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Keira Knightley and Tallulah Harlech stood at the threshold of a mock-up Chanel boutique, circa 1913, and discussed the scene they were about to shoot for Karl Lagerfeld’s latest production for Chanel.

Cast as the budding fashion designer Gabrielle Chanel, Knightley would have a brush with Harlech’s character, Eve Lavallière — a stage actress and, reputedly, the first fashionable woman in France to cut her hair short and parade around hatless.

This story first appeared in the April 29, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“Do it your way, huh?” Lagerfeld told the two actresses as they rehearsed their lines.

While every detail of the short film was worked out in his head, Lagerfeld explained that he encourages some improvisation with the dialogue for a more natural effect.

“Keira can deliver her lines easier than the others,” he said, referencing the fact that many of the cast members are models rather than professional actors, including such Chanel regulars as Stella Tennant, Jake Davies, Baptiste Giabiconi and Brad Kroenig.


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For Knightley, who initially thought it might be a silent movie, discovering her lines moments before the cameras rolled was a first. “Karl Lagerfeld stage manages the actor in a truly direct way,” she marveled.

As it turned out, Knightley and Harlech would flub several takes of their scene as temperatures rose on the brightly lit set, an entire street in the seaside town of Deauville vividly recreated in a vast hall at Luc Besson’s new studios, the Cité du Cinéma, on the northern fringe of Paris.

“I think we better start again. I ground to a halt there,” Knightley said with laugh.

While the two women took a break, Lagerfeld put the finishing touches on Ashleigh Good’s costume for the next scene, selecting jewels from a tray held aloft by an assistant.

Titled “Once Upon a Time…,” the movie is to be screened on May 8 in Singapore, the night before a showing of Chanel’s cruise collection at Loewen Cluster, formerly a nutmeg plantation.

As with all Lagerfeld films, expect a witty story line, salty exchanges — and a slightly embellished version of social and fashion history.

“Invented reality,” Lagerfeld declared, twiddling his fingers with delight, as he roamed the vast set.

What Lagerfeld doesn’t whitewash is the reality of social customs a century ago.

“The way clients behaved in boutiques back then, they were pretty rude,” the designer said, recounting some of the choice barbs he penned.

In one scene, an American woman enters the sparsely merchandised shop, which then sold mostly hats and some resort clothes made from men’s underwear fabrics, foreshadowing Chanel’s borrowed-from-the-boys wardrobe of tweeds, cardigan jackets and the like.

“Is this a shop? There’s no shopkeeper,” the woman, played by Lindsey Wixson, snipes.

While feigning disinterest in the selection Chanel flouted, Wixson said upon her departure that she would take them all and send her secretary by with payment. “By the way, I’m Miss Wonderbilt,” would be her parting words. (While a fictional character, her name evokes a certain American dynasty.)

Lagerfeld tapped into a pivotal moment in fashion — when Edwardian strictness was yielding to a freer look for women, in hairstyles, clothes and even body language.

Among the characters in the film is Jacqueline Forzane, a Swedish countess credited with inventing what Lagerfeld called the “modern attitude of women,” rejecting the contrived posture women had endured.

While the designer isn’t fond of anniversaries, nor does he consider himself nostalgic, he marveled at the microcosm that was Deauville before the First World War.

“There was a kind of luxury and elegance, for the ones that had money,” the designer said of the French bourgeois and international notables that gathered there.

Characters in the film include Georges Carpentier, a famous boxer at the time, portrayed by Sébastien Jondeau; aristocrat Lady de Grey, played by Tennant, and the writer Vita Sackville-West, impersonated by model Saskia de Brauw.

Lagerfeld designed the understated cream ensembles worn by Knightley and Clotilde Hesme, who plays the role of Chanel’s aunt and great friend Adrienne — while the 100 or so extras teeming on the streets were outfitted in historic costumes.

To be sure, documentation around the premise of the film — the 100th anniversary of Chanel’s Deauville outpost — is far from exhaustive.

“What is lacking, I invent,” the designer said conspiratorially.