Who can forget Princess Diana’s dramatic arrival at the Serpentine Gallery on the night in 1994 when Prince Charles confessed his infidelity to Jonathan Dimbleby on TV? The princess’s last-minute outfit choice – a daring, off-the-shoulder black dress by Christina Stambolian, with a trailing chiffon tail, which later became known as ‘the revenge dress’ – was proof (yet again) that this was a woman who understood the potent power of clothes. It was her zenith as a style queen, the most photographed woman in the world.
Our Queen of Hearts had a soft spot for many British designers, including David and Elizabeth Emanuel (who designed her wedding dress), Catherine Walker (Diana was buried in a black dress by her), Bruce Oldfield and Jenny Packham, but her fashion journey began with a name that may be less familiar.
David Sassoon is the designer who, as one half of Bellville Sassoon, the label of choice among privileged young ladies in the late 1970s, took Lady Di from junior Sloane ranger – all floaty skirts, cashmere cardigans and pie-crust collars – and discreetly steered her in the direction of fully fledged fashion icon. Diana’s loyalty to him was absolute: he designed more than 70 gowns for her over nearly two decades.
David is 84 but, in jeans and trainers, looks much younger. His mischievous smile and gentle manner make it easy to understand how he won the trust of a nervous 19-year-old, already under siege by the paparazzi and awestruck at the responsibility she was taking on. His affectionate recollections give an intriguing insight into Diana’s world and the eccentricities of royal life, hidden behind the scenes.
On the face of it, theirs was a most unlikely alliance. He was the son of Iraqi immigrants, she the daughter of an earl. He was nearly 30 years older and several inches shorter than the fledgling princess, but David had an eye for elegance (honed as a child in Highbury, North London, where he would dress his sister in glamorous items that had made their way from his mother’s trousseau to the dressing-up box) and a track record of dressing both royal ladies and Hollywood stars. He was the first person Diana came to rely on as she found her style footing and he became a trusted, lifelong friend; a source of gossip and fun amid the stuffiness of royal life.
He was a guest at her wedding and later at her funeral. Time seemed to stand still for a moment when he heard that she had died: ‘It was Sunday morning and I was here,’ he says, gesturing around his beautiful, high-ceilinged apartment in South Kensington, a stone’s throw from Diana’s former home at Kensington Palace. ‘I put the radio on for the 7am news. I thought, “I’m not hearing this.” I was absolutely stunned.’
He had seen Diana just a few weeks earlier at the preview of a charity auction of her clothes at Christie’s. The princess was at her sleek, stunning peak, in a figure-hugging, pale blue dress by Catherine Walker, heavily embroidered with sparkles and pearls. They chatted about some of the outfits David had made for her over the years, including the going-away outfit she wore on her wedding day. He asked if it was in the auction. ‘Oh no!’ said Diana. ‘I’m not losing that.’