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.

Patou revisited.

IMG_5485

Coco Chanel was cool, Jean Patou not so much, he looked like a dandy, some kind of Parisian Fred Astaire, smartly dressed but without any insolence, ever so uptight, to me, he lacked a great deal of casualness, actually Patou himself lacked the very casualness his dresses had, for some reason, the women he dressed looked way smarter than he. And they looked gorgeous. Emmanuelle Polle wrote a terrific book to show us all what made Jean Patou eternally famous: the elegant gowns, the sportswear, imagine, sportswear with an haute couture approach, Nike only dresses women on the brink of exhaustion, ever so prone to dehydration, if any of the women in Patou’s sportswear ever were dehydrated it was just from champagne, believe you me, or the juice called parfum, he offered plenty of stylish perfumes, Joy was the costliest fragrance of its time, well, you had to attack Chanel and Guerlain somehow, his world was leisure and luxury, and with this book, published by Flammarion, we are allowed a glimpse into this world, let’s take those stairs, they are every bit as stylish as Chanel’s famous staircase.

IMG_5490IMG_5477IMG_5482IMG_5484IMG_5487IMG_5491IMG_5498IMG_5496IMG_5474

Elle, Gabrielle.

IMG_4093

Over the years, I bought a great many books on Coco Chanel. Not only because I’m into fashion, her achievements in fashion are more than just outstanding, she was the designer of the century, there was no competition to question that, Balenciaga surely was an artist, carefully designed perfection-to-wear, he was born to give Mona von Bismarck her raison d’être, and Dior gave the world the New Look, a look so very old now, so very démodé, visited today by millions in a museum in Paris, next to the Mona Lisa, a woman whose mysterious smile has turned into a grimace when it had become that liveless cliché it is today, a smile so rarely if ever smiled back at, merely admired, like moth balled haute couture on mannequins, but Chanel’s iconic inventions live on, they are out, on the streets, they breathe and move, they were born free, copied, reinterpreted, updated, backdated, timeless, but all of that, all these hats, buttons, pearls, fake and real, all these two-tone shoes, suits and little black dresses, all that comfy beige tweed and that refined soft lace, these numbers 5, 19 and 22, olfactory revolutions, all of it bears the same genes. Style galore. We owe it to the little black-haired girl from humble beginnings whose genius outlived it all: the Belle Époque, the wars, the Roaring Twenties, the rise and fall of countries, people and fashions, she met and loved Dukes and Grand Dukes, Englishmen and Russians, she encountered Picasso, Stravinsky, Cocteau, Reverdy, Diaghilev, basically le tout Paris of the last century. Two books by Isabelle Fiemeyer, published by Flammarion in English and French, introduce us to some of the traces such a life left behind, we are allowed a glimpse, however long, of private belongings, on letters and jewels, on golden artifacts and worn clothes – these intimate details are treasures not to be missed.

IMG_4109IMG_4105IMG_4108IMG_4102IMG_4112IMG_4098IMG_4110IMG_4117IMG_4116IMG_4113IMG_4115IMG_4106IMG_4095IMG_4100IMG_4094

Balenciaga Black.

IMG_1621

80 % of my mother’s wardrobe is and always used to be black, so I am quite familiar with the sensation of being attracted by black (seize the Oedipus connotation), but when I went to see the Balenciaga exhibition in Paris at the Musée Bourdelle this week, I was stunned as if I had never seen a black dress before. “L’œuvre au noir” showed nothing but his black masterpieces, but whether it was a daytime suit, apparently inspired by the military, or an evening dress, the way the cloth was draped, stitched, sewn and adorned, the way the fabric floated as if it didn’t weigh a thing, yet perfectly in shape, a shape only Balenciaga could ever have come up with, lace and mink, wool and crêpe de chine, embroidered or pure and simple, all of it looked out of this world, this world of quickly put together pieces, from China or Malaysia or where ever work is cheap, made for fashion victims, nouveaux riches or just plain stupid people, who only care about the label but not about quality, those who do know what I mean, you feel completely duped when a 500 dollar shirt loses buttons after the first wash, and I’m talking handwash. Anyway, now I get why Mona von Bismarck refused to leave her bed for three whole days when Balenciaga decided to retire in 1968. A dark day, though not black at all.

IMG_1225IMG_1269IMG_1260IMG_1209IMG_1272IMG_1292

IMG_1289

IMG_1242

Schiaparelli.

img_9873

In 1982, I was 14 years old and we got our first cat, a black beauty that I named Schiaparelli, although, truth be told, no alternative facts here, I pronounced it German, not Italian. Not at all Italian. At the time I only spoke German and French, and some Luxembourgish if you consider that a language. Still, I was a huge fan of Elsa Schiaparelli although I can’t recall when I first heard about her, she wasn’t in fashion at all then, I suppose it was an article in some smart magazine, for instance, I was deeply fond of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Magazine at that time, I cut out a photo of a young, barely dressed, or probably naked Jean Marais from it, photographed by Horst. Years later, as a student at university, I had it on my kitchen wall, still fond of the young Marais. Anyway, Schiaparelli was the loveliest cat ever. Utterly elegant. And believe it or not, she always – always! – smelled like my mother’s loose Christian Dior powder, I think it’s been discontinued, 600 Plus Qu’Invisible, at the time still sold in these pink old school boxes, completely old fashioned even at that time, we all wondered how she did it, she would come in after extended walks in the neighbourhood, after days sometimes, she was quite a tramp, from rain or snow, her paws covered in mud and dirt, but she always smelled like Dior. But don’t judge her by that alone. She was quite destructive. She mocked the craftsmanship of my mother’s antique prie dieu, a kneeler from the 1850s whose original upholstery she made look as if Jeanne d’Arc had left it behind in battle, but we left it that way, she seemed to enjoy her iconoclasm, it was only restored after her death, in black silk cotton, in a neverending mourning period style. I think Elsa would have liked her, Coco Chanel maybe not so much.