Inés de la Fressange, an aristocratic French model, originally met Lagerfeld during his days at Chloé, when she was working for the brand. Their relationship took a major step, however, in 1983, when De la Fressange was 25 and considering a career change, and Lagerfeld was just getting started at Chanel. According to William’s Middleton’s biography on Lagerfeld, Paradise Now, De la Fressange was in New York, discussing her options with an agent when she ran into Lagerfeld and told him about her plan to get into an industrial concern. When Lagerfeld left the conversation with De la Fressange, he made up his mind to make her the face of Chanel. “He thought that Chanel had to be embodied by a woman,” De la Fressange said in a 2020 interview. “It had to have a face...He thought it was important for the brand to show that a 25-year-old girl could be dressed in Chanel.”
“I signed an insane contract,” the model later recalled. “It was a contract of total exclusivity. I was no longer allowed to model for anyone else. I only worked for Chanel and that’s what I wanted.”
In Suzy Menkes’ 1986 Vogue story, “Chanel’s Toy Boy,” Lagerfeld spoke of De la Fressange, saying, “I would not do it without Inés de la Fressange. I ask her everything. She tells me what she wants to wear and I design it.”
De la Fressange walked in Lagerfeld’s very first show for the brand, as well as every one that followed for many years. Some began calling her the star of the house, a distinction she believed began to bother Lagerfeld. Their relationship eventually soured in 1989, when De la Fressange was asked to represent France as the new Marianne—the female symbol of the country since 1792— in honor of the French Revolution’s Bicentennial. De la Fressange was honored, but Lagerfeld called the whole thing, “boring, bourgeois and provincial.” For that summer’s haute couture collection, Lagerfeld used De la Fressange sparingly and an argument between the two led De la Fressange to hire a lawyer to extract her from her contract with the house.
In 1991, De la Fressange started her own eponymous brand, and she and Lagerfeld slowly got back in touch, conversing through letters and eventually repairing their relationship. She returned to the Chanel runway for the spring/summer 2011 show when she was 53.
Then, in October 2018, following the house’s spring/summer 2019 show, De la Fressange visited an ailing Lagerfeld backstage. “He had never been very physical, or tender, but he took my hand and held onto it,” she recalled to Middleton. “It was impossible to leave, so I stayed there with him, for more than an hour or two hours...there were all of these people who came, celebrities who had known him for like five minutes. And I realized later that I was someone who understands where he came from, what he was talking about...Everyone admired him, thought he was brilliant and funny, but I felt like I was the only one who actually had some tenderness for him.” That was the last time De la Fressange saw Lagerfeld before he passed just four months later.