Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Behind the Scenes at the Paris Haute Couture: A glimpse into the private world of couture’s Middle Eastern clients…

Although the fashion press regularly report on couture’s American clientele and the stars who attend the shows, it is rare that one reads of its regular customers from the Middle East, who constitute a large portion of its buyers.

Top left clockwise: Paris Couture’s Arab clientele includes Morocco’s young Queen Lalla Salma in a Valentino couture coat; Queen Rania of Jordan; the Lebanese heiress Mouna Ayoub, who is considered one of Couture’s big spenders; Suzy Menkes front row at a Lacroix Couture show in the early 90’s, while Arab clients are discreetly seated behind her; Long time couture customer Princess Firyal of Jordan; Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missnad of Qatar in Scherrer Couture; Two seats at the Gaultier Paris show read Sheikh Ahmed Al Thani and Princess Haifa Al Faysal of Saudi Arabia; A ball gown from Christian Dior’s Spring 2007 Couture Collection. Requiring yards of expensive fabrics, such pieces traditionally attract the big Middle Eastern clients; Nada Kirdar, is a prominent couture customer and the wife of Investcorp founder Nemir Kirdar, pictured here with Georgette Mosbacher.

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Behind the Scenes at the Paris Haute Couture: A glimpse into the private world of couture’s Middle Eastern clients…continued

In the late 80’s Suzy Menkes, senior fashion editor at the International Herald Tribune, described a row of Saudi Princesses seated at a Saint Laurent couture show; “veiling their faces behind their programs, as liquid black eyes” followed each model down the runway.

Such a scene would be a rare occurrence today, not because of a lack of Arab couture clients, but rather because the couture scene, at least from the client’s perspective, has gone underground.

Anyone who follows the biannual round of haute couture shows will be familiar with its most visible clients, the English heiress Daphne Guinness, the New York socialite Anne Bass as well as Becca Cason Tharsh, the Houston hostess and fundraiser whose husband is the multimillionaire CEO of a Texas energy company. The reason one knows of them, in a tightly nit group famous for its discretion, is that they are one the very few clients to have allowed the media to photograph them as well as to speak openly about their love of couture.

In March of 2007, Margy Kinmoth produced a documentary for the BBC called the “The Secret World of Haute Couture,” in which she tried to infiltrate this exclusive circle of clients in order to decipher what makes haute couture so special. After months of negotiating and countless phone calls she was able to get some of these woman to speak to her and in some instances open up their exclusive closets. Not surprisingly some of the clients who agreed to be interviewed are mentioned above, while many remained tightlipped, including several designers who refused to talk about their clients, sighting an unspoken rule of confidentiality.

Despite this Ms. Kinmoth’s documentary provides us with a rare glimpse into a world that is seldom seen by the general public. Amongst its many gems is an interview with one of couture’s oldest clients, Carol Petrie, a New York multi-millionairess whose wedding dress was designed by Christian Dior himself in the late 1940’s shortly after launching his “New Look.” Also not surprisingly, apart from one Britain, all of the clients featured in the documentary are American. It’s an interesting point alluded to by Becca Cason Tharsh herself, who upon hearing that couture’s clients presently number around 200, remarked "Two hundred? I see the same 20 women at the shows." Although many of those “same 20” clients are most likely made up of Ms. Tharsh’s compatriots, such as Anne Bass, Lynn Wyatt, and Susan Gutfreund, there are countless other rich unknowns from South America, Asia and of course the Middle East.

You may or may not know that Queen Rania of Jordan regularly commissions pieces at Givenchy and Gaultier Paris, or that Nazek Hariri, wife of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, is a loyal customer at Lacroix and Valentino. Apart from the occasional mention of Lebanese socialite Mouna Ayoub, who is considered one of couture’s big spenders, the majority of Arab clients shy away from such media attention.

The couture houses are known for keeping their clients lists closely guarded, and most of the women who frequent these houses will tell you they prefer it that way. For in the age of the Internet and globalism, where there’s a universal longing for whatever is newer, younger and hipper, haute couture has quite possibly become fashions last luxurious frontier. It is also its most exclusive club, which separates the small-time fashion players from those who can afford to enter the rarefied atmosphere of Paris’ haute couture salons. As Karl Lagerfeld has said, ‘‘they don't want to be known, but they have money beyond.''

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Why so Haute?

Although within couture circles it is considered inappropriate to reveal the price of any outfit, this has not deterred the fashion press from pointing out the main reason haute couture resides at the top of the fashion pyramid. Its exclusivity lies in the fact that although millions of woman around the world may be able to afford the latest IT-bag from Prada or a Balenciaga skirt. There are only a handful of women around the globe, estimates fluctuate between 200-300, who have the means to spend thousands of dollars on an haute couture garment hand-fitted to their every curve, and created by the most gifted seamstresses and craftsman in the world.

Unlike ready-to-wear, couture garments do not come with a price tag. Instead the price of a particular piece is based on several factors. At the big couture houses such as Dior, Chanel, and Gautier, a simple custom-made suit without any details to speak of can cost about $30,000. If one were to add a chiffon blouse embroidered by Lesage or a silk evening gown strewn with exotic feathers, then prices can rise to a stratospheric $50,000-$100,000.

A model is often never reproduced more than three times, and then only with the permission of the client who first claimed it. What follows is a carefully calibrated dance where the names and locations of the other clients are checked, as well as the functions they intend to wear the piece to in order to insure that no two clients are dressed alike at the same event.

There is also the question of a customer’s size. Many of the regular clients often try to maintain a thin frame in order to fit into the couture samples and acquire the garments at a reduced rate. But if a larger customer falls in love with a dress she will have the garment created for her from scratch. This often requires more fabric and costly embellishment than for a slimmer client, and so the price of a new garment will often climb. The late New York socialite Nan Kempner, one of couture’s most famous collectors, was known to maintain her reed thin body in order to fit into couture samples, and thus purchase her outfits at significantly reduced prices.

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From Salon to Atelier at the House of Dior…

Paradoxically, the world of the ateliers is light year’s away from the glamour of the couture salons, with their Baccarat crystal chandeliers, Louis XV furnishings, and thick carpeting (in a business where discretion is paramount, the couture houses will often employ thick carpeting throughout to muffle the private conversations between a vendeuse and her clients).

Beyond the House of Dior’s recently refurbished public spaces (courtesy of Peter Marino) with their signature pearl grey accents, shiny reflective surfaces, and artfully placed objets d’art, lies one space the general public never sees. It is the salon where couture’s regular club members come to inspect the clothes close up and try them on for size. It’s decorated with a mishmash (though no less expensive) array of furnishings, while a corner of the room is lined with racks filled with the seasons’ creations. To those accustomed to buying haute couture there is an air of informality that reigns here, as customers try on clothes in front of mirrors and discuss fittings with their vendeuse.

But as one leaves the salon to walk up to the workrooms, the carpeting becomes almost threadbare, and in some cases non existent. The ateliers, which usually occupy the upper most level or attic space of a house, are monastic by comparison. It is here that the seamstresses labor for hours to create the most luxurious garments in the world.

Despite a huge cultural shift in the way couture is presented, many of the industry's traditions haven't changed. The heads of the ateliers still say that multiple fittings remain essential, and the process still takes weeks. Giorgio Armani, who recently started his couture business, is one of the quickest to turn around an order: four weeks for a suit.

At Dior, like the other houses, once an order has been taken dressmakers build a dummy, based on a new client's measurements at the first fitting, which is kept in storage for future orders. It is not uncommon to find mannequins padded out to match an owner's expanding waistline- some showing more than 60 years of expansion that the clients themselves will never get to see.

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High Art?

The big question buzzing around haute couture, apart from the one addressing its immanent demise, is why do women, from the U.S., Europe, the Middle East and, now more than ever, Asia and Russia, choose to invest their resources in such extravagant and delicate goods?

Each January and July, regular front row customers such as Princess Firyal of Jordan or Bethy Lagardere, the Brazilian wife of one of France's business tycoons, descend on Paris to perch on rows of tiny gilt-edged chairs in the haute atmosphere of the couture shows. With notebooks in hand, they scrutinize the work of the handful of couturiers still in existence - Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, Christian Lacroix, Jean-Paul Gaultier, John Galliano for Christian Dior - modeled by women the age of their daughters and, more often than not, grand-daughters. Occasionally, when they witness a particularly lavish embroidery snaking down the back of a dress or a frothy sleeve of layered chiffon, they break out into ooh’s and ahhh’s, while others applaud.

When they have made their selections they visit the Paris salons where these pieces are conceived and order them, attending at least three fittings with women clad in little white coats; purses of pins hanging round their necks at the ready to adjust garments until they hang just right. Depending on the complexity of the item, the client will have to wait six to twelve weeks before they receive it. It is also not uncommon for customers to send their private jets to pick up the finished clothing, or for a fitter and vendeuse to hop on a plane, fly to New York or Jeddah for a fitting and fly back again to complete the garment. Even to clients accustomed to personal chefs and bodyguards, there's a thrill to being looked after by a couture house. Big customers are often sent flowers and invited to private dinners.

