but not so hot on plot or characterisation.

Palazzo started life as a shoot for Fendi perfume, but Lagerfeld got the picture he wanted almost immediately and still had the models for two more days, so Amanda suggested they use them to make a story. Lagerfeld told her to go away and write the script while he shot more photos, and amazingly, she says, his pictures fitted her script perfectly. Now she wants to do a follow-up, a ghost story, and plans to devote a whole week to writing it. 'Writing,' she says, 'is something I should have done more of, it's a form of coming home. It's something I've always done - I write a diary every day - but never committed to. But now, having someone like Karl saying: "Right, my publisher will publish your story, it will be illustrated with your watercolours, get going", that is what I'm incredibly fortunate to have, and that's what I will do.'

I get the impression she doesn't expect to remain a muse for ever, and is looking for a second string to her bow. Maybe she's wondering what she'll do if Lagerfeld retires, though she insists he will never retire and is never ill. She claims not to know how old he is - 'He's got to be younger than me in some respects because he has a helluva lot more energy!' - but if she looked him up on Wikipedia she would find he is 73. Does she ever worry about her future? 'Yes. And then I think: Well, I can turn the heating off and just write my way out of here, in my woollies. Joan Didion is a total icon to me, she's a brilliant writer and she just does it - she writes, and she's gone through hell. It's possible, isn't it?' It is. But for her to mention her own writing in the same breath as Joan Didion's makes me so furious I can barely speak. It was a terrible mistake to have worn the green necklace.

· To order a copy of Palazzo by Amanda Harlech and Karl Lagerfeld for £17, with free UK p&p, go to or call 0870 836 0885


Lynn Barber

The GuardianTramp

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