Karl Lagerfield: Designs for ballet

The stars of the English National Ballet have a celebrated new costumier – Karl Lagerfeld. Charlotte Cripps joins them at the fitting

It's midday at Chanel's glamorous haute couture salon in Paris, where exquisite white dresses from the collection hang in glass cabinets. Karl Lagerfeld, the label's creative director, slowly descends the famous mirrored spiral staircase, to Stravinsky on loud speaker, as if he is the star of his own ballet.

He has kept everybody in suspense, including the English National Ballet dancers, Thomas Edur and Agnes Oaks, who are here for a fitting for Balanchine's Apollo, which opens tonight as part of the ENB's Ballet Russes.

The German-born Lagerfeld is giving Ballet Russes a Chanel makeover. He has already designed "The Dying Swan" tutu, a few weeks ago, for the ballerina Elena Glurdjidze, who famously danced for him on the spot. It seems that he was so thrilled by the performance, which he filmed, that he now wants a replay.

Resplendent in shades and fingerless gloves, and with a white ponytail, he is gripping the banister with one hand and clutching a small black film camera in the other.

He walks straight into the fitting room to reveal the two dancers, who appear half naked, while people working at Chanel gather in anticipation outside. "Many famous artists design for ballet," says Lagerfeld. "If I have the chance to do it, it is exciting. It's flattering to be asked. The main challenge is that the dancers can move in the clothes, but it also has to be right for the mood."

Edur, who stands with an air of theatrical confidence, is wearing white tights and a white lycra sash across his chest for the role of Apollo, the god of music. Oaks, Edur's real life wife of 19 years and longstanding dancing partner, performs as his favourite muse, Terpsichore, the muse of dance. She looks distraught; the sheer empire line dress is too transparent. As she raises her stick-thin legs up and down in front of the mirrors, it is like watching a bird who is flapping around in an uncomfortable way. "It is too exposing for me to dance in. I don't feel comfortable," says Oaks bravely to Lagerfeld. He doesn't seem to agree, but assistants and tailors arrive for crisis talks with the ballerina.

Lagerfeld originally designed the costumes for Apollo in 1997 for Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo and has agreed to refresh the outfits for the ENB. After the success of "The Dying Swan" costume, the ENB was keen for him to do some more, especially since Chanel has a history with the ballet Apollo. Not only did Coco Chanel create the original Apollo costumes in 1929, a loose adaptation of the ancient tunic for the muses, with tie silk straps holding the pleats in place, but she also had an affair with the ballet's composer, Igor Stravinsky.

This is not Lagerfeld's first foray into theatrical costumes; in fact, throughout the 1970s he worked as a costume designer for ballet, theatre and film. He even designed the costumes for Harold Pinter's Betrayal in 1984. His designs for the cinema include the upcoming movie on Chanel, Coco before Chanel, with Audrey Tautou.

But creating costumes for ballet isn't plain sailing for designers used to the catwalk. Lagerfeld's beautifully plain muse dress will be replicated for all three muses' to wear. The fittings for the other two – Daria Klimentova and Erina Takahashi – will take place in London, without Lagerfeld.

The designer has remained faithful to the serenity of the music, which has always been matched by monochrome costumes. "I wanted to respect the spirit of the ballet. I like it very pure, simple, clean and impeccable. You don't want to make something complicated for Balanchine's Apollo," says Lagerfeld. "The costumes are timeless. The Balanchine version of the Greek mythology would be seen in Greek art or on Greek vases. It's a modern version of that." Was he influenced by the Ballet Russes? "I think every designer of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century has a touch of influence from the Ballet Russes. It is not something you can put into words. That would be kind of prententious and not true. If you are good with words you can make hours about this kind of bullshit," says Lagerfeld.

But Oaks, 39, who retires from the ENB this season along with her husband, 40, isn't quite happy yet. Finally it is decided that the material will be made more opaque, the bodice taken in and the nipple covers enlarged or removed altogether.

But there is nothing anybody can do in a hurry and Lagerfeld expects an impromptu performance. Edur hands his wife her pink pointe shoes, which are wrapped in a plastic shopping bag, and eventually Oaks comes out in the outfit.

The large mirrored room, where the rich and famous visit for haute couture fittings, has a carpet emblazoned with the big Chanel logo. Lagerfeld sits in an armchair ready to film. Everybody is cleared away so that no reflections are caught on Lagerfeld's movie in the surrounding mirrors.

The two dancers, unsure of dancing on the slippery Chanel carpet, begin the pas de deux. Oaks, who glides beautifully in her next-to-nothing dress, even rests on her husband's back mid-air. She is lifted high towards Chanel's twinkling chandeliers and brought back down gently.

This production is in celebration of the pioneering company Ballet Russes, founded by Sergei Diaghilev in 1909, who celebrate their centenary this year. The ENB has direct lineage from the original Ballet Russes; Dame Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin, ENB's founders, were two of the original Ballet Russes dancers.

It is a moving sight to watch the anxious-looking Oaks dance for Lagerfeld. At the end of the private and intimate performance, he claps and offers them both a Chanel perfume. He also wants to do a sketch of them too. How easy is it to dance Apollo on the Chanel carpet? "It was very special. It was a different texture. We had a few tiny slips but we hid them well so they were not noticeable," says Edur. "We have danced at 11 Downing Street for Norman Lamont and at Kensington Palace for Princess Diana – but never at a haute couture fitting room. Usually the ENB put down a proper floor for us to dance on." What did Lagerfeld think? "I saw them offstage. Ballet also needs the magic of the theatre, the stage, and the music. Here I see the artist, their performance, their perfection in movement, that body language. That's very different. This you shouldn't compare with the magic of the stage. Then nobody would go to the theatre."

But Lagerfeld, who can't make it to the opening night ("I'd love to, but it's impossible! I have a month until the couture collection!") tells me that he rarely goes to the ballet or the opera, even in Paris. "No, because it's at 7.30pm. It's far too early to go. No, it's grotesque. In the past, opera and ballet started at 9pm. Then you can go home. I think it's like going to a party. I know there is no metro and no buses late. I understand all of that. But the magic of opera and the magic of ballet is also about being detached from your reality. I don't like sloppy people in an audience. I don't know how it is in England, but in France, personally, it is not something I want to look at it."

The fitting is over and Lagerfeld, happy with his ballet chic, departs upstairs to the top-floor atelier, where he works, which is above the late Coco Chanel's apartment (although she slept across the road at the Ritz). Chanel lived here until her death in 1971, and everything has been frozen in time. There is even a gold icon of a cross that was framed in wood as a gift from her lover Stravinsky. Naturally, attendants had to spray Chanel No 5 around the stairway.

Edur and Oaks return to London without their outfits, which are due to be delivered just in time for the dress rehearsal. "The tights needed to be slightly thicker and they are going to make the bodice a bit more solid and change the shape of the skirt," says Oaks. "I felt it was too see-through. I'm the one who goes on stage. I was slightly scared because you don't know how people will react. But I think it takes a big person to understand and I think Lagerfeld definitely did. There are costumes that have been much more revealing. If I'd gone on stage I don't think you would see much. But as for my personal feelings, I think he respected them."



'Ballets Russes', Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (0844 412 4300) ends 20 June

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