In todays fast paced world, haute couture seems to trade in the luxury of time. Its loyal clients aren’t necessarily after the latest fashions so much as the rarest and most exclusive. For a garment to even be considered “haute couture” it must be completely handmade in Paris to a client’s exact measurements. Not only are all the fabrics and embellishments of the highest quality, but the individuals who spend hundreds of hours assembling these pieces are some of the most skilled in the world. Master tailors, seamstresses, embroiders, lace makers and other craftspeople with years of experience under their belts, all residing in Paris. The end result are garments that are as beautiful on the inside as they are on the outside, and in some cases are so meticulously constructed that they are able to stand up on their own after an individual has stepped out of them. Ralph Rucci, the only American couturier presently invited to show in Paris, has often said that without those Paris workshops he would be handicapped, as he depends on their skills to realize his technically challenging and beautifully crafted designs.

“Collecting,” is the word most clients use when speaking of their haute couture purchases, a term one associates more with the world of art than fashion. But that is exactly the way many of these women view haute couture. In a sense they are patrons of an art form that would otherwise die if not for their loyalty to it. Furthermore each client seems to exhibit a particular obsession with the craft. Daphne Guinness is able to tell which house a garment came from based on its construction, Susan Gutfreund is drawn to innovations in fabric design, while Bethy Lagardere is obsessed with Gaultier’s pantsuits ever since his first couture show in January 1997. Becca Cason Thrash is considered a minor collector; she owns roughly a dozen pieces which she has worn time and again. "You amortize couture," she says. "You buy a piece and you wear it in Houston, then you wear it again in New York, then London, then Paris…you put it away for a couple of years and when you pull it out, it looks all brand new again." To offset the cost of some of these purchases, American and European clients will often donate their older pieces to museums and cultural institutions, thus writing off a portion of the cost as a tax deduction.

There are also a number of customers from the Middle East who rank amongst haute couture’s serious collectors, treating their purchases like works of art. At Valentino's most recent Paris couture show the guest list read like a who's who of the Arabian Peninsula: Princess Al Anoud Al Khalifa, Princess Sara bin Mohamed bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia and Princess Firyal of Jordan, amongst many others. But there have been few occasions when a prominent Arab customer has been willing to talk about her passion for haute couture, as was the case with Princess Haifa Al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia who is a regular client at Gaultier.

Over the years Al-Faisal has been a customer at many of the great Parisian couture houses. She has also been privy to the ateliers of some of couture’s most famous designers, having seen a dress take shape from a basic muslin to the final opulent garment lined in silk. Although she declines to acknowledge which designers' work currently catches her eye, she nevertheless mentioned that "Saint Laurent used to be my favorite," before he retired. As a customer, she often sees Arab influences on the couture runway. "You can see it very well when you know what you're looking for," she says. "Not just me, but my friends, my family."

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Inside an Haute Couture Garment...

The secret to haute couture lies inside the garments themselves. A second skin that’s molded to a client’s every curve, the skills and craftsmanship that go into the construction of such clothes has been described as pure wizardry. How else does one account for a dress being able to stand up on its own after a wearer has stepped out of it?

It is a reminder that despite all the innovative fabrics, cuts and styles emerging from haute couture, for over 100 years it has relied on something much simpler-the highly skilled hands of a woman and a needle. If one were to turn a couture dress inside out, you can marvel at a constellation of intricate seams and stitches done to the exact millimeter by hand. A couture hem is never pressed and the seams are basted to perfection.

Each dress has its own name and a particular inventory carefully inscribed on a card. A seamstress must ask for the specific thread to sew it together, as well as the hooks, eyes, and buttons to fasten it, (it was only in recent years that zippers were allowed in haute couture).

With the proliferation of designer handbags, cheap knock off’s and what some have termed the “democratization of luxury,” the truly affluent are now searching, more than ever, to differentiate themselves through exclusive products that are beyond the reach of the average consumer.

This shift in shoppers' values has not gone unnoticed, with some wealthy women putting a premium on owning a one-of-a-kind frock. "Couture isn't dead," said Antoinette Seillière, a baroness who was snapping pictures of her favorite dresses at French designer Franck Sorbier's show in Paris last July. "It's like painters in France: They're still there, just not as central as in the past."

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How Exclusive is this Club?

With the term Haute Couture being tossed around casually these days on fashion magazine headlines and onto the labels of expensive ready-to-wear, one would be forgiven for describing a pair of jeans as couture, even if you did pay $2000 for them. Haute couture, on the other hand, is made by hand, in Paris, to the exact measurements of those who can afford it.

To the untrained eye, there's little difference between a four-figure Pucci dress bought off the rack at Barney’s and a $150,000 Christian Dior ball gown. But for haute couture’s core clients there is a big difference. At society events such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art's annual Costume Institute Gala, or at lavish weddings in Riyadh, you'll see wealthy women flaunting both styles. But, when a socialite wears couture it means she's really serious about fashion and has the lifestyle to support it.

Cason Thrash stresses that the couture social circle is not an easy one to access. When she began collecting six or seven years back, she was lucky enough to be guided by Suzanne Saperstein, the woman Vanity Fair once called "probably the world's No. 1 consumer of haute couture."

"Couture is almost like a private club," says Cason Thrash, who favors American designer Ralph Rucci, as well as Europeans Christian Lacroix, Christian Dior and Jean-Paul Gaultier. With Saperstein in her corner, she was introduced to the right people. "Even though they need the business, it’s not easy at first to get your invitations or to get to know the directresses of the houses. But once you navigate your way through that rocky beginning, every show is a lovely reunion with like-minded individuals."

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Couture's Usual Suspects...

If one follows the couture collections regularly, they will most likely have heard of the following customers who are not known for being camera shy.

Top left clockwise: Marjorie Gubelmann Raein seated next to Mrs. William McCormick Blair Jr. (Deeda Blair) at the Gaultier Paris Show; Becca Cason Thrash, one of Couture’s more recent clients, seated front row at the Lacroix show next to two Canadian clients; The Texan socialite Lynn Wyatt; Manhattan socialite Anne Bass; The late Nan Kempner, one of couture’s most famous collectors; Couture customer Bethy Lagardere with Dior’s designer John Galliano; Carol Petrie has been an haute couture client since the 1940’s. Petrie says she use to have packages mailed to her with the designer’s sketches and fabric samples back in the 80’s. It was a service offered by the couture houses when she couldn’t indulge in flying from New York to Paris every year; Californian client Susan Casden; English heiress Daphne Guinness; Prominent couture customer Susan Gutfreund maintains homes in both New York and Paris.

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New Money vs. Old Money…& Then Came the Lean Times

On July 1970, at the age of 66, Diana Vreeland flew to Paris for the couture collections. It would be her last time attending the shows as Vogue’s Editor in Chief. Although she had attended the collections for over five decades she was still enthralled by the overall spectacle of the shows and the excitement of being in Paris. In her memoirs she captures the atmosphere of those final shows which she described as “an international and cosmopolitan bazaar”. “To go into a great French fashion house with its high ceilinged room, filled with massed flowers and ferns is always an event of refreshment and excitement….There are dashing personalities of every nationality, rich merchant’s wives from Beirut and Kuwait, jewelers and diamond merchants, and the great fabric makers of Switzerland and Italy, France and England.”

As Vreeland alluded to in her memoirs, by the late 1960's and early 70’s the couture houses were receiving a welcome infusion of new customers from the Middle East and - more important - new money. Though the couture houses during this period kept such matters as shopping lists and expenses to themselves, numerous stories of lavish spending began to circulate in the press: A Saudi oil sheikh buying the same dress for his eight wives; Kuwaiti princesses ordering ball gowns by the truckload.

But by the end of the Eighties the Middle Eastern clients had become part of the couture establishment, subsequently passing their taste for haute couture along to their daughters and granddaughters.

But this sizable Middle Eastern clientele also sheds light on how venerable the industry is to any political and economic upheavals which may affect the region. This was no more apparent than at the start of 1990s, when war broke out in the Gulf after 15 years of civil war in Lebanon. The Gulf War was a catastrophe for the top end of the industry, hitting it almost as hard as the 1929 depression. According to Francois Lesage, the 77-year-old head of Paris' top embroidery house, "Haute couture was asleep. It was totally oriented around the Arab princesses. The more petrol prices went up, the more the princesses bought dresses," Lesage said at the time. "But there are fewer princesses now because of the climate with the Iraq war, the war in Lebanon and problems with Israel. It's not how it used to be." The princesses were by far the biggest buyers of haute couture during this period and there were hundreds of them.

American clients may be prominent in the front row, Deeda Blair and the Texan socialite Lynn Wyatt amongst them, but they are seldom the high rollers. Ivana Trump was feted at the couture shows last July, yet no Paris fashion house claims that she bought a single outfit. But looking carefully at Dior's client lists may tell a different story. Saudi Arabia alone provides 32 percent of Dior's clients; 18 percent come from the United States, and only 10 percent or fewer from other countries.

