Is glamorous still good, or is it a word used with spite?
Is it politically correct to say good-looking when judging by appearance is grounds for offence?
And in a world of equal empowerment, are words like chevalier, corsette, and feminine even valid anymore?
In the midst of these questions, we welcome you to le Bal de Débutantes, arguably one of the most prestigious coming-of-age events for young girls in the world today, and one of the few that survives. Modelled on the English and French balls of yore, “le Bal” is a modernised fashion event by French influential Ophélie Renouard that came into existence 25 years ago. The debutantes now dress in couture, designers vie to create exclusive dresses for them, chevaliers are handpicked from around the world, and the event culminates in a lavish Parisian party in the month of November each year – held this year at the Shangri-La Paris – where parents beam with pride, teenage nervousness hangs in the air, innocence takes to the dance floor for a waltz with glamour, and at the end of it all, families have an occasion to remember.
Debutantes are hand picked and come from well-known families in entertainment, business and politics, and have included the controversial as well. The first Indian ever to be invited was Laxmi Dalamal in 2001 (she wore a Lecoanet Hemant dress), while Adishree Singh of the erstwhile royal family of Jammu & Kashmir was the second in 2009, wearing Ritu Beri.
The focus is increasingly shifting to debutantes from India, China and South East Asia. In 2012, Isha Ambani was presented as a “deb” wearing a Christian Dior gown, and in 2017, Ananya Pandey, actor Chunky Pandey’s daughter, attended wearing Jean-Paul Gaultier. Also in 2017, Maharaja Padmanabh Singh of Jaipur led the opening waltz with debutante Ava Phillippe, the then 18-year-old daughter of Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillippe.
The entire proceeds of the ball go to two charities: the NYC-based Seleni Institute, which supports the reproductive and mental health of teen mothers, and Enfants d’Asie, which works with the education of girls in SE Asia.
In this age of social media, when honest, but harsh opinions are just a tap away, it’s easy to dismiss le Bal as “elitist”. It certainly is for the rich and famous. But to all who feel it’s a step back in time, remember this: it also serves to brighten up the ambitions of young girls in a fairy-tale like setting, with stars in their eyes and a song in their hearts.
The 2018 edition held in November saw three girls from India, and just one from China.
Meet our three Indian princesses Ananya Raje Scindia, Aria Mehta and Shloka Birla, as they face the spotlight for the first time ever.
The soft-spoken princess
Ananya Raje Scindia, 16
You can’t be sure whether the soft-spokenness of Princess Ananya Raje Scindia of Gwalior has to do with her youth, or her upbringing in a royal household. But this high school student at Delhi’s British School is the only one to have addressed her dress designer with a “ji” at the end of his name!
Daughter of Jyotiraditya Madhavrao Scindia and Priyadarshini Raje Scindia, Ananya was the youngest of all the debutantes at le Bal Paris, but that didn’t make her any less confident. “To prepare, we met with Hemantji (one half of the design duo Lecoanet-Hemant) for the fabrics and style several months before the event. He showed us some sketches, and I told him my preference for simplicity. Eventually, the dress turned out to be better than I had visualised it. The inspiration was taken from microscopic pictures of the wings of a butterfly. But most important of all: the dress made me feel comfortable,” says Ananya, showing that her priorities are in the right place.
“I was quite nervous when I arrived in Paris; I didn’t know anyone who was attending. I’m quite comfortable with heels, and I think it helped that my dance partner was my brother (Yuvaraj Mahanaryaman Scindia of Gwalior). So during rehearsals, we were just cracking jokes and having fun.”
Who’s the better dancer: she or her brother, we ask. “Neither of us,” comes the honest, millennial answer, with a follow up “But we both did just fine!” she laughs.
Ananya knows her future will be in the arts. “Dad wants me to take up Liberal Arts, and I have a passion for Fine Arts. I hope to get into branding or graphic design someday.”
Fashionista with a business bent
Aria Mehta, 17
Born in the US and brought up in the UAE, Aria is the only one of the three debs who hasn’t lived in India for long. She is also the only one to have not picked an Indian designer. But one long distance phone call with her from her home in Dubai, and you know this girl is as Indian as they come.
“I think Indian values make you a stronger citizen of the world today, and it comes naturally to me,” says Aria, who is the daughter of Payal and Dipu Mehta. Payal has been the official jeweller at le Bal for the last few years, and as part of the job, she designs jewellery pieces for each of the debutantes.
“Respecting those around you keeps you grounded, which I’m certain will be a great asset in the work I do,” Aria says with confidence, belying the fact that she’s still in her last year of high school. “I plan to study the business of fashion at university. Since I was young, I’ve known I wanted to be in fashion, and I started designing and sewing years ago. As I grew older and understood business more, I realised I have a business mindset; I would love to manage a fashion house some day.”
Aria wore a dress by Lebanese designer Georges Hobeika (Alia Bhatt is known to wear his designs often) as she twirled with her cavalier Count Rufus d’Hauteville. “My dress was very romantic, yet modern, which fits my style really well,” says the teenager with the confidence of a veteran. “My sister had attended le Bal in 2014, and made me understand that everyone there would be really friendly, and that I had nothing to worry about. But I was nervous about doing the waltz, because my dress was so big!”
Where confidence meets creativity
Shloka Birla, 18
“It was May, maybe June when we received the invitation from the organisers for le Bal 2018, and it was a very big surprise to me. Of course I’d heard about it, and Dad was ecstatic. ‘Obviously you’re going!’ he said…”
Shloka Birla opens our conversation with the sprightliness only a Mumbai girl can have. But for the daughter of Avanti and Yash Birla, both proclaimed fashionistas themselves, the pressure on Shloka seems non-existent.
“We had a choice of two designers: Vivienne Westwood and Manish Malhotra. But Manish is a dear friend of my mother’s and we decided to go with him. I’d never been to such a formal event like this before; we first met with sketches and I was specific I wanted a tight corsette and didn’t want the bodice to be flowing. We did a couple of trials in August and September, and were all set.”
Did her parents’ tastes in fashion put added pressure? “See, Dad always wants to plan my entire outfit. Mum gives her inputs. So in the end, I need to take the suggestions from both, but do my own thing.”
Amidst the good humoured banter, the only hint of nervousness you detect in Shloka is when she talks about the actual event. “I was so scared and nervous about all the things that could go wrong. The waltz was the most scary part for me… that too in four-inch heels!
But all went well. My cavalier was Jean (HSH Prince Jean De Croy Solre) from Belgium and he was extremely charming. I realised all the debs were experiencing the same nervousness as I was, and that brought me comfort.” And then she adds, “Of course there was Dad too, who was behaving as if he was debuting at the ball!”
Shloka’s currently giving business and entrepreneurship a shot, but says she has a creative bent. “It could be my Achilles heel, but I’m a day dreamer, I write, run a blog, pen poetry… I’ll find my connect soon!”