There's so much more to being a fashion muse than just being beautiful
From Audrey Hepburn to Alexa Chung, designers have long relied on inspiration from their chosen muses. But there is so much more to the role than simply being beautiful, writes Rose Mary Roche
Catherine Deneuve, the Grande Dame of French cinema, is to auction off her archive of Saint Laurent couture this week.
Deneuve, who has always projected a potent blend of glacial aloofness, mysterious beauty and erotic allure has enjoyed an illustrious acting career but was also Yves Saint Laurent's muse for 50 years. She has said of their relationship "our silent complicity, our crazy laughter and our melancholy brought us together." The two became devoted friends and at a celebration of the 40th anniversary of St Laurent's brand in 2002 she told Yves: "My most beautiful love affair is with you."
Deneuve's collection includes 300 lots encompassing coats, suits, dresses and accessories, many of them one-off pieces. Among the most notable is a mini dress with a pearl fringe from the 1969 spring/summer collection worn when Deneuve met Alfred Hitchcock, which is valued at €5,000.
Auction house Christie's has stated that the sale brings together "one of the most famous French actors and one of the most illustrious French designers". St Laurent dressed the actress for several roles, most notably Severine, the bored bourgeois wife who moonlights as a call girl in the afternoons in Belle Du Jour. That character's neat 1960s' chic - comprising prim white collar, double-breasted coat and buckled patent mid-heel shoes - has influenced myriad designers since, including Miucca Prada, Marc Jacobs and Alexander McQueen.
Deneuve and St Laurent were the apogee of the designer/muse relationship. For such a partnership to flourish, a muse must provide support and stimulus to a designer. They are not only the physical embodiment of the designer's ideal but also the soul of the clothes. They are a flesh and blood ambassador for the brand, as well as the spark that lights the designer's creative process. They must inspire, influence and beguile in equal measure - and while it's not a job that will ever be recruited by the HR department, it can be an enduring career.
Some muses, including Alexa Chung, Victoria Beckham and Inès de la Fressange, have been inspired by their role in shaping a designer's vision to subsequently start their own brands. Others have become so synonymous with a designer that they are a vital element of the history of the house - for example, Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy, Gloria Guinness and Christóbal Balenciaga, the Supermodels and Gianni Versace.
The popular misperception of the muse is as a passive but cipher whose beauty inspires the designer to create clothes. The genuine muse, however, has a creative role in helping the designer to express their vision. The feedback of the muse is vital: making suggestions, discussing how the clothes fit on a female body and inspiring the designer to explore new directions.
The most frequently referenced muse/designer relationship was that enjoyed by Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy. After Givenchy dressed her for the role in Sabrina, she and the designer became style soul-mates. The Sabrina costumes fixed Audrey's image in the popular imagination, and Givenchy subsequently dressed Hepburn for eight films, as well as in her private life and for her two weddings. He always acknowledged her own unique sense of style, stating: "Audrey always added a twist, something piquant, amusing to the clothes. Though of course I advised her, she knew precisely what she wanted."
Audrey has become the muse of the entire fashion industry: the elements of her signature style - the little black dress, capri pants, ballet pumps and oversized sunglasses - have all become modern classics. Her style persona as the elegant ingenue fusing ease and European sophistication still looks contemporary. Most recently, the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, has frequently referenced Audrey's style in her daily wardrobe, with boat necklines, bracelet sleeves and men's shirts all harking back to the icon's fuss-free style.
Muses don't have to be conventionally beautiful; Isabella Blow, the aristocratic, English magazine editor was what the French call jolie laide. She dressed up, to play down her unconventional looks - favouring cinched waists, scarlet lips, plunging cleavage and dramatic hats. While working for UK Tatler she discovered the work of then student milliner Philip Treacy. She commissioned the Galway man to create her medieval wedding head-dress and subsequently made Treacy's hats the central element of her style.
The hats were statements as large as Blow's personality, and reflected her wit, erudition and imagination. Antlers, a jewelled lobster, a galleon in full sail, or a lifelike pheasant all looked perfectly at home on her distinctive head.
Blow was also a maternal muse to another young designer, Alexander McQueen. She not only bought his entire graduation collection, fed him and gave him somewhere to live but also introduced him to everyone in London fashion circles and stoked his imagination with books, ideas and vivid fantasies. When their relationship eventually fractured after McQueen failed to secure her a role when he was appointed designer at Givenchy, Isabella seemed lost. Her role as muse had defined her sense of self and her finances were perilous as she had always spent extravagantly on fashion, receiving clothes rather than a salary from McQueen.
The most famous contemporary muse is Amanda Harlech, who inspired John Galliano's vision for 10 years and has worked with Karl Lagerfeld for the last 20. She actively dislikes the title muse, finding it too passive a label for her contribution: "I find it rather old fashioned. I think I'm more amusing", she told The Observer. She has described herself as a sounding board and as Lagerfeld's eyes and ears in the outside world.
The role of muse, while high on glamour and excitement, wasn't usually financially lucrative. In the past a muse might have received free clothing, the friendship of a famous designer and the associated fame as a style icon, but no actual salary for her contribution. Today, the relationship between muse and designer has become more commercial (Harlech receives a salary from Chanel) and when designers cite a celebrity as a muse, there is now a contract between the brand and the celebrity that rewards them lucratively for the use of their face, name and star power.
The modern muse is also no longer a silent figure but a vivid personality in her own right - she must possess style, flair and attitude as well as a creative spirit of her own. Harlech perhaps sums it up best when she describes her work with Lagerfeld: "It's my job to make sense of this creative arch in each collection and help translate it… it's just a real pleasure and adventure to be having this dialogue with him."
The Catherine Deneuve auctions will take place at Christie's Auctions during Paris Haute Couture Week, and at christies.com from January 23-30