Yet despite the existence of a sizable Middle Eastern clientele, looking around the audience attending the Dior shows today, one would be hard pressed to find a single Arab client amongst the crowds of celebrities and journalists who generate an incredible amount of publicity for the couture houses. Out of necessity, couture has had to find other ways to sustain itself when very few can afford its otherworldly clothes. The clients who pay retail (from Kuwaiti brides-to-be to fashion-conscious socialites) don't give the brands much exposure. Furthermore these creations are meant to be seen in order to spread the houses image, which is why stars are frequently invited to the Paris shows, where they are loaned dresses.

As a result of heightened publicity at the shows, many of the regular customers from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region have opted out of attending the presentations altogether, even though the couture houses send them invitations each season. Instead clients are sent dvds of the shows or allowed access to special websites, where they can view the collections in the privacy of their own homes.

Goegrio Armani, who shows his Armani Privé couture line in Paris, has expressed displeasure with the current big show format since most of his clients do not wish to be photographed or have their dresses displayed on the front pages of newspapers the next day. For this reason he stages two shows, one for journalists and another exclusively for 200 of his clients. It is a trend seen at most of the couture houses, where Middle Eastern clients now view the collections at private showings from the intimacy of the couture salon. For customers it is the only way they can appreciate the craftsmanship that has gone into the making of each garment. Up until 2006, when Stéphane Roland designed for Jean Louis Scherrer, the house (which was one of the few profit making couture establishments), had also pulled out from staging big shows in favor of more intimate presentations for its large number of Arab customers.

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How They Wear it: Couture’s Paris club

The couture industry maybe based in Paris, but it also boasts a number of prominent French and international clients who call the city home.

Clockwise: French model Naomie Lenoir photographed backstage at the Gaultier Paris Fall/Winter 2007-2008 show. Lillian Bettencourt, arguably the richest woman in France, she is the only child of Eugène Schueller the founder of L’Oréal, and inherited his entire fortune upon his death; Kirat Young, the former model and Paris based accessories designer with Brazilian couture client Bethy Lagardere at Valentino’s 45th anniversary celebrations in Rome; Paloma Picasso pictured in Yves Saint Laurent haute couture; seated at the Paris Opera from left is Bethy Lagardere, Ms. Monique Lang, Ms. Antonio Mayrink-Veiga & Nan Legeai; Comtesse Jacqueline de Ribes & Nan Legeai; Couture connoisseur Bethy Lagardere with her husband French businessman Jean-Luc Lagardere; Paloma Picasso pictured at fittings chez Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Lacroix. During the 80’s and 90’s Picasso was a prominent couture customer at Saint Laurent (with whom she maintained a close friendship), Lacroix and Dior.

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All Dressed up & Somewhere to Go

"Today the ladies don't only buy couture," noted Didier Grumbach, President of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. "They are episodic or occasional clients, for one or two events in their life."

While the American clients are back in force for slim-line, non-ball-gown evening wear, Chanel and Dior both say that it is the Arab clients who are ordering the more extravagant designs that require yards of expensive fabric and embroidery.

For many of the Middle Eastern customers, in particular those from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar, these special events generally take the form of lavish weddings held in gilded palace halls or the ballrooms of five star hotels. Attended by woman only, such events produce the highest concentration of elaborate ball gowns and jewels not seen since the court of Versailles.

For the Paris couture houses the importance of attracting Arab clients lies not just in their numbers but in how much they spend. Large Arab weddings are often extravagant formal events, where women are required to attend in sumptuous ball gowns. Clients will not only order an elaborately embroidered bridal gown, which can often run up to $150,000, but will also include a number of outfits for the wedding party. "You can't imagine how much work it involves," said Marc Bohan, the former designer at Dior who designed the clothes for the wedding of Princess Firyal’s son in Amman.

Nada Kirdar, one of couture’s most prominent Arab clients and the wife of Iraqi born Investcorp founder Nemir Kirdar, commissioned Christian Lacroix to design the dresses for the wedding party of her daughter Rena Sindi on July 6, 1991 in London. The bride, in a Lacroix dress dripping with embroidery, and her mother, in chartreuse chiffon, received in the Great Room of Grosvenor House, where the 700 dinner guests included the New Yorkers Evelyn and Leonard Lauder, as well as the Iraqi born financier Cecile Zilkha and his wife Ezra. The Kirdar’s youngest daughter Serra was also recently married in a couture wedding gown by Lacroix.

Arab weddings have continued to be a significant source of revenue for the house of Lacroix, which has several major weddings in the pipeline, including one for which a dress was recently flown to the Gulf on a dressmaker's dummy inside a specially constructed cabinet.

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All Dressed up & Somewhere to Go...Part II

Middle Eastern weddings continue to provide a large source of revenue for Paris’ couture houses, where the bride and the entire wedding party are often dressed in elaborate ball gowns. This also extends to the guests attending such events. Many Arab couture clients regularly order 3-4 ball gowns each season for such events on their social calendar.

Clockwise top left: Investcorp founder Nemir Kirdar & his wife long time couture client Nada Kirdar commissioned Christian Lacroix to design wedding gowns for their daughters, Rena and Serra’s, weddings; A wedding gown being presented to clients at Chanel’s couture salon in Paris; A sumptuous wedding dress studded with tiny pearls created by Louis Féraud in 1992 for the wedding of Princess Fahda Bint Khaled Bin Abdul Rahman, great granddaughter of the late King Abdul Aziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia; Princess Firyal of Jordan commissioned Dior to create the outfits for her son’s wedding in Amman; Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missnad wife of the Amir of Qatar, shown here dressed in Jean-Louis Scherrer for her son’s wedding; A look from the Dior 2007 collection; Rena Sindi and her sister Serra photographed in New York; Princess Zahra Aga Khan, the only daughter of His Highness the Aga Khan, married Mr. Mark Boyden in England in a dress by Christian Lacroix. Amongst the wedding guests was Farah Diba, Iran’s former empress who fled Tehran in Valentino couture at the outbreak of the revolution.

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Couture’s New Clients…

After the czars, the maharajahs, the American Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and the sheikhs, where will couture find a new client source?

If the spring/summer 2007 season was anything to go by, there seems to be a new youthful clientele in the front rows, amongst them the Miller sisters, Alexandra Von Furstenberg and Marie-Chantal, wife of Crown Prince Pavlos of Greece, as well as the 20-something Angelique Hennessy of the cognac family, (Chanel’s youngest client is currently all of 24).

Soaring oil prices have also stroked Middle East interest, reviving a client base that had slumped in the early 1990s. The oil rally has seen some of those princesses return. Sheikh Ahmed Bin Khaled Hamad al-Thani from Qatar was a guest at the Dior show. “I am a client for my wife,” he said. Asked if more of his friends and colleagues would be buying haute couture after oil prices hit a record of $70 per barrel last year, he said, “I think so.”

By now it’s apparent that primary factor driving Couture sales is vast new wealth, especially in emerging markets like India and Eastern Europe, as well as Abu Dhabi, and the United Arab Emirates. The presence of a large Arab clientele was also echoed by Marco Gobbetti, the CEO of Givenchy. "Lately, the Middle East has been a significant market that has grown very quickly," he says. Even Giancarlo Giammetti of Valentino has noticed the upswing in couture clients. "There is such a new wealth in the world in countries you didn't expect to explode so much. These people are dressing almost all the time in Couture, so they're able to order huge amounts of clothes,” noted Giammetti.

But the most telling sign of a couture revival occurred back stage after the Dior show, where staff were overjoyed as yet another couture client - the 17-year-old daughter of a Russian millionaire - ordered seven bespoke Dior outfits. With an estimated 25 billionaires, along with a healthy number of 88,000 millionaires, the Russians have become couture’s newest customers, assuming the swagger and style of the oil sheikhs of the 1970’s in their spending habits.

Furthermore Armani Privé has taken to flying its seamstresses to clients for in-person fittings, where a five-dress-per-season order is considered the minimum to qualify for such elite customer service. While Valentino Couture boasts one client who orders a mindboggling 25 to 30 new dresses each season. “The demand for handmade, exclusive, personalized fashion designs for a small but important number of women is significant and growing,” notes Robert Triefus, Armani’s executive VP of PR.

But despite the growing number of clients at several of the couture houses, it is widely believed that the couture label with the most customers is neither Chanel, Valentino, or Dior for that matter, but the lesser-known Lebanese designer Elie Saab, whose front row is usually packed with glamorous Saudi princesses. “Haute Couture is the ultimate refinement," said Nayla Lati, a member of a prominent Beirut banking family who was seated front row at Saab's show.

Then there are the first lady’s, queens and royal consorts who rely upon the couture as a means of projecting a confident and sophisticated image in their increasingly public lives. Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missnad, wife of the Emir of Qatar, for instance, regularly calls upon the Houses of Dior, Scherrer, Gaultier, and Chanel to outfit her for foreign visits and the state functions she attends as part of her role as a roving ambassador for the Emirate. While the young Queen of Morocco, Lalla Salma, who is best know for the sumptuously embroidered caftans she dons for royal banquets, is often seen in immaculately tailored Valentino couture outfits for other official functions.

