Fashion: Fit for a princess

David Sassoon's couture gowns have graced Royal palaces and society parties for 40 years. But it'll be you, not Princess Margaret, who goes for his ready-to-wear collection. By Tamsin Blanchard
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It's starting all over again: the endless calls from newspapers, TV channels, radio stations, all with the same questions. "What was she like?" "What was her favourite outfit?" David Sassoon, the owner of the British couture house Bellville Sassoon, and the man responsible for dressing Diana, Princess of Wales during the early years of her marriage to Prince Charles, is calmly prepared for the media onslaught as the anniversary of her death looms. He has his press cuttings books at the ready, tracing every outfit he ever designed for Diana (complete with the Princess's own comments).

The Diana period takes up several volumes, but David Sassoon's cuttings span a period of 40 years and include the only other princess whose clothes caused such media attention - Margaret. "We made a complete wardrobe for Margaret. In the Sixties, she was as famous as the Princess of Wales was - the starriest, glammiest of the royals," remembers Sassoon. And then there are the lesser mortals, the mere models and actresses who wore Bellville Sassoon at the height of his creativity in the Sixties and Seventies: Catherine Deneuve, Penelope Tree, Liz Taylor, Julie Christie.

Journalists who call in to see Sassoon are rewarded with glimpses of the scrapbooks, as the designer patiently turns the pages and recites well-worn words, dropping the names of the rich, famous and aristocratic as if they were friends and relatives.

One of the secrets of his success is his patience, he says. Much of his time these days is taken up by listening to the fantasy wardrobe desires of young brides-to-be.

David Sassoon started work with Belinda Bellville in 1958. She offered him a job after seeing his graduation show from the RCA.

"Bellville was what you might call a deb, who knew all the society ladies herself. She had an eye for fashion but was not really a designer," says Sassoon. "She had a great understanding of women's view of fashion and had a great colour sense."

Sassoon became familiar with his ex-partner's titled connections, and he now owns the company. These days, Belinda Bellville lives in Spain, far from the comings and goings of the discreet Chelsea shop where nobody bats an eyelid as Princess Alexandra is ushered into a fitting-room for a quick try-on of a new outfit.

Although he is best known for Diana's going-away suit, and the ultra- princessy, pale-blue organza ball dress she wore to the opening of the Gonzaga exhibition at the V&A shortly after her wedding, Bellville Sassoon's speciality is cocktail wear. His client list is the envy of many a Paris couture house, including as it does Princess Michael of Kent, Lady Sarah Armstrong Jones (Diana bought her first Bellville Sassoon dress for her), Blaine Trump, ("Ivana's sister-in-law but much more chic") Shakira Caine, Countess Leopold Von Bismarck, and members of most of the European royal families. With a client list like that in Paris, Sassoon would, after 40 years of business, be one of the grand old names of haute couture. In his Chelsea shop and headquarters, however, he makes his money not from selling his name through licenses and perfumes, but from selling clothes, a novel idea in these days of couture hype, where the clothes are almost incidental.

Designers such as John Galliano, the chief designer at Christian Dior, are, he says, more like artists than fashion designers. "It is all too easy to lose the point of fashion" - which, says Sassoon, is "to make fashion for women to wear. If a woman walked out of my shop in a couture garment she couldn't walk in, believe me, I would soon know about it." As a result of his realistic attitude, Sassoon's couture workshops are at full capacity. He employs a team of 25 seamstresses, pattern-cutters and finishers who work on the couture orders for six months each year. The other six months are taken up with sampling for the company's bread- and-butter work, the ready-to-wear line designed by Sassoon's design partner, Lorcan Mullany. "Clients have to book in their orders months in advance. We are completely full for the rest of this year. We make up to 50 couture garments each season, with prices starting at pounds 4,000 for a simple wedding dress." A plain evening dress costs in excess of pounds 3,500, and involves at least two fittings.

The year David Sassoon began working with Belinda Bellville was the year Yves Saint Laurent took over at the house of Christian Dior. "I went to see the first collection he did for Dior," says Sassoon. "He was my idol." While Saint Laurent has influenced generations of designers with his tuxedo trouser suits and his androgyny, David Sassoon's influence has been less far-reaching. However, like Saint Laurent's, his signature has been in place from the start, and for 40 years his clothes have been feminine, glamorous and romantic. His golden period was the Sixties and Seventies, when London fashion was booming.

"The early Seventies was a period of grand balls," says Sassoon, remembering the Rothschilds' Proust ball as a particular highlight. One of his clients took a bodyguard for her jewels, as well as a hairdresser and a make-up artist for the night.

In 1978, Sassoon's collection was stolen from a show in New York. It turned up in Harlem and was held for ransom.

"I had to buy it back," remembers Sassoon. "One of the dresses was sold back to me by a drag queen in Harlem." In September, Sassoon has been invited back to New York by Saks Fifth Avenue for a major promotion of British designers, alongside newer names such as Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan. American fans such as Blaine Trump and her society friends will be rushing to buy off-the-peg frocks from his latest collection, photographed here. They will be able to choose from fringed devore shawl dresses, destined to become the season's best-sellers, luxurious beaded Aran sweaters, and slinky, bias-cut slip dresses. These are certainly not the sort of thing you might expect Princesses Alexandra or Margaret to be wearing, and cost a fraction of the price of the made-to-measure couture version - around pounds 700 for an evening dress.

Also on Sassoon's agenda is the retrospective collection of dresses and outfits he is pulling together for the Zandra Rhodes Fashion and Textiles Museum, which is scheduled to open in Bermondsey in 2001. He is a trustee of the museum, and hopes to include pieces such as a wild hand-painted coat bought in 1970 by Lady Lambton, Princess Michael of Kent's wedding dress, and Diana's going-away outfit.

"The last time I saw the Princess of Wales, at the reception for the sale of her dresses at Christie's, I asked what had happened to that outfit. She said she still had it." It was one of the few outfits from the early days of her marriage that she held on to. One thing Diana never knew was that Sassoon had secret code names for his royal clients. "The Princess's code name was Miss Buckingham," he remembers fondly.

With the younger generation of royals, such as Zara Phillips, more likely to buy their clothes from Alexander McQueen than from David Sassoon, the designer cannot afford to be complacent. But, as he remarks: "In the Sixties, we were at the forefront of designer fashion. We must be doing something right if we're still here 40 years on."