Having been asked to give a lecture about luxury for Chaumet – Imperial jewellers to the court of Napoleon I – in Paris next month, my thoughts turned to the obvious cliche that celebrity is the new aristocracy. It isn’t. My heart sank when I read that Kim Kardashian and Kanye West celebrated their nuptials with a party at the Palace of Versailles followed by a ceremony in Florentine Medici villa the Belvedere Fort. The bride wore Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen.
A bit of a comedown for McQueen to be designing dresses for a US reality TV star after the glory of the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding in Westminster Abbey. Palaces can be hired for the night, as was Windsor Castle when Ralph Lauren hosted a charity dinner there this month in the presence of Prince William, but to think celebrity lives today could be considered luxurious is laughable.
The paparazzi and social media have made celebrities Hunger Games fodder. Most of their jewels and gowns are borrowed in exchange for publicity. The public is infinitely more fickle than the mob that stormed Versailles in 1789. When every public appearance is choreographed, engulfed by a braying mob of fans and necessitates a fleet of blacked out jeeps and an army of security goons, one can’t help thinking these people are making a deal with the devil.
True luxury to me is privacy, decorum and a certain reverence towards the celebrated one. The Queen is arguably the most famous woman in the world. Her personal collection of diamonds that has rained down the generations since Queen Adelaide’s day is priceless. Her days and evenings are spent behind palace walls. And yet with supreme skill, The Queen has held back the floodgates of public scrutiny while appearing to be amongst her people on a daily basis. That is true luxury.
As a society we have in many ways regressed. It comes to a pretty pass when the uber-rich in London choose an armour plated Candy & Candy concrete and glass tower block at One Hyde Park as a residence – the penthouse recently selling for £140 million – rather than a palatial London mansion of which there are still surprisingly many such as the Latsis family’s Bridgewater House in St James’s and the derelict Piccadilly palace that was once home to Lord Palmerston.
Arguably the most luxurious existence in recent history was lived by the Romanov dynasty in the twilight of their reign. This year sees a new exhibition At The Court of the Russian Emperors at the Hermitage palace in St Petersburg. The Court Costume displayed dating from the 18th to the 20th century is mind blowingly sumptuous but the most audacious pieces were worn by the last Empress, Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna only a century ago.
To see these pieces displayed in the palace in which they were worn is the definition of an age of elegance that can never come back. One would long to see the mannequins dressed in the jewels that the Russian royal ladies wore. The Russian Imperial family’s jewel collection – some of which found their way to the British royal family courtesy of Queen Mary after the Revolution – was the greatest treasure trove in the world. Many were broken up, smuggled out of the country and sold but the Kremlin still has the priceless royal ‘Diamond Fund’.
Costume curators miss a trick not displaying jewels. The exception is in England (natch) where a reigning Queen can give permission for diamonds to be exhibited. The Coronation Exhibition at Buckingham Palace last year was ablaze with royal diamonds including George IV’s diamond diadem, Queen Victoria’s coronation collet necklace and earrings and the Cartier halo tiara worn by the Duchess of Cambridge when she wed in 2011. I have always fantasised about being given the opportunity to recreate the costume and regalia worn by Queen Alexandra or Queen Mary at their respective coronations. Pictures cannot capture the magic.
Though I enjoyed the wedding dress exhibition at the V&A (running until next March), I was slightly disappointed that the mannequins in the ground floor gallery were headless hence no veils or tiaras. The spectacular Norman Hartnell wedding dress worn when the Duchess of Argyll wed the 11th Duke in 1933 was a showstopper: the train designed with the proportions of the aisle in the Brompton Oratory in mind. The dress would have caused a sensation had it been shown with the tiara Margaret, Duchess of Argyll had worn…if it had survived the breakers or the burglars.
Still, haunting the shadows of the last days of the Romanov dynasty or the costume gallery of the V&A isn’t going to get the first draft of my luxury lecture finished. I wonder whether to be controversial and propose the theory that the future for luxury goods is, was and always will be Europe? Until next time…