The couture houses that remain insist they are making money. Chanel, which has arguably of the largest haute couture businesses, has reported a 50 per cent increase in sales for the past two years. Its couture division has experienced such significant growth that it now employs 120 workers in three ateliers to keep up with orders. “The couture was profitable if you took out the cost of the presentation of the show”, said Francoise Montenay, the chief executive and president of Chanel, who added that, "What happens is that when they have tasted couture, they cannot live without it - if they still have the money."

In 2005, when Giorgio Armani entered the rarified world of Haute Couture, industry insiders questioned the decision. But according to Armani’s Triefus, the Privé line has experienced tremendous “interest and growth,” pointing out that their roster of European and British clients are now ordering an impressive average of three Armani Privé ensembles each season. At Christian Dior Couture, sales doubled with the previous January collection, while the House of Lacroix has experienced similar growth. "Last year was up about 25 to 30 percent and this year, so far, is running slightly higher,” agrees Nicolas Topiol, president of Christian Lacroix. "Couture is very vibrant."

“My feeling is that the pendulum is swinging back to Couture,” says Jean Paul Gaultier president, Christophe Caillaud. “Rich clients are willing to have exclusive and exceptional products: made-to-measure and personalized. They want to have goods adapted to their specific needs and this includes, or course, Couture.”

Yet despite a rising interest in the craft, the market for haute couture is becoming less French every day. For decades, couture clients used to buy their haute-couture suits and ball gowns directly at the fashion houses in Paris. But many of the couture houses have recognized that if wealthy clients from emerging markets such as India and the Far East can't or won't come to the shows, then the designers will take their collections on the road. The latest to do so were Chanel and Georgio Armani, who both reprised their Paris shows in Hong Kong and New Delhi in a bid to capture a new clientele.

During Dior’s 60th anniversary couture show held on the grounds of Versailles, one executive said that they expected to sell many of the 45 embroidered gowns coming down the runway at that night's show. The catch was that such transactions would not be taking place in Paris, but at a showroom on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Officials at Valentino have also confirmed that they regularly fly to Moscow and Dubai to meet clients, since only 10% of clients still buy the label's signature couture gowns through its Paris showroom.

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Couture’s New Clients…Part II

Couture’s new clientele: In recent years haute couture has witnessed a surge in clients, many of them young, in their 20’s and 30’s. For some it is their first experience wearing couture, while others have acquired a taste for it through their mother’s and friends who were already established customers. Most new customers will gain entrance into a couture house through an introduction by an already established client.

Top left clockwise: Sheetal Mafatlal represents a new Indian couture clientele and was instrumental in opening the first Valentino boutique in India; Valentino with the young couture client Eugenia Niarchos; In a rare moment, young Arab clients from the Gulf caught on film after the Gaultier Paris show, with Catherine Deneuve being interviewed in the foreground; New York client Helen Lee Schifter in Dior haute couture; Princess Lalla Soukaïna of Morroco represents a young Middle Eastern couture customer; Princess Rosario of Bulgaria is a regular customer at Valentino; Princess Charlotte, Princess Caroline of Monaco’s daughter, has acquired her mother’s taste for Chanel haute couture; Indian clients seated at a Dior couture show; Anh Duong and Rena Sindi were both married in couture wedding gowns by Christian Lacroix, Sindi’s mother is Nada Kirdar who is a prominent couture customer; Fabiola Beracasa is no stranger to the world haute couture with an illustrious pedigree to match. Her mother Veronica Hearst was born in Monte Carlo to Princess Fatemah Khanoum and the Dutch aristocrat Wilhelmus de Gruyter and was first fitted for Balenciaga couture at the age of 16. As a child Fabiola attended many of her mother’s fittings at Valentino and Dior and reputedly has 14 closets of couture and countless more through her mother. Seen here wearing a Givenchy couture ball gown from Spring 2007; When the American heiress Marie-Chantal Miller married Crown Prince Pavlos of Greece in London in 1995, not only did she wear a couture gown by Valentino, made with ten types of lace, but dozens in the wedding party wore Valentino as well. Today she is still a loyal customer at the House, shown here wearing a Balmain couture gown from Fall 2001.
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Toujours Couture? Maybe oui, Maybe non

Several years ago the famously cranky Pierre Berge proclaimed that haute couture would die after the retirement of Yves Saint Laurent. Instead it flourished with the additions of John Galliano at Dior and Alexander McQueen, then at Givenchy. Couture, like other industries seems to go through cycles, ups and downs that inevitably bring changes to the current system.

In January Valentino will present his final couture collection in Paris. But for all the talk of a diminishing schedule and the inevitable demise of haute couture, young and new talent is still emerging each season. Givenchy, for example, is now presided over by the young designer Riccardo Tisci, who in a relatively short period of time has established a new aesthetic for the house that is attracting a modern clientele in tune with his mournfully romantic gothic confections. According to Tisci, “When I arrived we had five customers. Now we have 29.” Furthermore the number of young couture clients seems to be growing as Tisci points out, “I was in Cannes last year for the film festival and I saw this Russian girl, very beautiful, 23 years old. It was amazing to see her in my dress — a green dress from the last show, with the shoes and the bag and everything. It’s like the Arabic countries. Some of the princes have, like, 10 daughters, and they all dress in couture. It’s funny, they all come.”

While some houses have closed, others are keen to join the couture ranks. The latest couture collections shown in Paris last July witnessed the debut of two new couture houses on the official calendar. There is Anne Valerie Hash (who in the past presented her ready-to-wear collection during couture week) and Stéphane Roland, who after years of successfully designing for Jean Louis Scherrer decided to set up his own house, attracting both an established and newer clientele. Giorgio Armani is also a more recent inductee. Having made his money in the ready-to-wear revolution of the 1970s, the Italian designer introduced Giorgio Armani Privé at the Paris shows as one of 10 guest fashion houses on the couture schedule, which includes the American Ralph Rucci and the Lebanese designer Elie Saab.

There are currently ten designers qualified to show their made-to-measure collections in Paris in the haute couture show series, and countless other designer who show outside the schedule. Though you wouldn’t know this based on the scant coverage given to them in fashion publications and online, where the Big 5 (Chanel, Dior, Givenchy, Lacroix, and Gaultier) receive the most coverage, thus leaving people with the impression that the couture has dwindled to a handful of designers.

Names like Adeline Andre, Frank Sorbier, Carven and Dominique Sirop don't mean much beyond Europe and to those in the know, but they all have growing customer lists for their meticulously constructed outfits. Furthermore, discovering new couture ateliers that are under the radar has also become a competitive sport amongst some couture customers. These include the couturiers Maurizio Galante, Richard René and Stéphane Mahéas amongst others.

Then there is the elusive Belgian designer Martin Margiela, whose Maison Martin Margiela line has had a subtly more subversive effect on the couture establishment. For this understated house, nothing as unseemly as models strutting down a catwalk is required. The company's most expensive line - prices range from a relatively affordable $4,000 to $14,000 for limited edition garments - has been presented to small groups of clients and journalists in a salon as modest and unassuming as the clothes are innovative. Stripped of ostentation and the flouting of elitist values, his entirely hand-crafted and exclusive clothing appears to reflect the contemporary lives of a new generation of couture customers.

Margiela, for all his anti-establishment rhetoric, serves to illustrate that there will always be the creative talent and clients for couture. But its future ultimately lies in the hands of the treasured "petites mains," the artisans who labor in workshops doing the elaborate handwork that transforms a designer's sketches into reality. Although it is not known how many artisans still work in France's haute couture industry, what is certain is that their numbers are dwindling. Especially diminished are the "fournisseurs," the artisans who work in outside workshops like Lesage, which specializes in the craft of embroidery and Lemarié, the “plumassier,” which provides the couture industry with feathers and ornamental flowers.

Yet many believe these skills are still central to French Fashion and to view these craftsmen as quaint anachronisms would be a mistake. According to Valerie Steele, the chief curator of the Museum of FIT, "Fashion isn't necessarily about concept but about craftsmanship. You need the people to make the best ribbon, the best lace, the best hats. This is essential to keeping French fashion prestigious and creative."

To guarantee the future of at least some artisans, Chanel has bought six of the oldest workshops that no longer have heirs to run them. Having all of this expertise centralized in Paris allows designers to realize their creative dreams in ways unparalleled anywhere else in the world. "It's like a laboratory," said Lars Nilsson, the former designer for Nina Ricci in Paris, who was recently appointed as creative director at Gianfranco Ferré. "It's very Paris and quite unique because you have the connections and you can use two to three skills, like Lesage and Lemarié."

In the end haute couture maybe fashion at its most frivolous and excessive, but to many of its loyal clients it is also reminder that fashion-beyond the bottom line, the commercialism, and the designer handbags is still capable of conjuring up fantasy and mesmerizing others with its beauty and innovation. Here-in lies the secret behind haute couture’s large guilt doors, and the hope of many a couture customer from Riyadh to Sao Paulo is that those tiny hands will continue to spin luxurious dreams out of lace and tulle for many years to come.

