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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