Milan is proving a season for the ages, without even considering the goods on the runways. How often do you have a story line pitting two honest-to-God living legends, both supreme artists of their genres, against each other? In the throes of the most intense seasons for both, no less? Real news with naked Kardashian-level clickbait promise? Call it the Clash of the Creative-Genius Titans.
It’s a story line in which WWD is involved. And compelling though it is, it’s one about which I feel regret for its negative impact on two people I respect and for whom I have a great deal of admiration, one from afar; the other from the vantage of a 20-year relationship based on trust and honesty. It bothers me that WWD and I are involved in casting a pall over a moment that should be one of pure joy for Meryl Streep. She attended last night’s Oscars in a class by herself, the most nominated actor of all time after her 20th nod, this one for “Florence Foster Jenkins.” And Karl Lagerfeld — the best quote in the business, ever unafraid to speak opinions that, in my experience, have always been grounded in fact.
This is what happened. Backstage at Fendi on Thursday, Lagerfeld told WWD editor in chief Miles Socha and I, “I have a funny story to tell you.” He then recounted events about Meryl Streep and a Chanel couture dress, as I reported later that day. I left unwritten that that conversation included expressions of shock and dismay on all sides; we all know that red carpet play-for-pay exists, but Meryl Streep?
As we left Lagerfeld’s private receiving room, he said, “Do what you want with that story.” He’d told us for a reason. He thought he and Chanel had been treated badly and wanted it on the record. Streep’s side shot back.
Unfortunately, Lagerfeld got one part of the story very wrong. I don’t know why, but after knowing and covering him for 20 years, I know absolutely and without doubt his intention was not to lie about Streep. For whatever reason, she and her stylist Micaela Erlanger decided against the Chanel gown, and neither is being paid by the house whose dress Streep wore. Reaction was swift and rabid as the story went viral; Streep was insulted at the attack on her integrity, particularly at this momentous time in her career.
In a conversation Saturday night, Streep’s publicist Leslee Dart offered that Streep feels both she and Erlanger have been defamed. (At the risk of sounding obsequious, all publicists should be so unflappable.) She e-mailed Streep’s statement from the Oscars rehearsal. “She has engaged a lawyer to investigate her options,” Dart said. “People know Meryl and they know her ethics.” As for whether Streep had ever accepted payment to wear a dress: “Never in 30 years,” Dart said.
One of my many imaginings in this bizarre saga is that someone in-house at Chanel verbalized an uninformed supposition — “Meryl Streep canceled? Somebody must be paying her” — and that Lagerfeld mistook the idle musing as fact. In a conversation today, he expressed regret that he repeated the thought as fact, although the gravity of the accusation seemed not to have fully registered.
Otherwise, the versions given by Lagerfeld and Dart are both completely believable and not inconsistent. They speak to the bizarre nature of the Hollywood-fashion relationship, the machinations of which Lagerfeld apparently has little knowledge beyond the very specific, and in certain ways cloistered, world of Chanel.
We’ve all heard stories of how awards-season’s dressing works. Stylists call in existing looks and commission others, which eager designers and fashion executives happily provide at no cost for the chance of having their red carpet moment. Pay for play? Yes, some houses are willing to pay and some celebrities, willing to receive.
Neither Streep nor Chanel is in those categories. The lady can’t be bought and the house won’t purchase. Chanel does have a list of actresses with whom it works, or perhaps targets is the right word. Streep has not been on that list, though Lagerfeld was delighted to learn of her interest in a dress for the Oscars. “It was a very nice surprise,” he said. “I have great admiration for her.”
Now, here’s where it gets interesting. Both sides agree that the contact was initiated by Erlanger, that Streep had seen a dress from the couture collection and was interested in it, with some modifications. The stylist request a sketch. Dart had dates. She recalled that the initial contact was made by Erlanger on or about Jan. 14. “On Feb. 8, we received sketches,” she said. “Within 24 hours, the stylist called Chanel to say Meryl had decided to go in a different direction.”
Sounds like a swift and honorable ending to what was essentially a typical market inquiry by Erlanger on the part of her client, who happens to bear the reputation of the world’s greatest living actress. No subterfuge, no free couture dress that wouldn’t find its way onto the Oscars red carpet.
Only Lagerfeld begged to differ. He didn’t dispute the 24-hour time frame. But he mistook Erlanger’s overture, one focused on a specific dress with a request for modification, as the commitment of an order.
And modifying looks on request isn’t something he usually does. Lagerfeld never gets involved with private clients, including celebrities other than friends, and certainly never provides them with custom illustrations. “I have better things to do,” he said. He made an exception for Streep and immediately put the dress into the atelier, as the bodice embroidery required 100 hours of work. “Twenty-four hours is enough. The minute I made the change in the décolletage, it was started,” he said.
Meanwhile, the house of Chanel has not confirmed that the dress was put into production. Its statement, released widely on Thursday, read more like damage control than clarification or correction: “Chanel engaged in conversations with Ms. Streep’s stylist to design a dress for her to wear to the Academy Awards, with the full understanding that she was considering options from other design houses. When informed by the stylist that Ms. Streep had chosen a dress by another designer there was no mention of the reason. Chanel wishes to express our continued and deep respect for Ms. Streep.”
The wording is vague in the manner of many damage-control p.r. statements. The only points stated as absolute are that Chanel knew it was one house among several under consideration and that when Streep and Erlanger decided to pass, “there was no mention of the reason” — i.e., payment. It does not say whether a dress — even one of several from which Streep would choose — was then put into production.
I sought clarification on that last point with Chanel. That the house wouldn’t answer suggested that yes, a dress had been started. Eager to make peace with Streep, Chanel wanted to move on but without lying to WWD.
Lagerfeld feels differently. After going AWOL for a day when Chanel released an official, also vague statement in his name, he called on Sunday night (Milan time) to explain his position. From his point of view, he had redesigned a dress and rushed it into the atelier. Even within the 24-hour period, substantial work was done on it.
He was told of the cancellation two days later, he said, “without any excuse.” Asked if he could accept the possibility that Erlanger offered no excuse because as far as she was concerned, there had been no order, so she couldn’t have known work on the dress had commenced, Lagerfeld said, no. “It’s not very elegant for the house of Chanel, and an insult to me. I have better things to do.”
Therein lies the divide. Karl Lagerfeld is the Meryl Streep of fashion, alone in his stratosphere, a deity. He doesn’t submit sketches for a stylist’s consideration. Rather, he assumes that if someone — anyone, no matter how big a star ‚ comes to Chanel and Lagerfeld, that he’s not auditioning for the gig but that she wants to wear Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel.
Here’s hoping Streep and Lagerfeld forgive each other’s transgressions — Streep’s, for not acknowledging Lagerfeld’s stature in her dress selection, and Lagerfeld’s, albeit larger one, calling Streep’s character into question with his erroneous pay-for-play accusation.
As for me, I sincerely hope Streep won last night; the return’s not in at deadline time. (And that she didn’t wear Dolce.)
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