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Paris Couture’s Secret Weapon: The “Fournisseurs”

It is the handwork that defines haute couture just as much as the three fittings required to create a garment for each client, and one of the secrets behind couture’s longevity are the "fournisseurs," the artisans who work in outside workshops that provide the couture industry with intricate embroideries, exotic feathers, custom shoes, gloves, and even millinery. But today they have become an endangered species. In St.-Junien, a small city that is the center of glove production in France, there were once 120 glove makers in the early 50's. Today only three remain; amongst them is Agnelle, a family-owned couture glove maker.

Right column:Lesage

Don’t be surprised to find the lights still blazing at 1 am from the attic space of a ramshackle five-storey building overlooked by the Sacre Coeur in Montmartre, for this is the House of Lesage. In the weeks leading up to the haute couture collections, the House’s 45 embroiderers can be found defying the official French 35-hour workweek, hunched over wooden frames, feverishly stitching fantastical scenes out of sequins and crystal beads onto gossamer cloth. While lining the house’s tiny corridors are calico sheets stretched over wood frames, waiting to be embroidered. Rushing to finish some 50 or more designs for Paris’ haute couture house’s is a twice yearly event at France’s oldest embroidery house.

It has been called the most guarded asset of French fashion for over 50 years and at 77, François Lesage has presided over this 130-year-old establishment. He inherited it in 1949 from his father, who bought it from the embroiderer to Charles Frederick Worth, Albert Michonet, who founded the house in 1868. There is even a story of Francois, as a child, being bounced on the knee of Elsa Schiaparelli.

Inside this fabled house is a warren of tiny rooms housing drawers and boxes filled with more than 60 tons of beads, sequins, threads and 100-year-old jet. There is also a cluttered archive of over 65,000 swatches of embroidery, dated, labeled and stacked to the ceiling in brown cardboard boxes, which has seen its fair share of famous visitors searching for inspiration. John Galliano once holed himself up in the tiny room until midnight, with only whiskey and cigarettes for company, poring over chiffon swatches stitched with glass beads the size of sugar grains, produced in the late Twenties for Madeleine Vionnet; while Yves Saint Laurent himself picked through the Surrealist embroideries commissioned by Elsa Schiaparelli in the Thirties.

François Lesage readily admits that he’s incapable of stitching a single button, yet his true talent lies in his ability to translate what he calls “the fog in the brain of the designer." He once recalled a phone call from Yves Saint Laurent. "Francois, make me something that is like a chandelier," the designer instructed him. "Like a chandelier reflecting in the mirror on my bureau - with the sky of Paris in the background." Yet from such whimsical and tall orders, Lesage has been able to meet a designer’s demands for over fifty years.

According to Monsieur Lesage there were once about 10,000 embroiderers employed in France’s haute couture industry. Today that number has dwindled to 200.

Center column: Lemarié

Behind the huge graffiti-covered doors of a shabby but grand building on Paris’ Rue du Faubourg St.-Denis lies a world of rare and exotic feather’s. It was here in 1880, that the “plumassier” André Lemarié’s grandmother set up shop to supply feathers to the couture houses. At the time, this gritty street near the Gare du Nord was once lined with similar establishments. 60 years ago there were 300 people employed in the craft, but today the atelier is the sole remaining feather workshop on the street and one of a handful still specializing in feather work in Paris. As their competitors closed their businesses one after the other, André Lemarié went about buying their stock of feathers, some from species no longer in existence.

Inside the atelier racks of boxes, stained tobacco-brown with age, are inscribed with labels that read "South African Ostrich," "Prince of Wales," or "exotic orchids." In one box amongst layers of tissue paper lies Lemarié’s last stock of Birds of Paradise, tanned in China in the days of the last emperor, their colors still vibrant.

Lemarié is also known for supplying the couture industry with luxurious ornamental flowers, most notably Chanel’s iconic Camellia. The House’s young artisans use centuries old hand tools, such as a heated tool that looks like a lollipop to curl the edges of petals. Together they produce more than 20,000 camellias annually for the House of Chanel; made out of silk, cotton, velvet, leather, and even vinyl.

When André Lemarié, who bares a striking resemblance to Alfred Hitchcock, retired in 2000, Eric Charles-Donatien became the firms’ new young director after having worked at Hermès sewing men’s wear. "When I got here, the use of materials was very ladylike," he said. "I mixed the flowers and feathers together. I made the designs more abstract and concentrated on texture." "To make something more edgy I've ruched organza and shredded the edges to make them look like feathers, so you're not really sure what you're looking at."

That modern approach seems to appeal to many of the couturiers working today. For his Fall 1997 haute couture collection, Jean Paul Gaultier asked Lemarié to create a shaggy fur coat entirely out of densely packed ostrich and marabou feather’s that became a highlight of his show.

Left column: Massaro

The House of Massaro has been creating luxurious footwear since its inception in 1894. Presided over today by Raymond Massaro, the 76 year old founder's grandson, both Massaro and his father worked with Coco Chanel to create her iconic two toned shoes, their tips looking as if they had been dipped in black ink.

Often dressed in his lab coat, Massaro still works closely with Karl Lagerfeld on the shoes for each new Chanel couture collection. "We are really craftsmen. The business is only 10 people. Everything is done here," he said pointing to the backroom where the workshop is located. "The head of the workshop has been with us more than 30 years. Once someone starts working here, they don't leave. It's the guarantee of good work. We're a tight-knit team," he added. Massaro's staff turns out more than 1,500 pairs of shoes a year, 150 of which are for Chanel.

Although none of the workshops were willing to disclose what they charge the fashion houses, Massaro has also attracted a steady stream of 3,000 regular clients. Although he doesn’t share his current client list, in the past these have included member of the Kennedy family, Elizabeth Taylor, the Duchess of Windsor, and Marlene Dietrich, for whom was created a beige pump with a jewel ball wrapped around the heel. Clients can expect to pay around $3,000 for a pair of shoes that require up to 40 hours of work to fabricate. "Everything is handmade," according to Massaro. "A shoemaker's work is to achieve perfection."

Entering his tiny shop with its racks lined with carefully crafted men's and women's shoes, clients can often create their own custom shoes designed to fit on their feet perfectly. An imprint of their foot is taken and a mould is made out of wood, which is kept for future orders. The allure of Massaro’s shoes is similar to that of an Haute couture garment in that it provides the client with opportunity to own something that is virtually unique to them alone.
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The Directrice of the Couture Salon

The House of Lacroix boasts a large roster of Middle Eastern clients attracted to his vibrant sense of color and innovative use of fabrics.

When Christian Lacroix presented his first couture collection under his own name on July 1987, it was the first haute couture house to open in Paris since Ungaro in 1965. Two emblems of Lacroix’s House were born that day: His now infamous puff skirt which was widely regarded for reinventing the ball gown in the late 20th century, and Marie Seznec his iconic model with an unlikely feature, grey hair. Yet Seznec is no ordinary model. Coming from a long line of seamstresses, when she first arrived in Paris from her native Brittany it was to study fashion design at the prestigious Studio Berçot. But it was the silver mane set a top a youthful face, which she had since the age of 15, that caught the eye of Lacroix and launched her modeling career. She modeled for him up until the early 90’s when she went on to become the “directrice” of his couture salon.

Today she is known for wielding a certain amount of influence at the House, not only as Lacroix’s right hand, but also because she runs its couture salon. She personally advises and works with each client on their purchases, frequently flying to New York or the Middle East with a seamstress for in-person fittings with important clients. She is also the individual to whom all new or perspective clients must approach in order to purchase a garment from the House.
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How They Wear it: Mouna Ayoub Part I

The Lebanese billionaire and socialite Mouna Ayoub was first bitten by the couture bug over 20 years ago when she married Nasser Al-Rashid, a Saudi businessman and advisor to the late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. On her wedding day in 1979 she wore a couture gown in ivory lace designed by Jean-Louis Scherrer. After 18 years in Riyadh, living in relative seclusion as a wife and mother of five, she divorced her husband in 1996 and left Saudi Arabia to live in Paris, where she made a fortune in real estate.

In 1997 she bought the mega yacht Phocéa, once owned by French businessman Bernard Tapie, for a cool 56.5 million Euros. Although this sprawling boat already boasted luxurious interiors and amenities, she sunk into it a further 18.25 million Euros in upgrades. To finance this undertaking she sold a portion of her jewels at Sotheby’s, which included the world’s largest yellow diamond, known as the Mouna diamond. Today the Phocéa has become her second home on which she travels around the world. The boat can often be found moored off the coast of many the world’s luxurious watering holes, including Cannes, Monte Carlo, and Marbella.

But Ms. Ayoub’s most lasting legacy may be her formidable haute couture collection which contains examples from every major couturier of the past 30 years. Numbering over 10,000 pieces, it is one of the largest haute couture collections in private hands today, and one which she continues to add pieces to each season (she is known to have bought 50 dresses in one year). From a fashion curator’s perspective what is impressive about her haul is that she is known to have collected only the most iconic pieces from a designer’s collection, regardless of their cost. These include Yves Saint Laurent’s famous 1988 dinner jacket covered in Van Gogh’s “Irises” by Lesage. The jacket, with its blue and green flower pattern traced in beads, had taken the Lesage studios 700 hours of handwork to complete. Even at the peak of their buying power in 1988, only ll haute couture customers purchased the completed “Irises” garment by Yves Saint Laurent, which was dubbed “the world’s most expensive cardigan.”Amongst Ayoub’s collection is also a stunning slender evening coat from Chanel’s autumn/winter 1996/1997 collection, which required 800 hours of work to entirely embroider it in the same pattern as the Chinese Coromandel screens found in Coco Chanel’s apartment.

