In 1935, Bettina Ballard, then a young Paris-based fashion editor for American Vogue, recalled attending a Madame Alix Grès presentation at the couturier’s cramped salon on Paris’s Faubourg SaintHonoré. Keeping her audience waiting as she pinned together her last dress backstage, Madame Grès’ show ﬁnally began with the appearance of her favourite model, “a beautiful Indo-Chinese girl who would weave into the room, draped skintight in jersey.” Since couture’s earliest days, Paris designers have been known to pepper their intimate presentations with a host of exotic beauties. Long before the advent of jet travel, such models imparted a certain polish to their creations, while alluding to a cosmopolitan world far beyond the walls of the couture salons. In the 1920s, exiled White Russians were much in demand for their reed-thin frames and aristocratic allure. While the 1950s saw the emergence of feted mannequins such as Alla, a Eurasian beauty with soaring cheekbones who became a star attraction at Dior’s shows, in addition to Balenciaga and Givenchy favourite China Machado, whose blended Portuguese and Chinese lineage was captured by Richard Avedon in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar.
Relegated to the margins of fashion history until recently, the presence of these multi-ethnic models at the Paris couture houses points to the fashion world’s early fascination with the culturally (and some might add racially) ambiguous; one that endures today, despite the continued debate surrounding the lack of diversity on fashion’s catwalks and in style publications. The evening before presenting his autumn/winter 2012 couture collection, lights blaze through the windows of Jean Paul Gaultier’s headquarters at 325 Rue Saint-Martin in the Marais. Inside, moneyed clients and jaded editors alike must pass an inscription heralding the FUTURE OF THE PROLETARIAT on their way up to Gaultier’s couture salon, a reminder of the building’s previous life as the home of the French Socialist party. Upstairs, the couture workrooms buzz as the house’s petite mains work late into the early morning to complete a number of half-ﬁnished gowns. In the middle of this tiny tempest stands Gaultier, calmly conducting a ﬁnal ﬁtting on Tunisian model Hanaa Ben Abdesslem who is wearing the wedding gown that will close his show. Pinching at fabric and adjusting the dress, the designer steps back to examine the dress on her, all the while carrying on multiple conversations with the heads of his ateliers, consulting sketches pinned on every available wall surface, and reaching for a nearby table piled with a profusion of glittering jewels, gloves and headpieces.
Hanaa Ben Abdesslem wears veil and dress, both Armani Privé. Platinum and diamond bracelet with 54.95-carat aquamarine and four spinels totalling 7.12 carats, from Cartier’s Dépaysement collection presented at the 26th Biennale des Antiquaires
The model beams as the designer perches a skeletal top hat of ivory satin on her head. “That was a big moment for me,” conﬁdes Hanaa, seated in a crowded café in Midtown Manhattan a few days after Gaultier’s show. “It was a huge honour to be picked as the bride, especially since Gaultier was one of the ﬁrst designers to use me. He’s very down to earth and funny backstage, and it’s his ability to engage with people that makes working with him so enjoyable,” adds the gamine model, who ﬁrst captured the fashion world’s attention when she took a turn down Givenchy’s spring/ summer 2011 catwalk in the autumn of 2010. At the time, few of the editors or photographers in attendance could guess the androgynous beauty’s background, let alone her name. When she ﬁrst began working in Paris and New York people often assumed she was French or Spanish. “I would tell them I was from Tunisia, and very few would have heard of it or could point it out on a map,” recalls Hanaa, who deﬁes Western assumptions of what an Arab woman should look like.
Translating more naturally to an international audience, her hard-to-pin-down looks earned her a coveted beauty contract with Lancôme. Her universal appeal also serves to highlight the diversity of skin tones and features found throughout the Arab world, the result of a cross-cultural mélange that has been going on for centuries. Yet Hanaa’s appearance on international catwalks has also sparked a debate within the region surrounding local beauty standards, one in which she often didn’t ﬁt in to. “I was very aware that I looked different from a young age. Especially being tall and skinny in a culture where having voluptuous curves is considered beautiful,” she says, pointing out that modelling gave her a sense of conﬁdence and empowerment. While working in Beirut’s fashion industry early in her career, she also observed an approach to beauty that differed considerably from its Western counterparts. “When I ﬁrst began modelling in Lebanon, the girls tended to be heavily made up and it was always this extreme notion of beauty,” says the fresh-faced model, who prefers to wear very little make-up. “There seems to be this perception that in order to be attractive you need to wear a lot of make-up. But I think the fashion world has a responsibility to show young girls that there are different ways to be beautiful, and that there shouldn’t be one standard to go by,” she adds.
