AT CHRISTIAN Dior in Paris, Kyra Kennedy, great niece of the late US president John F. Kennedy, carefully descends a grand staircase in a powder blue couture dress and towering heels.
The 18-year-old has just finished her final dress fitting before Saturday (November 30)’s Debutantes Ball, one of the social events of the year at which high society meets haute couture.
The glittering event will see 20 hand-picked “debutantes” dance, dine and network the night away in dresses loaned by some of Paris’s most famous couture houses.
Lord George Porchester whose family owns Highclere Castle, the setting for the hit television series “Downton Abbey”, has also been invited along with Kennedy’s father Robert Kennedy Jr – the son of the slain president’s brother Robert, who was also assassinated.
“It’s my first time wearing haute couture so that’s really exciting, and I’m obsessed by the colour,” Kennedy, an aspiring fashion designer, told reporters.
Others taking part include British royal Lady Amelia Windsor, the granddaughter of one of Queen Elizabeth II’s cousins, Francesca Packer Barham, granddaughter of Australian media tycoon Kerry Packer and Romy David, daughter of Seinfeld creator Larry David.
From Asia, there will be Akshita Bhanjdeo of India’s Bhanja dynasty, Filipino ‘It girl’ Monica Urquijo Zobel, and Rebecca Eu, the Canberra-based daughter of a Chinese healthcare company chief.
Now in her 21st year organising the ball, Frenchwoman Ophelie Renouard makes no secret of her quest to track down as many big names as possible.
In another publicity coup this year, she has secured the presence of London taxi driver’s daughter Lauren Marbe.
The 17-year-old made headlines recently when she notched up an IQ test score of 161, one point higher than Einstein.
“I read about her in the newspapers and so I phoned her up and she said ‘it is not my world but if you invite me I will come’,” Renouard said.
Modern debs want dresses not husbands
The event at the Automobile Club of France in Paris is based on the debutantes balls that were once an established part of the British upper class’s social calendar.
These launched well-born young women into society and – with luck – also introduced them to a potential husband.
But the balls started to fall out of favour in the late 1950s after Queen Elizabeth abolished the practice of the debutantes also being presented at court.
In recent decades, they have been reinvented as glittering fundraisers with the emphasis on philanthropy and contact building rather than finding a husband.
Among the new generation of balls, Renouard’s alone offers participants the chance to borrow a haute couture dress for the night.
“They are not interested in finding a husband, they are too young,” she said.
“What they prefer is the dress, because even if they are privileged they have never been to a haute couture house.”
In previous years “Le Bal” has attracted the daughters of European aristocracy as well as Hollywood A-listers such as Demi Moore and Bruce Willis, Andie MacDowell, Clint Eastwood and Sylvester Stallone.
Donations are made direct by the debutantes’ families to the Children of Asia charity which funds underprivileged girls through school in the Philippines, Cambodia and Vietnam.
In the past decade Renouard has also been able to tap into the newfound wealth of countries such as China and India.
The ball now has a strong showing from Asia but Renouard says she still has to crack Russia.
“I’m not good on Russia. It’s all about networks…,” she said.
As for next year and beyond, she has plenty more names in her sights.
“Every year in January we sit down and go through the files to see who we want. David Bowie’s daughter, I”m waiting for her to grow up,” she said.
“I also want Bill Gates’s daughter and I want more daughters of artists like Anish Kapoor,” she added.