What makes her collection even more exceptional is that Ayoub, unlike many regular clients, never alters a couturier’s original designs. Even if a dress came from a designer’s more “challenging” collections, you’re still able to see the couturier’s original concept in her pieces. She sites Jean Paul Gaultier as her current favorite couturier, although she makes it a point to frequent all the houses. One of her most impressive pieces from Gaultier is an evening gown from Spring 1999 that morphs from a denim bodice into a cascading fishtail of ostrich feathers, fading from indigo blue to a stonewashed white as they hit the floor.

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How They Wear it: Mouna Ayoub Part II

Clockwise top left: Mouna Ayoub, in Dior couture with Loulou de la Falaise at her birthday party in Paris; In a Gaultier Paris gown from Spring 2005; At the Cannes film festival in Atelier Versace, Spring 2003; During Couture week in January 2002, the House of Dior threw a costume ball, taking over the main floor of the Ritz hotel, shrouding its chandeliers in black tulle and pumping out disco tunes and dry ice in equal measure till dawn. Ayoub appeared at the party dressed as Cruella de Ville accompanied by two Afghan hounds that stood in for the Dalmatians; Mouna Ayoub photographed in her famous jewels.

Mouna Ayoub’s passion for haute couture has endeared her to many of the designers, not because of the amount she spends, but for her knowledge and appreciation of the craft. So much so that Gaultier even broke with the protocol concerning his clients, and spoke of her during an interview with Suzy Menkes. “It’s marvelous to find someone who loves fashion so much,” said Gaultier of Ayoub at the time. “And she is generous and adorable with the people who work on her dresses.”

This was no more apparent than in 1999, when the Musee de la Mode in Marseille mounted an exhibit of some of her haute couture pieces, entitled “Mouna Ayoub, Parcours d’une Collectionneuse” (A Voyage Around a Collector). It was a rare instance when a living couture customer opened up her personal wardrobe to the general public. For the exhibit’s inaugural reception Ayoub not only included the designers on her guest list, but the heads of the couture workrooms, the embroiderer Francois Lesage, as well as the feather supplier Andre Lemarie. “I know the designers, I love the premières (atelier heads)” explained Ayoub. “That’s why, although I’m a collector, I’m not interested in old pieces, there has to be a human contact.”

Ayoub has often said that “Couture is also a form of art,” as a rebuttal to those who may see the craft and its clients as frivolous. By doing so Ayoub points to the fact that the media seldom bats an eye when wealthy individuals invest large sums in a piece of modern art or champion the work of a contemporary artist. Art in many cases is seen as a legitimate form of investment, where as couture, which straddles that fine line between creation and commerce is often perceived by the general public as simply high priced clothing destined for a few individuals.

But the last few decades has witnessed a boom in the study, conservation, and collecting of costumes, and more significantly haute couture, by major museums and cultural institutions around the world. Not only is haute couture widely regarded as a form of social history, but savvy curators have also realized that costume exhibits have the power to attract a large number of visitor’s through a museum’s doors.

Despite this curatorial interest in haute couture, only one tenth of Mouna Ayoub's personal wardrobe has ever gone on public display. But if Ayoub has her way, the general public may soon have the opportunity to indulge in the voyeuristic pleasures of delving into a couture customer’s extensive wardrobe. She recently purchased a grand Château outside of Paris which she is currently renovating into a museum to house her extensive collection of priceless frocks so that future generations can admire the work of the couturiers and their ateliers.
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How They Wear it: Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missned, Part I

In a rare TV interview in 2003 on CBS News's 60 Minutes, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani the Emir of Qatar discussed the reforms he was implementing in his country. To Qataris and other Gulf Arabs watching TV at home, that 60 Minutes interview was a complete shock, and not because of the emir's ruminations on freedom and democracy. Qataris, rather, were focused on the woman sitting beside him. It was the first time the vast majority of them had seen any of their first ladies.

The second of Sheikh Hamad’ three wives, (He married a cousin, which cemented a problematic political alliance. He married Sheikha Mozah, because she caught his fancy. And he married yet again, solidifying another alliance with another cousin), Sheikha Mozah is the first and only Qatari ruling spouse to show herself in public. A rarity in a region where most wives, consorts, and queens remain firmly under wraps. But that is just the start of it.

With a BA in sociology and holding several posts in Qatar and internationally, that include Vice-President of the Supreme Education Council and UNESCO’s Special Envoy for Basic and Higher Education, this mother of seven finds herself in a constant state of travel and conferences. Whether meeting with the President of France or speaking at the United Nations General Assembly, she is always impeccably turned out in custom couture outfits by Dior, Gaultier, and Chanel to name a few.

Clockwise: In Gaultier Paris, Fall 2005; In Christian Dior couture, Fall 2005; In Gaultier Paris, Spring 2005; In Dior couture, Spring 2005; In Chanel couture, Spring 2005.

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How They Wear it: Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missned, Part II

Although it has been known for years that clients from the Gulf constitute a large portion of couture’s customer base, Sheikha Mozah’s public life has meant that for the first time we are able to see what a couture customer from the Gulf is buying. She is a perfect example of how Couture allows clients from the Gulf to adapt garments to their specific lifestyles, often lengthening skirt or covering arms to adhere to Islamic customs of modesty while still maintaining a sense of style.

Clockwise: Gaultier Paris, Fall 2005; Jean-Louis Scherrer, Fall 2004; Gaultier Paris Spring 2006; In Jean-Louis Scherrer, Spring 2005; Wearing Gaultier Paris, Fall 2005.

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How They Wear It: Princess Firyal of Jordan

Princess Firyal of Jordan is originally Palestinian. Her title comes from her marriage to the brother of the late King Hussein of Jordan. Over the years she has gained a reputation as one of the most glamorous and best-dressed couture customers on the international social scene. Long known as a hostess in London and Paris (where she maintains homes) she currently lives in New York. An ardent fundraiser who has assisted in a wide variety of Educational and Cultural programs in Jordan and abroad, the Princess is also a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. In October 1999, she became a member of the International Committee of the "Musses des Arts Decoratifs" in Paris, as well as a seat on the Chairman's Council of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

She was a loyal customer at Balmain during Oscar de la Renta’s tenure at the House. Today she is a client at Chanel, Gaultier Paris, and Valentino.

Clockwise: In Yves Saint Laurent haute couture, Spring 1986; In Chanel couture, Spring 2004; In Gaultier Paris, Fall 2005; In Balmain couture, Fall 2001; Wearing Gaultier Paris, Fall 2005.

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How They Wear it: Queen Rania of Jordan

Jordan's Queen Rania is one of the Middle East's more intriguing public figures, and has been called the new face of Islamic feminism in the 21 century. Married to King Abdullah II, this college educated former banker and mother of three works to improve conditions for her country's disadvantaged and regularly steps onto the world stage to promote and enhance Jordan's image abroad. With her excellent command of the English language, Rania is comfortable speaking with foreign dignitaries and Western journalists alike. Even on matters that require the utmost diplomatic skill, she seems at ease. "People in the West view Arab women as being very conservative not necessarily educated," she commented. "And the truth of the matter is that we have many brilliant women who are very forward-looking."

Although she frequently appears on the International Best Dressed list, Rania is not a conspicuous couture consumer when compared to other clients from the Middle East, but tends to be pragmatic in her purchases. At her husband’s coronation, she chose to borrow a tiara rather than buy a new one that would have been worn infrequently. From the European designers she tends to favor Dominique Sirop, Givenchy and Jean Paul Gaultier. But her favorite is the Lebanese Couturier Elie Saab, not only because he designed her coronation gown, but also because it gives her the opportunity to promote the work of a Middle Eastern designer on an International stage.

Clockwise: In Gaultier Paris, Fall 2002; In Elie Saab Fall 2003; In Givenchy couture, Spring 2004; Wearing Elie Saab Fall 2004.

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How They Wear it: Queen Lalla Salma of Morocco

The flame-haired Princess Lalla Salma of Morocco is not only one of the Middle East’s most glamorous humanitarian campaigners, but at 29, also one of its youngest royal consorts. After graduating with a degree in computer science she wed King Mohammed VI in 2002. In February of this year she gave birth to her second child, Princess Lalla Khadija. Like Queen Rania of Jordan, who has long been a figure-head for women's rights in the Arab world, Lalla Salma is paving the way for women's advancement herself, by being the first female member of the Moroccan royal family to have been publicly acknowledged and given a royal title. Today she uses her enhanced profile to support charities such as one for cancer research, as well as promote Moroccan interests abroad.

