In a Clash of Symbols, Chanel's Top Model Falls from the Runway

updated 08/14/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/14/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When designer Karl Lagerfeld paraded his Chanel couture collection down the runway late last month, fashion observers were more impressed by what they didn't see. Much to the crowd's dismay, Inès de la Fressange, 31, the irreverent model who has embodied the Chanel look for the past five years, was missing from the Paris show. A (hand spokesman said Inès was "resting in the country," but later in the week Inès admitted that her vanishing act was due not to poor health but to an ailing relationship with Lagerfeld, 50, her onetime mentor.

The unfashionable falling out between the two Paris originals began in May when the mayors of France selected Inès to be the latest incarnation of Marianne—the French symbol of liberty, equality and fraternity. When Lagerfeld learned that the face of his muse would be displayed on busts in town halls around the country, he was not amused. "I spent years trying to take the institutional image out of Chanel, and now she's putting it back," Lagerfeld complained to Women's Wear Daily. "I don't dress national monuments."

With characteristic insouciance, the 5'10" brunet dismissed Lagerfeld's attitude in the French newspaper Le Figaro: "Maybe he's a little jealous of my success."

"Me, jealous?" Lagerfeld retorted in the next day's edition. "That would be the height of mediocrity. Her reputation remains very local. In the States, she's never made the cover of Vogue. I'm not going to be in competition with a model. I work in the entire world."

"He reacted very badly," said Inès, who concedes that she isn't as well known as her Marianne predecessors, Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve, though she regularly appears in Vogue and other top fashion magazines. "He told several American newspapers, 'Marianne is the symbol of everything that is boring, bourgeois and provincial.' I myself found it rather flattering to lend my face to my country."

This isn't the first time Inès has lent her face as symbol. In 1982, when Lagerfeld undertook the updating of Chanel, which had fallen on somewhat frumpy times since the 1971 death of its founder, he began looking for a woman to personify the modern designs he planned to create. In 1983 he chanced upon Inès, a model who had impressed him when he was the designer at Chloé. A year later she signed an exclusive seven-year contract as Chanel's image model. In addition to making public appearances and starring in TV commercials and print advertisements, Inès became Lagerfeld's inspiration. Many of his designs, including last season's short skirts, were created with the leggy mannequin in mind. Said Figaro of the match: "Karl and Inès together incarnated the femininity and creativity formerly found in a single person, Coco Chanel."

Inès, who has described herself as a "big, bony green bean who talks too much," quickly endeared herself to the fashion world with her zany antics—suddenly lying down on the walkway, imitating Coco Chanel smoking a cigarette, tossing her hat to Boy George. Yet even when the press took notice, Inès didn't let it go to her head. "It's ridiculous to be lauded for so little," she said.

The daughter of a stockbroker, André, and a former couture model, Lita, Inès comes by her panache honestly. "My parents are real characters, completely fringe, deluxe hippies." Hippies with blue blood, she hastens to add, claiming in Figaro that her grandmother, Simone de la Fressange, 89, was a Lazard Bank heiress. What Inès got from her family, in addition to her humor and flair, is a very long name—Inès Marie Laetitia Eglantine Isabelle de Seignard de la Fressange—and pride in her heritage. "I may be descended from an old French family," she has said, "but I find it amusing to remind people that the typical Frenchwoman I represent has an Argentinian grandfather, a Colombian grandmother and a Czechoslovakian great-grandfather."

Although Inès refers to her companion, Luigi D'Urso, 35, a public relations executive, as her husband, the only wedding ceremony that has taken place occurred under the shower in her Palais Royal apartment with her dog, Jimmy, as the witness. Last year Inès found herself joyously pregnant but suffered a miscarriage. One observer attributes Inès's disenchantment with Chanel to the miscarriage. "I think she blamed it on working too much," he said. "It was maybe at this point that she began thinking it wasn't worth losing a baby to fashion."

So far the rift between Lagerfeld and Inès hasn't resulted in the tearing up of her annual $300,000 contract, which ends in two years, but its renewal is in doubt. Stating that Inès "doesn't inspire me anymore," Lagerfeld is reportedly looking for a new muse. As for Inès, she may prove to be as traditional as the Marianne she represents. "All I want to do is take care of my husband, my home and have babies," she announced in June. "I'm very bourgeois and conventional in that way."

—Mary H.J. Farrell, Cathy Nolan and Georgina Oliver in Paris

From Our Partners