Dover Street Market is an exclusive shopping precinct in central London that aims, in the words of its director, the Japanese fashion designer Rei Kawakubo, to bring together “creators from various fields ... in an ongoing atmosphere of beautiful chaos”. It is also a refuge for those who seek to persuade themselves that the country’s financial predicament is not so bad after all.
I take a look around its four floors of high-end fashion and discover, in rapid succession, a cream cashmere scarf that costs £750, and a brightly coloured shoulder bag illustrated with an African woman pushing a wheelbarrow, emblazoned with the words “Live Your Dreams”. A discreet label reveals the price – £395 – and the quaint observation that the panel was “embroidered by women in Africa”. It is a pungent reminder that fashion has little to do with good taste.
On the fourth floor of the market is the Rose Bakery, a muesli-and-sandals establishment – is it ironic? – offering wholesome refreshment for foot-weary shoppers. This is where my guest Lady Amanda Harlech has chosen to have lunch, and she comes in just a few minutes late, apologising profusely, straight off the red-eye from New York. I am sipping on a mineral water, she impressively orders a green tea and an espresso, a thrillingly weird aperitif combo that I can imagine becoming a shoppers’ cult (“Wake up and zip those oxidants! All at once!”)
Harlech, 52, is a taste-maker. Not one of those whose name is plastered over clothes or perfume bottles, but a behind-the-scenes player whose views are lavishly respected. She is routinely described as a “muse”, lending her evidently unerring eye for fashion success first to John Galliano, whom she met early in his career, and latterly to another industry supremo, Karl Lagerfeld, who directs operations at Chanel and Fendi.
Her surname and title comes from her 12-year marriage to Francis Ormsby-Gore, 6th Baron Harlech, which ended in a messy divorce in the late 1990s. Other than the inevitably gossipy coverage that was prompted by that break-up, she prefers to keep a low-ish profile. Today she is wearing a checked shirt with its collars turned up, which I thought had gone out in the 1980s, but what do I know, and a long, dark red velvet skirt. A looped earring on the upper part of her right ear gives a refreshing hint of unconventionality.
She says she likes the restaurant not because of its chic environs but because its food resembles home cooking. “It is organic, and cooked with care. Things need to be cooked with love, and also harvested in a nice way. I’m sorry, I’m going all ... ” She waves her hands around and moves her head from side to side. Mystical, I say.
“I used to be a waitress,” she continues, undeterred by her funny moment. “I was one of the bunny girls at Browns in Oxford.” That was one of my favourite haunts as a student, I tell her, and I don’t remember any bunny girls. “You know, we had our towels tucked at the back of our aprons and had them pulled.” Did that happen to her a lot? “Not so much.” A male waiter, whose seriousness seems designed to remind us of changed times, takes our order and we both go for the special, a goat’s cheese and chard tart with salad.
After leaving Oxford University in the early 1980s, the story goes, Harlech, born Amanda Grieve, could have become anything she wanted. She was glamorous and charismatic, and had excelled in school and university at art, music, literature, dance. But she chose fashion and a job at Harpers & Queen magazine, which is how she met the young Galliano, then a student at Central Saint Martins. And in fashion she has remained, despite occasional forays into other fields.
One of those has her co-curating a show, the Krug Happiness exhibition, at the Royal Academy of Arts later this month. Celebrity patrons as diverse as Tony and Cherie Blair, Michael Gambon and Manolo Blahnik, have been asked to donate an object that embodies happiness to them. Proceeds will support the redevelopment of the Royal Academy Schools. It’s a tricky subject, I say. She agrees. “I think the artistic process comes from disorder. When you are happy, it’s not always a feeling that you can identify. It’s like a dog sitting in front of a fire. Pain isolates you but it can also clarify things.”
Does she still practise art herself? “I do quite a lot of art, with a small ‘a’. I guess that is how I was dredged up, with paints and crayons. Even when I was at nursery, I knew instinctively how to mix colours, how to make purple or orange.”
I was and remain hopeless, I say. She pounces: “Do you know how to make orange, using primary colours?” I think it is red and yellow, I say feebly. “There you are! If I were to ask you to draw my portrait right now ... ?” You really wouldn’t want that, I reply, and move swiftly on to an old chestnut. Having flirted between the two, what does she see as the difference between art and fashion?
“I think fashion, mishandled, can be quite toxic,” she replies. “It becomes about image, and the cult of celebrity. I think when an artist is seen at a lot of parties as a celebrity, I find that worrying. I think it can limit them.” Art, she says, can invest “heart, emotion, something risky” into a fashion item, “when there is nothing there in the cloth or the bottle of perfume or the handbag.”