She is frequently seen at state functions and royal banquets in sumptuously embroidered caftans. On other official occasions she dons beautifully constructed Chanel and Valentino suits. She tends to go for more classic pieces that are altered slightly (the lengthening of a skirt hem, or covering of the shoulders) to adhere to Islamic customs modesty.

Clockwise: With her sister in law Princess Lalla Meryem wearing richly embroidered caftans; In Valentino couture Fall 2004; Often eclipsing the women in western dress, she attended a dinner at Versailles in an embroidered silk and chiffon caftan; in a Valentino couture coat, Fall 2004.

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How They Wear it: Princess Lalla Meryem

King Mohammed VI of Morocco’s equally glamorous sisters, Princesses Lalla Meryem above and Lalla Hasna below, have also been attracting attention over the years for their humanitarian work and sense of style. Whether appearing at public functions or private parties in billowing silk caftans, or sleek Chanel suits, they exude sophistication and elegance.

Princess Lalla Meryem was born in Rome and is the first daughter of the late King Hassan II. In addition to being a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, the mother of two focuses on projects that enhance the rights of women and children.

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How They Wear it: Princess Lalla Hasna

Princess Lalla Hasna of Morocco is the youngest daughter of the late King Hassan II. Over the last couple of years she has placed special emphasis on environmental issues in Morocco, creating in 2001 The Mohammed VI Foundation for the Protection of the Environment. She’s married to cardiologist Dr. Khalid Benharbit, with whom she has two daughters.

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Paris Couture’s Lebanese Invasion

Clockwise left: Nazik Hariri, with her 22 year old daughter Hind, who grew up accompanying her mother to many of the couture shows as well as her fittings. It is said that she has also acquired a taste for haute couture; Nazik Hariri with her late Husband Rafik Hariri in Gaultier Paris couture, Spring 2002; May Arida at her home in Beirut with one of her vintage Dior pieces; Arida photographed for American Vogue in the early 60’s; The Lebanese couturier Elie Saab with models after his show.

There is a group of couturiers from the Orient who are knocking heavily at the well guarded doors of France’s governing body of haute couture. No other country in recent years has been able to insert itself into the Paris couture scene quite as well as Lebanon and Beirut in particular, which not only has a long history of dressmaking, but can also boast several prominent fashion houses that stayed open even during its 15 years of bitter civil war.

Many of these designers began by presenting their collections during Rome’s couture week and gradually edged their way onto the Paris Couture schedule. Elie Saab, whose notoriety grew after dressing Halle Barry for the Oscars, is the most well known of this group of Lebanese couturiers. But there are also many others, including George Chakra, Zuhair Murad and George Hobeika. Although the later two are not as yet invited members on the Chambre Syndicale’s official calendar, they present their collections with the same pomp as the big houses, and exhibit the same level of craftsmanship and attention to detail that couture is known for.

Despite this, they are frequently called out by fashion critics for concentrating too heavily on eveningwear that is often ornately embroidered and brightly hued. Even if fashions pendulum were to swing towards a more austere aesthetic, one could assume that the Lebanese couturiers would not stray too heavily from this already established formula. The main reason for this is that most have built up their businesses catering to a Middle Eastern clientele, and their endless cycle of weddings, where such frocks are de rigueur. But what these couturiers cannot be faulted for is their ability to listen to their clients and give them what they want. This is apparent by the number of customers they attract each season, not only from the Middle East, but also Europe, Asia, South America and the United States. Although most of the Parisian couture houses have been experiencing an increase in sales, it is an unspoken fact within couture’s inner circle that the house attracting the largest number of customers is neither French nor Italian, but that of the Lebanese designer Elie Saab.

In addition to these designers, Paris couture houses have had a long history of attracting prominant Lebanese clients. Two such clients representing different generations are Nazik Hariri and May Arida.

Nazik Hariri, the wife of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, has been a fixture on the couture scene for over 20 years. In the past she was frequently photographed front row at Valentino, Lacroix, Elie Saab and Gaultier Paris. But after the tragic death of her husband she curtailed her attendance at the shows, though she still orders pieces from the couture houses privately.

An international beauty who was photographed by American Vogue in the 60’s, May Arida is largely responsible for establishing Lebanon’s Baalbeck cultural festival, by enticing such luminaries as Jean Cocteau, Ella Fitzgerald, Maurice Béjart and Miles Davis to perform under the towering Roman columns of Baalbeck’s ancient amphitheater. From the 1950’s-70’s she was a prominent customer at Christian Dior, where she developed a close friendship with the famous designer himself. Today she owns one of the largest collections of Dior couture at her home in Beirut, which she takes meticulous care of.
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How They Wear It: Anh Duong

Anh Duong is a New York-based painter specializing in portraiture, whom Vanity Fair called "the Frida Kahlo of the 21st century." Born in 1960 in Bordeaux, France to a Spanish mother and a Vietnamese father, Duong studied architecture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and danced with the Franchetti Academy of Classical Dance before her regal and exotic looks launched into a successful modeling career that spanned the late 80’s through the early 90’s. She’s posed for fashion photographers Michel Comte, Peter Lindbergh, Steven Meisel and Deborah Turbeville, as well as serving as muse to designers Donna Karan, Christian Lacroix, John Galliano and Diane von Furstenberg. In 2006 she married architect Barton Quillen in a Couture dress designed for her by Christian Lacroix.

Over the years she has become a loyal Couture client at both Lacroix and Gaultier. Although couture offers customers the luxury of modifying garments to their own tastes and body, she typically doesn’t alter a couturier’s original designs.

Clockwise: Modeling backstage at Lacroix’s couture show in 1989; In Gaultier Paris, Spring 2003; Being fitted by Lacroix before a show; In Gaultier Paris, Spring 2003; In Christian Lacroix, Fall 2006; Christian Lacroix, Spring 2004.

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How They Wear It: Anne Bass

The Manhattan socialite, philanthropist, art patron, and ex-wife of billionaire investor Sid Bass, has amassed a serious couture collection since she began attending the Paris Haute Couture shows in the 1980’s. Frequently appearing on the Best Dressed list, her collection includes pieces by every major Couturier. She was a devoted client at Yves Saint Laurent before he retired. Today she is frequently seen at major events such as the New York MET’s Costume Institute Gala in Christian Lacroix and Gaultier Paris.

Bass was one of the first clients to place orders at John Galliano’s first Couture collection for Dior. In particular a dazzling acid-green mink-trimmed dress made famous by Nicole Kidman at the 1997 Oscars. Kidman chose the chartreuse gown from the couture collection, but Bass, who had ordered it first, had to give permission for the dress to be copied. When Bass eventually wore the dress to the New York City Ballet Spring Gala, it had become instantly recognizable. It takes a certain kind of woman to wear a dress that costs as much as a Rolls Royce. When asked "Why did you wear that dress?" She replied "Because I wanted to be invisible," a trademark of Bass, whose sense of humor is second only to her sense of style.

Clockwise: In Gaultier Paris, Spring 2006; In Christian Lacroix, Fall 2003; In Gaultier Paris, Fall 2005; In Christian Lacroix, Fall 2005; In Christian Lacroix, Spring 2003; In Gaultier Paris, Spring 2007.

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How They Wear it: Daphne Guinness

British heiress Daphne Guinness is one of couture’s more flamboyant dressers, and comes from a long line established couture customers. Her grandmother was Diana Mitford, one of the famous three Mitford sisters, who were society beauties in their youth as well as regular clients at the house of Givenchy amongst many others.

A mother of three, Daphne Guinness is the daughter of the brewery heir Jonathan Guinness, aka Lord Moyne, and the youngest of five children. She spent part of her childhood in an artists’ colony in Spain; part of it in Paris, where with her mother, the French beauty Suzanne Lisney, she’d sit in the front row of all the couture shows; and part of it in London, where she’d spend Saturdays in the art-deco room in Biba, drinking strawberry milkshakes and developing her trademark passion for all things feathered.

Over the years Guinness has gained a reputation as a renowned collector of haute couture. "The thing about haute couture, unlike prêt-à-porter clothing, is that you actually have to engage with the process and repeatedly go for fittings," she explained. In an age when consumers seem increasingly obsessed with acquiring the latest “it” bag or shoes, couture’s attraction to Guinness lies in its exclusivity, and the fact that she’s guaranteed a unique product no matter how many times she wears it. She also doesn’t tend to be too reverential with her couture purchases, often combining garments from different designers and seasons, or mixing them with ready to wear pieces to create a distinct look.

When asked how she developed such a strong sense of personal style, her response was, "I grew up in an artists' colony near Barcelona with Salvador Dali and the Surrealists, so my dress sense is very colored by my youth," she explained. "Everybody knew that Dali was the most crazy; you'd go to his house and he would have lobsters in his pool. Anything went, clothes-wise. You could wear whatever you wanted any time of day, so people would wear evening clothes at breakfast time, simple Catalan shoes and hats, lots of brightly colored hippy kaftans and a lot of French, tailored outfits."

