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The Titans Behind Chanel

By Emma Sells

They have worked together for 25 years. They are the guardians of fashion’s most secretive powerhouse. And they are not at all how you might imagine them to be… Rebecca Lowthorpe meets Chanel’s Holy Trinity: Bruno Pavlovsky, Virginie Viard and Karl Lagerfeld.

Read an extract from the interview below then buy a copy of ELLE Collections autumn/winter 2014 for more.

the titans behind chanel

Karl Lagerfeld greets me in the Chanel studio and apologises for keeping me waiting. I don’t know what time it is exactly, only that the last Eurostar for London has already left Gare du Nord and the Chanel PRs have made arrangements for me to stay another night in Paris. This is far from unusual; it is an unspoken contract you enter into the moment Lagerfeld agrees to be interviewed by you. It has nothing to do with bad manners and everything to do with the fact that he rarely shows up at Chanel before late afternoon, preferring to work long into the night.

The Chanel PRs take the precaution of having you in their sights ahead of schedule, in case the call should come early. Then you hear the familiar, ‘Il est là! Il est là!’ and they escort you through the maze of white corridors to the studio. I have only ever seen the studio in full flow – models coming and going, assistants scurrying, gales of laughter from Amanda Harlech, Lagerfeld’s muse and creative collaborator, always at his side prompting witty anecdotes.

Tonight, however, the studio is still and quiet. Harlech is in Houston, on a Paris-Dallas Chanel shoot. Eric Pfrunder, Chanel’s long-time Image Director, and Sébastien Jondeau, Lagerfeld’s gorgeous bodyguard (a former soldier, avid boxer and sometime Chanel model), soon leave the room, which leaves me and the Chanel PRs alone with Lagerfeld at his desk.

He looks exactly as you would imagine him: the hair is powdered a frosty white and worn in a ponytail; the shades, whatever the hour, a permanent fixture (I once asked if I could see him without them on, to which he replied: ‘There are perhaps a few ambitions one should not satisfy in life, so as not to be disappointed’); the high-collared, starched shirt, one of a thousand custom-made for him by the Jermyn Street specialist Hilditch & Key; the austere black jacket, not by Dior Homme today, but one of Lagerfeld’s new favourites, Chris Van Assche; the skinny jeans, boots, large-buckled belt, jewel-encrusted tie-pin and black leather fingerless gloves make up the rest of the ‘package’, as Lagerfeld frequently describes himself. At 75 (or 80, if the 1933 date on a birth certificate unearthed by a German tabloid is to be believed), he is one of the most professionally self-constructed people alive, as precisely drawn as a cartoon superhero and as instantly recognisable as a Nike swoosh. You don’t need to see Karl Lagerfeld from the front to know that it is Karl Lagerfeld! (‘Yes, yes, I can make a photo like this,’ he says when I explain the idea for his self-portrait, opposite. ‘You don’t need it tomorrow morning do you?’ The image, as promised, arrives within the week.)

Although I have come to interview M Lagerfeld, this is not a profile of him alone. Behind him is a global workforce of employees dedicated to the world’s most famous fashion house. At its heart, central to Lagerfeld’s circle of trust, are two collaborators who have worked with him for 25 years: Bruno Pavlovksy, President of Fashion, who leads Chanel’s global fashion business, and Virginie Viard, Studio Director, who interprets Lagerfeld’s vision for every one of the house’s collections.

Viard is the last person to leave the studio tonight. After tidying away fabric samples for the spring/summer 2014 Couture collection – which Lagerfeld will call Le Corbusier Meets Versailles – she comes over to kiss him goodnight. ‘She’s great, you know,’ he confides as she disappears out of view, ‘because she coordinates everything. It’s unbelievable what she does.’

Typically, however, when I ask my first question, ‘So, Karl, who do you take advice from?’ he announces: ‘Myself, because before I propose anything, I ask myself several times and if the answer is not spontaneous, it goes to the garbage can. My only problem is that I have the bad habit of thinking the opinion of a single person, so normally I don’t ask many people, but I ask Virginie and I ask Amanda when I’m really sure about it. When I’m not sure, I don’t ask, because it’s in the garbage can already. But sometimes I’m wrong, sometimes they see things that I hadn’t seen; it’s very difficult.’ In fact, he relies on both, equally: ‘Amanda more for the look and Virginie for all the technical problems – because, you know, those things are very complicated to make.’ He waves a gloved hand at the wall where his vividly coloured couture sketches are displayed. ‘Virginie is there all the time; Amanda is travelling. Amanda is the outdoor eye, Virginie the indoor eye.’

Read an extract from the ELLE Collections interview with Vanessa Friedman

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