Dress, Atelier Versace. Shoes, Dhs3,600, Jimmy Choo. White gold, black lacquer and diamond bracelet; platinum ring with two triangular-cut diamonds of 3.20-and-3.03-carats and 14 baguette-cut diamonds totalling 4.70 carats; platinum and diamond earrings, all Cartier
Although the decision to chop her hair into a Jean Seberg-esque bob helped catapult her career into the limelight, Hanaa struggled with parting from her long locks. “I was by no means the ﬁrst Tunisian woman to cut her hair short, and there are plenty of women there today who continue to wear their hair that way. But I was initially hesitant because since childhood it’s been engrained in us that to be beautiful, Arab women must have long hair,” says Hanaa, who hasn’t looked back since her career took off. “I remember asking the hairdresser to cover the mirror. I didn’t want to watch the process, but when I ﬁnally looked at myself I was very happy with the results. It was very elegant and androgynous at the same time,” recalls the model who found an unexpected fan in her mother. “Although she was absolutely in tears when she ﬁrst found out I had cut my hair, the irony is that she’s now grown to love it. When I walked Gaultier’s recent show, all the girls had to wear long wigs and she told me she preferred my shorter hair after seeing pictures of me on the catwalk,” she continues. That Gaultier should have picked the 22-year-old from the Tunisian village of Nabuel to close his couture show came as no surprise to those who have followed his career over a 30-year period.
Considered one of fashion’s most inﬂuential (and original) thinkers, he has long been inspired by subcultures that have encompassed British punks, Mexican surrealists and Paris’ North African immigrant communities. His fascination with the other also extends to his choice of models, frequently prodding and questioning prevailing notions of beauty by casting a diversity of ages, genders and ethnicities in his shows. Amongst his long-time muses is the French-Algerian style icon Farida Khelfa, who was recently tapped as the new face of Elsa Schiaparelli. During the 1980s she frequently appeared in Gaultier’s shows and ad campaigns before becoming the directrice of his couture salon; a powerful position that afforded her access to both the clients and ateliers. As far back as the 1930s, the Paris couture establishment included a number of Arab personalities within its ranks. Amongst them was Madeleine Vionnet’s Egyptian manager, who presided over the couturier’s Art Deco salon at 50 Avenue Montaigne, ensuring that her creations appeared on the best dressed women of the day. This tight-knit circle of couture devotees also included a number of clients from the Middle East who frequently appeared in the society pages of top fashion magazines, such as the dark Egyptian beauty Madame Elouy-Bey as well as Madame Henri Pharaon of Beirut.
Dress, Stéphane Rolland. Platinum and diamond necklace and matching earrings, both Cartier
Although there have been rare instances of young women from the region breaking into the modelling business over the decades, their stories seldom surfaced in the mainstream media. Lebanese-born Mona Ross was one of the few to have pursued a successful career in the early 1970s, modelling for the likes of Dior and Balmain in Paris, as well as Oscar de la Renta in New York. For Hanaa, who spent her childhood leaﬁng through French fashion magazines in search of faces that resembled her own, there were few tangible examples of a successful Arab model. “There weren’t any role models that I could single out to show my parents that modelling could be a viable career choice,” recalls Hanaa, who came to admire Farida Khelfa long before the two eventually crossed paths during a chance encounter after Chanel’s spring 2011 couture presentation. “I went up to her after the show to tell her how much I admire her, and she asked me where I was from. She couldn’t believe that an Arab girl had made it to the Chanel runway,” says the model of her icon, who invited her to dinner shortly afterwards. “She asked me about my dreams and what I would like to do after modelling. I told her I wanted to take everything I had learnt from this experience and channel it into something positive back in Tunisia,” continues Hanaa, who went on to tell Farida about the many talented young Tunisians she wanted to expose to the world.
Their conversation that evening inspired Farida to create a documentary about the role played by Tunisia’s youth in the country’s regime change. Une Jeunesse Tunisienne captured a moment in their lives, a snapshot taken exactly six months after Ben Ali ﬂed the country. With the help of Hanaa and her older brother Walid, who also appear in the ﬁlm, Farida was able to tell the stories of young artists, photographers and dancers who became cyber-activists in their bid for positive change. “I was very inspired by her can-do attitude, and it made me want to do more for my country,” Hanaa adds. Not content with her new-found fame as the ﬁrst Arab face of Lancôme, the Tunisian-born model has also been using her growing inﬂuence to bring attention to humanitarian causes in her homeland. “I wasn’t with my family in Tunisia when the revolution took place, and because of that I felt a need to give back to my country in some way and take part in its transformation,” says Hanaa.