Clockwise bottom left: In Chanel Haute Couture, Fall 2006; In Christian Lacroix, Spring 2006; In Givenchy Haute Couture by Alexander McQueen, Spring 2000; In Chanel couture, Spring 2004; In Chanel couture, Fall 2007; Wearing Gaultier’s stuffed Birds of Paradise hairpieces from his Spring 2004 couture collection.

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How They Wear it: Marie-Josée Kravis, Susan Casden, Susan Gutfreund

Left Column
How they wear it: Marie-Josée Kravis

One could be forgiven for assuming the ranks of couture’s buying public are only populated by ladies who lunch and women of leisure. In fact couture also attracts a number of women who are not only financially independent but are at the height of their professional careers. Thus haute couture also counts a number of prominent professionals-doctors, lawyers, and the CEO’s of multinational companies-amongst its most loyal clients, who see couture as a way of projecting a confident and professional image in public. Marie-Josée Kravis is one such client.

A respected economist and author hailing from Montreal, Quebec, today she lives in New York with her husband Henry Kravis, a billionaire financier. She is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, President of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and also serves on the International Advisory Board of the New York Federal Reserve Bank. She recently became a member of the Board of the Qatar Museum Authority. In addition to their home in New York, they also maintain a home in Paris, France.
Kravis was a loyal customer at Yves Saint Laurent before his retirement. Today although she doesn’t frequent one specific designer, she is often seen in Chanel and Dior. She’s is an example of a client who understands what works best on her and will try to adapt a designer’s creations to suit her, by removing additional embellishments or requesting a garment in a color unique to her alone.

From top: With her husband Henry Kravis in Chanel haute couture, Spring 2007; In Yves Saint Laurent haute couture, Fall 2001.

Center Column
How they wear it: Susan Casden

The Los Angeles based client Susan Casden is most recognizable as the “couture client” who appeared in the final episode of “Signé Chanel,” Loïc Prigent's documentary which chronicled the final weeks leading up to the showing of Chanel’s Fall/Winter 2004/2005 haute couture collection.

This doyenne of West Coast society, who is the wife of Alan Casden, a real estate billionaire, is reportedly Chanel's top U.S. couture client. “The first couture outfit I ever bought continues to get frequent wear," says Susan Casden of a Chanel ensemble; a black boucle jacket with a white tuxedo blouse and a black lace, tulle and feather skirt purchased after the fall collection in 2000. Over the past five years, Casden has become a serious collector, flying to Paris twice each year to attend the collections and always returning with purchases that display couture's signatures: detailed handiwork, intricate beading and unique fabrics. She is also a customer at the houses of Dior, Givenchy and Gaultier.

Casden recently received the ultimate honor from the House of Hermès (one usually reserved for such icons of fashion such as Grace Kelly and Jane Berkin) when a bag was named after her, “The Susan.” Featuring the signature Birkin closure, the roomy hold-all boasts a multitude of storage compartments. "The shoulder Birkin was quite cumbersome. This one I can take anywhere with ease," explained Casden, who waited one year for it after meeting with Hermès designers last July and traveled to Paris three to four times to monitor its progress. She shied away from revealing its price, but said it was similar to a standard Birkin.

From Top: With her husband Alan Casden; In Gaultier Paris, Fall 2006.

Right Column
How they wear it: Susan Gutfreund

A former Pan Am flight attendant, Mrs. Gutfreund hit the pages of fashion magazines 20 years ago with a splash when she accumulated a sizable haute couture wardrobe during the heyday of the stock market boom of the 80’s and early 90’s. She is the second wife of John H. Gutfreund, who ran one of Wall Street's powerhouse securities firms at the time.

During this period she frequently traveled by Concorde between her homes in New York and Paris, where she lives with her husband , in a sumptuous hotel particulier off the Boulevard Saint-Germain. In New York she spent $20 million with the French decorator Henri Samuel adding a staircase to her Fifth Avenue duplex that was almost as grand as the one in her Paris home.

With an encyclopedic knowledge of furniture and textiles, she recently set up her own interior design business and often speaks of her love of fabric innovations and embellishments, especially with regards to haute couture.
From Top: With her husband John Gutfreund photographed in Paris; In Chrisrian Lacroix Haute Couture, Fall 2005.
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How They Wear it: Lynn Wyatt

Houston socialite Lynn Wyatt is not only a charter member of the international jet set but she is also considered one of haute couture’s most glamorous and loyal customers. Frequently appearing at charity galas (there is not a major event in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London or Paris that she’s liable to miss) Mrs. Wyatt can often be seen in the pages of Vogue and W in couture’s latest creations.

For decades she was also single handedly responsible for putting Houston on the international social map. During the height of the oil boom in the 1970s and early '80s, the Wyatt mansion witnessed a string of parties for the likes of Princess Grace, Bill Blass, Mick Jagger, and Elton John amongst many others.

It has been said that Wyatt's staying power as a reigning socialite is due largely to her ability to create an image that evokes both old and new money. Wyatt herself didn’t come from enormous wealth, but acquired it through her marriage to Oscar Wyatt, an oil and natural gas tycoon. Despite her modest background she never gives off the impression of being nouveau riche. At society gala’s, amid a sea of taffeta gowns and flashy jewels, she can be found in a designer’s most streamlined creations, often accessorized with a single broach of expertly cut diamonds. She is a woman with that rare ability to not only carry couture clothes well but also convincingly, as if she were born to wear them.

Clockwise: Wyatt during a fitting at the house of Lacroix in the early 80’s; In Chanel couture, Fall 2007; In Valentino couture at the designer’s 45th anniversary celebrations in Rome; Pictured with Karl Lagerfeld at the Rose Ball in Monte Carlo; In Chanel Couture, Fall 2006.

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How They Wear it: Becca Cason Thrash

Like her fellow Texan Lynn Wyatt, Becca Cason Thrash has built her reputation as a socialite and philanthropist on her passion for fashion and spectacle. She is often featured in Houston’s social columns and the New York Times even once dubbed her “the next Lynn Wyatt.”

Thrash once worked for a public relations firm where her clients included a number of Saudi Arabian oil magnates. She was also the publicist for Tootsies, a pricey Houston boutique, when she married Dr. John Thrash, the multimillionaire chief executive officer of the Texas energy company eCorp. Today they live in a sprawling glass mansion filled with an enviable collection of modern art as well as a glass-ceilinged kitchen with a party room above.

When Becca Cason Thrash throws a party it is no less impressive. At a recent black tie event she gave benefiting the American Friends of the Louvre, guests flew in from Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., New York, Toronto, Paris, and all over Texas to raise funds in her spectacular 20,000-square-foot, glass-walled home. The highlight of the evening was the re-creation of Christian Lacroix’s Haute Couture show, shown only the month before, which was presented on a mirrored runway built on top of the Tharsh’s indoor swimming pool.

In the last couple of years she has also gained a reputation as an haute couture connoisseur with a small collection that she has been gradually building up over the last few of seasons. Treating her purchases like the works of art that she and her husband acquire, her collection includes pieces by Gaultier, Christian Dior, Christian Lacroix, and the American Ralph Rucci.

Unlike many couture customers, Thrash rarely wear’s a designer’s creations from head to toe, but tends to mix pieces from different seasons to create a distinct look. It is this way of wearing couture which informs the manner in which she purchases her pieces. When she attends the show and the couture salons twice a year she often tries to break the outfits down in her head, picking out a pair of pants or a jacket to update her existing wardrobe. In a sense Thrash sees couture as the antithesis of ready-to-wear, where clothes are often considered dated after a season. Instead she views her couture purchases as wearable works of art that gain in value over time.

Clockwise: Becca Cason Thrash in Christian Lacroix, Spring 2007; With her husband John Thrash in Ralph Rucci couture, Fall 2003; In Hanae Mori haute couture, Fall 2004; In Christian Dior couture, Fall 2005; Pictured with Christian Lacroix during Paris couture week.
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How They Wear it: Nan Kempner

Diana Vreeland, the legendary editor of American Vogue, once said: "There are no chic women in America. The one exception is Nan Kempner." Mrs. Kempner, the New York socialite and international jet setter who passed away in 2005, was arguably one of couture’s most passionate collectors. Over five decades she amassed the largest private collection of haute couture clothing featuring classic designers like Mainbocher and her favorite couturier Yves Saint Laurent.

Her first couture gown was a white Dior sheath, bought in the early 1950s. She traveled to Paris twice a year for the shows, seldom absent from the St Laurent salon. She was also known for maintaining her slender frame in order to fit into couture samples, discounted at $10,000 a gown. She stored them (when the children grew up, she converted their rooms to extra closets) and "it turns out that I was an art collector. Museums come and ask me for clothes all the time". As curator of her own rails, she was elected to the fashion Hall of Fame and gave courses at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Recently both the MET and the Fondation Yves Saint Laurent in Paris held exhibits of her couture collection.

Clockwise: In Valentino Couture, Spring 2003; Photographed at a Saint Laurent fitting in the late 80’s; In Gaultier Paris, Spring 2003; Seated at Yves Saint Laurent’s show in the late 70’s; In Yves Saint Laurent haute couture; In Christian Lacroix, Fall 2004; Wearing Valentino couture, Fall 2004.
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