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.

Fashion on the road.

The eye has to travel, so said Diana Vreeland once, and Gleb Derujinsky followed that instruction of hers quite literally. His fashion photography for Harper’s Bazaar did not take place in a studio, with perfect lighting, and a bar-tabac or a diner nearby that comfort zone, but outside in the world, in the streets, in the urban and not so urban jungle, his eyes travelled everywhere, and as much as we might know some of the locations, let’s face it, we’ve all strolled along the Seine and took shots on or under its bridges, some of Derujinsky’s destinations I have yet to discover myself, like the wine cellars of Maxim’s, I haven’t even ordered a steak au poivre there yet, nor have I been to the Nara Deer Park in Japan with its thousand-year-old trees. This photographer demanded a passport from his models and broke boundaries all over the world, he took them to nature, you’re born free, he seems to say, so act on it. Sometimes you can’t tell whether you’re looking at some exotic scenery in an old issue of National Geographic or at Lanvin-Castillo’s ideas for the next summer. With “Capturing Fashion”, Flammarion and Derujinsky’s daughter Andrea make our eyes travel over and over again, I just hope they won’t suffer from jet lag.

Growing into a pair of jeans.

Some years ago, I ordered a pair of jeans on an haute couture house’s website: the fancy house of Balmain with its must-have-biker-jeans had caught my attention, and due to my disposition as a wannabe fashion victim, I was easily sold. I first wore them at the premiere of Borodin’s opera Prince Igor at Hamburg’s Staatsoper, with a matching dinner jacket—matching, because it was also designed by Olivier Rousteing (although I had ordered that one at Mr Porter). Anyway, when you order a pair of trousers online you can never be quite sure if they fit at all, and my 32-inches-waistline wasn’t met at all by Balmain’s idea of 32 inches, not in the very least, as a matter of fact, this pair of jeans almost dropped when I wore them that night. During intermission, I was forced to stand still at the bar, my facial expression frozen with fear they might turn me into an exhibitionist, and I really hate causing any kind of commotion. So, after their first night out, this pair of jeans was put into my wardrobe and since then, it has spent some years in the closet like any other misfit. This year, however, I kind of ran out of trousers as I had put on a little weight. And so, after all this time, I tried them on once again, still expecting a loose fit, of course, just not one loose enough to put me in distress—but that’s just what they did! They almost cut off my circulation! Obviously, I had put on much more weight than I ever expected. Horrid sensation! What a humiliation! The morale of the story? Beware of Balmain.

The black letter.

I did the impossible, I finished Proust! I finished! I finished Marcel Proust! I am so proud of myself!

Well, as you might have found out by now, I didn’t finish À la recherche du temps perdu, no, of course not, I’m still trapped in one of those extended Guermantes reflections of his, I only finished Jean Santeuil, one might call it Proust for beginners, it should set them at ease as Proust himself didn’t finish that one either, writing, I mean, not just reading it. So, obviously he was a quitter, too. Ha! But I don’t give up that easily, and from now on, I’ll start wearing this Étrivière Double Tour by Hermès to remind me of my literary shortcomings. If ever I succeed in finishing Proust’s masterpiece, all volumes, all of them, all of these three thousand pages, I shall take it off again. Until then, it’s going to serve as a scarlet letter for everybody to see what a quitter I am — damn, I have to finish Hawthorne, too. Damn!

French tailoring.

Last night, I was watching Jean Gabin going through another man’s wardrobe, he was playing Maigret of course, so the indiscretion was work related, it was done in fine style, with the utmost calm, actually, everything Jean Gabin does is so wonderfully calm, so composed and tranquil, as if his entire being was a neverending stream of contemplation, and while he was inspecting the clothes of one of his suspects, Jean Desailly’s, as of course I was watching Maigret tend un piège from 1958, he uncovered the label of one of the suits, some fine tailoring by – no, not by Prada or Brioni or Zegna, but by Bernheim & Fils – a tailor whose shop was on rue de la Boétie. This scene struck me, but why? The wardrobe belonged to some Parisian interior architect, these were the 1950s, our times’ fashion victims weren’t even born yet, of course this man had his suits tailor made. Suddenly, I felt very poor, poor in style, my suits are all mass produced bullshit, however prestigious the labels, and while I continued watching Maigret meddling in this guy’s life, I felt like putting on my white Charvet shirt, the only thing in my wardrobe that might have a chance to find a fellow counterpart in that fine French murderer’s wardrobe.

The history of things.

I hate new things. I love things with a history attached. Fragrances, for instance. Bois des Iles is from 1926, the year The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was published, Agatha Christie’s first ‘whodunnit’ story featuring Hercule Poirot, her Belgian detective, and reformulated or not, it still smells like Coco Chanel, au petit jour in the backseat of a black Rolls-Royce, wrapped in her sable coat, on her way home from a delightful sexual encounter with some of these men way out of her league, socially speaking, they were all of such noble birth, rich as hell or nouveau pauvre – très nouveau, très pauvre, but in fact, they all were out of hers, they just had names, names they were just born with, she had made herself a name, a name worth millions then and now, she chose her lovers like others chose jewelry, and was hated for it, envied at least, but to hell, she was no bourgeoise, she just dressed them. The dresser it stands on is from the same time, by the way. It belonged to a pharmacist, so the antique dealer I bought it from told me, considering it’s art deco, it wasn’t even new when he bought it. Inherited, maybe. Or a pharmacist who was into art deco, sounds like an interesting man, somebody who had looked out for something special, who wanted to enjoy opening his sock drawer, suavely, pulling it open with the gentlemanly grip burl wood demands. On the other hand, he might have hated it. Too many memories attached. It might have belonged to his wife who left him for another man. A younger one. Although he was only 36 when she left. He waited all his life for her to come back. Didn’t touch her personal things, her silk stockings, kept them as if she would come back for them, or him – as if, she’d reply – maybe it was just one of those things, he kept telling himself. Or maybe not. Maybe he was just way out of her league.

Hamburg‘s fish market.

One day, strolling through Hamburg’s Neuer Wall, I came, quite by chance, across some deep sea fish. Despite their vivid colours they seemed to be smothering, their mouths gasped for air, their eyes were wide open in fear of death, a very realistic illustration of the stress put on fish by, well, fishing. Now, Hamburg is known for its Fischmarkt, you can find almost anything in the shadow of the 100-year old fish auction hall, but I wasn’t expecting anything like it on display in the Hermès windows on Neuer Wall, obviously, I had come across some fine ichthyology, quite haut de gamme. I was hooked, quite literally, I was reeled in, so to say, and was set free again some minutes later, a little poorer, but with Grands Fonds in its orange box, I was quite at ease, not only had I a new scarf in splendid colours, but also had I learned that there’s a lot to see in the deep blue sea, and that the depicted fish were all still very much alive.