“It’s a fantasy! Paradoxical but beautiful at the same time,” explains Jean Paul Gaultier from his Paris headquarters. “In France, we kill our kings and queens, but we keep traditions that come from that time. To have something of the grandeur of the past is something like a dream.”
Gaultier is taking a break from his fittings with True Whitaker, the “Hollywood debutante” (as she was titled for the event) who he will be dressing this year for Le Bal des Débutantes in Paris. True, daughter of actor Forest, is a student at New York University who “has dreamed of being an actor since she was five years old, but now hopes to work as a writer” – as le Bal’s booklet explains. True is also the second of her siblings to attend the ball, having reached out to the founder Ophélie Renouard in January of this year. Her sister, Autumn, was debuted in 2009 and she has since been waiting patiently for her turn. “I watched her from afar! I was nine or ten but I thought, when I get to the right age, ‘It’ll be my time!’” she explains.
Throughout the fitting, taking place in the house’s grand couture fitting halls, father Forest proudly snaps photos of his daughter on his iPhone as she emerges in the various gowns Gaultier has hand-picked for her to try, each one more ornate and voluminous than the last. The three chat warmly among themselves, Gaultier making an adjustment here, a cheeky comment or two about the cavaliers (the young men who will be escorting the debutantes on the night) there that sends 20-year-old True into giggles and soon the decision is made that she is to wear a Degas-print dress from the designer’s spring/summer 2012 collection. “Ooh la la! The colour suits her perfectly,” says Gaultier the moment he sees it on her. “And with her silhouette, she’s like a neo-ballerina!”
It’s not an everyday experience for a young woman to be personally fitted for couture by a living legend and True is perceptibly thrilled, if not a little overwhelmed. “It’s exciting to try on all these beautiful dresses. I’m honored just to be wearing these gowns! I’m excited to be there and see everyone and hopefully make new friends, which I’m sure I will. Autumn told me that she still has friends to this day that she made at the ball.”
As for her father, Forest says this is his daughter’s moment. “I think it’ll be emotional for me to see her in the world, celebrating herself and celebrating life,” he explains quietly. “It’s very powerful to see her looking as beautiful as I see her, so it’ll touch me for sure, that I know. Because I’m already touched by watching her walk out in the gown and getting ready. It’s beautiful.”
While Gaultier has a pre-existing relationship with the actor – the two starred in Robert Altman’s 1994 film Prêt-à-Porter, in which Forest played a designer and Gaultier played himself – his pairing with True came via Renouard, who founded le Bal in 1992. Linked in part to the 18th-century British tradition of the debutante ball, whereby young women were introduced into high society, curtseying in front of the Queen in white gowns, white gloves and tiaras, the Paris Bal in its modern iteration was inspired more by the Berkeley Dress Show in London, the traditional start to the “deb” season that kicks off with a fashion show, modelled by the daughters of noted and famous families.
“Le Bal is quite different from the tradition which was strictly based on wealth and to get these girls married,” explains Renouard, a former director of events for Paris’s Hôtel de Crillon, whose initial idea was to do a couture version of the Berkeley show in Paris. “[We invite our debutantes] based on values and merit – and it is for charity.” Proceeds from private sponsors for this year’s ball will go to the Seleni Institute Teen Initiative, a global non-profit organisation dedicated to supporting the emotional wellbeing of teenage mothers, and Enfants d’Asie, a humanitarian programme for destitute and vulnerable girls in South East Asia.
For Gaultier, it’s a changing reflection of society in its most hopeful. “My first Bal, I was not from high society, but I was happy to do it. What’s beautiful now is that it’s a mix of countries. Before it was only French and now there are people from India, America, Greece… It’s not completely retro, it shows the globalisation of people.”
So how does one become a debutante? “I would say 90 per cent are invited,” explains Renouard. “I get a lot of requests, but I only take a girl if I know her. True asked me to be in it – she contacted me in January, and I love her father.” As for next year, the list of debutantes is already confirmed.
When asked what place a debutante ball has in today’s world, Renouard is stolid. “Everybody is aware that the world is not en rose, but I think it’s nice to have a weekend of dreams. Our job is to create a dream experience for the girl, the boys and their families and we have so much good feedback from the ex-debs, it’s a really nice network. But these girls don’t live in a dream world, they are very aware of what’s around them.”
The list of ex-debutantes is an assembly of titles and multi-barrelled names that includes princesses (from Liechtenstein to the Middle East), baronesses, countesses, marquises and ladies, as well as Ava Phillippe, Delphine Arnault, Lauren Bush, Bee Shaffer, Dree Hemingway and Francesca Eastwood. This year, the 19 debutantes representing 12 different countries include H.H. Princess Ananya Raje Scindia of Gwalior, India, who wears Lecoanet Hemant; Countess Gabrielle de Pourtales from France who wears Christian Dior; Baronne Ludmilla von Oppenheim from Germany who wears Stéphane Rolland; Elizabeth Terrien, the stepdaughter of Condé Nast France president Yves Bougon, who wears Ralph Lauren; and Anna Pei, the granddaughter of architect I.M. Pei, who wears Emanuel Ungaro. The cavaliers escorting them include Harper Peck, grandson of American actor Gregory, and Giacomo Belmondo, son of French actor Jean Paul, who escorts True. Couples are announced by French journalist Stéphane Bern in orations that refer to lineage including kings, emperors and saints before discussing the desires and dreams of each debutante.
As each girl is announced, they curtsey and twirl between tables as they move through the Le Bar Botaniste hall in the Shangri-La Hotel. When True, the penultimate debutante, appears, glowing in her Degas-decked gown, she curtsies to cameras with her cavalier as Forest claps her on. I’m seated next to Payal Mehta, the official jeweller of the event since her first daughter was debuted in 2015. Her second is making her debut tonight. “It was a crazy, crazy experience for a 17-year-old,” explains Mehta of the whirlwind trip she and her daughter took to Beirut to be personally fitted by couturier Georges Hobeika. “It was a teary moment; my girl is growing up.”
Once each girl is debuted, it’s time for dinner and desert before the traditional father-daughter dance at midnight – more teary moments here – before their hands are placed in those of their cavaliers to continue the dancing. And with that, 19 young women have made a society debut – as well as a new network of friends. They’ll have to give the dresses back though.