Exclusive: An insider’s view to the annual Bal des Débutantes in Paris
Melissa Twigg goes to Paris for an insider’s view of one of the world’s most glamorous events, the annual Bal des Débutantes.
The clock strikes midnight and the Eiffel Tower’s light show begins, illuminating the interior of the Palais de Chaillot. A waltz starts to play and Prince Charles-Emmanuel de Bourbon-Parme, a direct descendant of Louis XIV, steps forward to take the hand of his daughter, Princess Elisabeth, to open the dancing for the night.
Welcome to Le Bal des Débutantes, the most prestigious and Parisian of events, an evening where actual royalty flirts with Hollywood royalty, where new money and old money rub shoulders and where everyone is the proud owner of a famous surname, a listed company or an ancient palace—or all three.
Inspired by British debutante balls of the past, where young women from aristocratic families were presented to the queen at Buckingham Palace, the Bal, as it’s commonly known, is in fact a modern concept and the brainchild of Ophélie Renouard, an extremely determined French PR with a deft touch for networking and a not-so-little black book.
Renouard has masterminded the Bal since 1992 when she was given a one-year contract to organise events for the Hôtel de Crillon and hit on an idea that would capture the world’s imagination. “Well, it has all the right ingredients for success,” says Renouard.
“The girls are beautiful and look and feel like princesses for a night. And Paris is, well, Paris. Modern life is not so filled with glamour but at the Bal, glamour and romance are everything. I think that is why everybody loves it so much—it gives them an experience they cannot find elsewhere.”
Like the heroines of the Disney fantasies they grew up watching, these 24 well-born young women are transformed from typical teenagers into glossy, couture-clad goddesses for one night. The elaborate process begins the day before the Bal, on a cold Friday at the end of November. “Even though most of them come from privileged backgrounds, the Bal is usually their couture and media debut,” says Renouard. “They wear gowns and haute jewellery [by Bucherer] for the first time and it is a special moment for them.”
The Hôtel de Crillon has always been the venue for the event (in English it is usually referred to as the Crillon Ball), but it was recently acquired by Rosewood Hotels & Resorts and is being renovated ahead of a grand reopening later this year. In the interim, the Bal is being held at the Palais de Chaillot in Trocadéro, and the debutantes stay at plush Hôtel Raphael near the Arc de Triomphe.
It’s in this old-world Parisian building where the young women, daughters of aristocrats, film stars, politicians and billionaires, meet for the first time. Walking into one of their richly decorated sitting rooms, I pick my way over a sea of discarded Louboutin shoes and am hit by a wall of sound. Teenage laughter mixes with mobile phone ring tones, the whine of hairdryers and excited chatter in a medley of languages.
There are three Asian debs this year: from Hong Kong, Elly Lam, the daughter of Peter Lam and Lynn Hsieh, and Alexandra Louey, daughter of William Louey and Marie-Christine Lee; and from the Philippines, Emily Madrigal, daughter of Vincent and Ann Madrigal. “I am having so much fun,” says Lam.
“I love doing photo shoots and I really feel like this is my moment to shine.” Louey agrees, saying, “I imagine this is what getting married feels like, getting to look beautiful and be the centre of attention all weekend.”
Lam, inspired by her sister’s wedding dress choice, is wearing Dior Haute Couture, Louey is resplendent in a purple Georges Chakra gown, and Madrigal wears a full-skirted pink dress by J Mendel. “It was so exciting getting to talk to J Mendel and work out exactly what suited me,” says Madrigal. “This dress is like something out of a fairy tale.”
But for many of these young women, interacting with celebrated designers is no rarity. Princess Larissa of Windisch-Graetz lives in an ancient palace off the Piazza Navona in Rome with her parents, Archduchess Sophie of Austria and Prince Mariano Hugo of Windisch-Graetz, and looks like a princess from a storybook, with long blonde curls, huge blue eyes and perfect milky-white skin. “Oh, Valentino helped me pick out my dress,” she says casually.
“He is an old friend of my mother’s and when he heard I was coming to the ball, he chose a gown for me from the latest collection.“
Anna Cleveland van Ravenstein, the daughter of model Pat Cleveland and photographer Paul van Ravenstein, is also remarkably relaxed about her relationship with one of fashion’s giants. “I’ve just moved to Paris to live with my boyfriend, and Uncle Karl thought it would be a good idea for me to come to the ball to make my name in French society,” she says. “Uncle Karl… Lagerfeld?” I venture. “Who else?” she replies with a bemused expression. “Uncle Karl has been so good to me. I’ve known him since I was two months old and I started modelling for Chanel when I was 13. He picked this vintage Chanel dress for me.”
Sophie Coleridge, the daughter of Condé Nast president Nicholas Coleridge, had a Kate Middleton moment when she picked out her Alexander McQueen dress. “I met Sarah Burton [creative director of Alexander McQueen] and we chatted about how she had to sneak into the palace for wedding dress fittings in the run-up to the royal wedding,” she says. “Thankfully my dress wasn’t so top secret, but I am thrilled with it—I’m not really a princess gown kind of girl.”
Friday is also the day when most of the debutantes meet their dashing young cavaliers for the first time. They are allowed to invite friends, boyfriends and brothers to act as their cavaliers but more often than not they ask Renouard to pick a date for them—usually princes or barons from old European families.
“When a deb wants us to find her a cavalier, we look at the ages, the language they speak, their heights and possibly their backgrounds and usually it works,” says Renouard. “We certainly do not plan romance, but the beauty of it is that it often happens unexpectedly. One German debutante married her cavalier and they now have a young daughter who I will certainly invite to the ball as soon as she turns 16.
It really is a very romantic night.”
Photography: Crazy Rouge
Click here to view more photos of the night: Le Bal des Débutantes: World's most glamorous debutante ball
To read the full coverage of Le Bal, get a copy of Malaysia Tatler February 2015 issue, available on newsstands now or click here to purchase the digital version.