The Day I Met A Fashion Legend

Victoire Doutreleau started working with Christian Dior in 1953, at the height of his fame, when everybody from Marlene Dietrich to Princess Margaret wore Dior. Merely twenty years old, she had become one his models, one of his mannequins. In these days, every single look of a collection, all of these wonderfully elegant day-time dresses and suits, all of these lavishly adorned evening and ball gowns were created on a mannequin’s body before they were finally presented to the press and the designer’s customers, in a rather modest surrounding compared to today’s over-dimensional fashion shows whose costs often exceed China’s GNP (well, maybe not China’s, but definitely the one of some African state), in these days a simple room filled with lots of chairs would do, in Christian Dior’s case, however, the walls were painted in some fine grey, a shade of grey so exquisite, that a Dior perfume now bears its name, Gris Dior. The people that were sitting in these chairs had fine names, too. Victoire Doutreleau paraded past le tout Paris, the international press, Harper’s Bazaar’s Carmel Snow, the one who in 1947 came up with the iconic expression New Look for Dior’s very first collection, photographers like Richard Avedon, and at one time Hollywood icon Audrey Hepburn with husband Mel Ferrer. This is where I came in.

I posted this photo on my Instagram account, writing a little story in French about this fashionable encounter, about Audrey Hepburn’s infidelity, she was Hubert de Givenchy’s muse after all at the time and not Christian Dior’s, but all in all it was rather a tribute to Victoire Doutreleau’s charme, her smile and grace in this photo had amazed me much more than the chicness of the Dior dress she was flaunting. And just by chance, or divine intervention, who knows, it just so happened that Victoire Doutreleau read my story on Instagram and found it most amusing. And by that, she won my heart.

Many a story later, I had moved from Zurich to Berlin in the meantime, and had written little somethings about her friendship with Yves Saint Laurent whom she followed when he left the house of Dior to open his own couture house in 1962, her best friend Karl Lagerfeld whose death she mourns deeply, and the great dresses she has worn, we had become sort of acquainted, and this December she invited me to tea in her Paris apartment, an elegant pied à terre where she stays when she’s not in Switzerland or at her 18th-century mansion in the South of France. I arrived the day Paris went on strike, my flight was over three hours late, there was no métro to take me any place near or far, it was raining heavily, but Boy, did I not mind! Imagine the joy you have when you learn all about Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Bergé (that one not so charming as one might have thought), Françoise Sagan, Helena Rubinstein, The Duchess of Windsor, Marlene Dietrich, Princess Margaret, Jacques de Bascher, Karl Lagerfeld, nights at the Paris opera with Alain Delon at her side and Maria Callas on stage, showing Olivia de Havilland, one of Dior’s most loyal customers, how to walk tête haute, learning about all that straight from the horse’s mouth! However, no expression could be less fitting. Straight from the goddess’s lips, this has a much better ring to it… A goddess dressed in a red Chanel, too. Designed by Karl Lagerfeld, that one, not Coco, who she has met as well, of course, un génie et un monstre, so she told me. She wore Mademoiselle’s suits in the years between, between being dressed by Dior and Saint Laurent, the time when Yves Saint Laurent was hospitalized during the Algerian war. We talked for hours, over champagne and snacks, only disturbed by texts from her sons and my mother. Both our closest family weren’t so sure about this internet connection of ours and wanted to be sure nothing awful had happened—who the hell had she invited? Who the hell was I seeing? But we told them to trust our guts just like we did. Unless all of it was a dream, I can only say that one meets the most wonderful people on Instagram.

Marlene in Paris.

In 1936, Marlene Dietrich entered a jeweller’s shop in Paris and uttered some unforgettable words to me: “I would like to see some pearls”. Some pearls. Not to necessarily buy any, just to see some, in a tone that left no doubt about having some infinite riches on her hands, while suavely smiling, with that ironic twinkle of hers, not in her eye, but in her lips, unmatched sophistication and wit, the sort of smile that demands an IQ way above average, quite Einsteinesque a brain, just with a much better hair-do, or, in that particular case, a hat by Travis Banton, of course, later in that movie it turns out she’s utterly broke, anyway, I was deeply impressed. Deeply. In 1999, I entered the Hermès shop in Cologne, uttering the words “I would like to see some cufflinks.”, but it just wasn’t the same. I had aimed too high. But now that you know about my connection to Marlene Dietrich, I give you Flammarion’s edition of Pierre Passebon’s collection of some of the best photographs ever taken of her, the collection’s still on display in Paris, until February 25th at Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris. But if you can’t make it to 5-7, rue de Fourcy in the Marais within the next 48 hours, you just enter a bookshop and repeat after me: “I would like to see some photographs of Marlene Dietrich.”