The 70 women who pay pounds 35,000 for a dress

Francesca Fearon on the super-rich who shop at fashion shows
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The Independent Online
THE applause dies, the lights go up and a cluster of immaculately dressed women trample the paparazzi in their dash backstage to kiss and congratulate Oscar de la Renta on his spring haute couture collection for Balmain. They are members of an elite, the mere 70 or so women who actually shop for the catwalk confections known as couture.

There is Nan Kempner, the 60-something fabulously thin wife of New York banker Thomas Lenox Kempner; Deeda Blair, Washington society hostess; Susan Gutfreund, wife of Wall Street investment banker John Gutfreund; Princess Diane von Furstenberg; and Princess Marie- Chantal of Greece. These arepeople who will pay pounds 12,000 for a day suit and pounds 35,000 or more for an evening dress. They also don't mind you knowing it.

Usually, there is a veil of secrecy over the identities of many of couture's big-spenders. Chanel, for example, has 10 British clients, who are a mixture of aristocracy and wives of captains of industry. However, the house would never name names, partly because there lingers in Britain that slight unease about a woman admitting she cares about her appearance.

Ungaro is similarly coy about British clients. "Discretion is valued highly in this business," said a spokesperson, but she was willing to cite the wife of a French drinks company chief as a valued client and to mention that Ungaro will be designing the wedding dress for Princess Alexandra of Greece.

The number of serious haute couture clients is now said to have dwindled to 500, but according to Giancarlo Giammetti of Valentino a truer figure would be 70 clients who regularly buy between seven and eight dresses a season.

Many are Europeans and Americans, who attend his twice-yearly collections in Paris, such as Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece, whose wedding dress he created, Queen Sofia of Spain, Queen Paola of Belgium and actresses such as Joan Collins. Missing this season, though, was Mouna al-Ayoub, the former wife of Nasser al-Rashid, the fabulously wealthy consultant to the Saudi royal family and couture's biggest customer.

Valentino has several clients in the Middle East and two serious Japanese customers. These, though, are the women you will never see, the ones who value their anonymity - often because their culture demands discretion. Videos and photographs are flown out by private plane, together with a vendeuse (saleslady) and fitters.

"Many can't make it to the collections but come and have a private view on house models or call to have samples flown to them," said Helene de Lundinghausen, the directrice of haute couture at Yves Saint Laurent.