Recently I received an invitation to attend the relaunch of the House of Worth at the Ritz Hotel in London.
The event marked the bringing back together of the two sides of this famous institution, clothing and fragrance, for the first time since the 1920s. The invitation came to me by way of Rosalind Milani Gallieni, who was in charge of organising the occasion’s marketing and public relations.
It is always a delight to be remembered and find in the post an invitation from someone with whom you have worked closely in years gone by and who is still at the peak of their profession. The delectable Ros was with me as an assistant and colleague during my time as chief executive of the Asprey group, and I have written about her and many others of her ilk in my book of memoirs, Fulfilment and Betrayal 1975-1995.
She was then working for Garrard on special projects. Besides the fact that she was delightful company, she was also highly skilled as a driver, an asset extremely useful to me on trips to Europe. She even accompanied me in my search for the unsettling crime novelist, Patricia Highsmith, in her remote hideaway in the Swiss Alps, to conduct an interview. The successful outcome of that trip can be found in my collection of interviews, More of a Certain Age.
With Ros I also often made journeys to Milan and Paris, her grasp of languages being an added bonus, especially in Italy. She oversaw the setting up in Garrard’s London showrooms of a René Boivin boutique, coordinating the necessary arrangements with the parent shop in Paris.
The founding of the House of Worth is a remarkable story, which has its unlikely origins in England in Lincolnshire, where the founder, Charles Frederick Worth, was born in 1825. At the age of twenty he went to Paris as an apprentice bookkeeper and in due course set up a ladies’ bespoke clothing business. In 1858 Worth’s atalier was the first to sew personal labels into the garments it created, and to prepare a portfolio of dress designs to be shown on live models. Clients could attend these shows, select designs, colours and fabrics, and end with a dress tailor-made in Worth’s workshops.
It was the very beginning of today’s ready-to-wear clothing industry, and so Mr Worth became the father of the phenomenon known as haute couture by the modern fashion business and a powerful influence over what women were wearing ultimately around the world.
With the relaunch of the House of Worth, as celebrated by the reception at the Ritz, Parisian haute couture is now being given a fresh face and a new dimension to carry it forward into the future. Worth’s lingerie and other accessories, such as couture jewellery and bespoke gloves, will become key entries in their portfolio. Their Prêt-à-Porter collection , using all the valuable experience from the company history, will be a true hybrid between ready to wear and couture, suitable for a busy, everyday lifestyle but fit to stand beside the couture designs. Their exclusive heritage edition of the classic 1932 Worth perfume ‘Je Reviens’, presented in its original blue architectural design of flask, is already being marketed as an icon to herald the company’s revival.
For me, none of this is unfamiliar territory. In the 1980s I launched a young Arabella Pollen (today a successful novelist) to become a couturier. I saw she was highly talented, and her success was remarkable, with a rise to prominence that appeared to happen in no time at all. She had no training, and once told an interviewer, ‘I thought college or design school would be a waste of time for me. No one can teach you designing. You just have to do it.’ Nevertheless, she soon had among her clients Princess Diana, a leader in fashion in her day, and a large number of the Sloane Ranger set. The press adored her and she became the talk of the town in London and New York.
It was an immensely rewarding experience for me to be part of the world of fashion, about which it taught me a great deal, but it was also a costly episode. I was not altogether dismayed when a family grouping engineered what was in essence a management buyout from my Namara company. Arabella and I parted with no ill will.
Not to be content with this unexpected diversion, I then embarked on an even more perilous adventure by developing two new lines of perfume under the umbrella of my own company, Parfums Namara. They were called respectively ‘Avant l’Amour’ and ‘Après l’Amour’, names that caused outrage, especially since the bottles containing them were erotically suggestive.
Needless to say, Private Eye enjoyed a field day over the venture, but I had a real stroke of luck when Elizabeth Arkus, the doyenne of French beauty journalism, whose speciality was writing about the perfume industry, highlighted them in an article for the magazine, Les Nouvelles Esthètiques. In it she wondered, since the perfumes were created ‘to gratify the senses’, whether ‘[Mr Attallah] will continue to astonish, amuse or trouble us? Will he produce the perfume of the twenty-first century?’
It seemed I was therefore ahead of my time, but alas, Elizabeth Arkus’s prediction was not to be fulfilled.
For many years I struggled to maintain the original impetus that led to the success of Parfums Namara. Eventually it was lack of capital that made me abandon my career as a parfumier. Both fashion and perfume demand huge outlays of capital as the advertising budgets alone can run into millions of pounds.
The revitalisation of the House of Worth as a leader of fashion justifies the risk. Its provenance augurs well for its future success. My motto has always been, ‘Those who dare, win’; I felt it held good on this occasion.
It was also noteworthy that the promotion at the Ritz was not just for the ivory tower of fashion, but was giving support to The Passage, an organisation respecting the beliefs and cultures of all who use it to provide resources to encourage, inspire and challenge homeless people to transform their lives.