These are the impressive young women who debuted at the prestigious society ball in December 2019
As 2019 drew to a close, many of us found ourselves reflecting back on not just the year that was, but a decade of great political and social unrest and, perhaps, a period in history in which we needed magical moments more than ever before. In December, the annual Parisian debutante ball, Le Bal, a charity event that ostensibly launches the profiles of 20 young, promising women from all around the world, provided just that.
Held in the mirrored and gilded historic ballroom of the Shangri-La Hotel, the former 19th Century residence of Prince Roland Bonaparte, past Le Bals have featured old-world names like Taittinger, Mountbatten and Windsor, and scions of business magnates and the offspring of Hollywood royalty, such as Lily Collins, and Ava Phillippe, the daughter of actress Reese Witherspoon. The debutantes make their entrance wearing breathtaking, floor-length haute couture creations.
While it may seem like it is from another time, Le Bal was only launched in 1994 by the French PR Ophélie Renouard, primarily with a philanthropic purpose—to help young women in need. The organisation has a long-standing relationship with two charities, the New York-based Seleni Institute, which focuses on supporting the mental health of teenage mothers, and Enfants d’Asie, which promotes the education of girls in Southeast Asia.
Entrance to the event cannot be purchased—young women have to be invited to take part. “You can’t buy your way in, you have to be asked,” says Renouard, who takes great care in curating the list of attendees each year, partly to ensure diversity.
Of course, these women need little help making their entrance into society. All are well-travelled and well-connected, and Renouard admits she doesn’t even need to make introductions within the group, who are all staying at the hotel in the lead-up to the event and have become fast friends. “We posted photos of them all on our Instagram. We don’t put their last names, but they found each other and created a WhatsApp group,” she says.
You can’t buy your way in, you have to be asked
Making life-long friends is a big part of the draw of Le Bal. “A close friend of mine had done this before and is still meeting up with the other girls all over the world,” says Shanaya Kapoor, the 20-year-old daughter of the legendary Bollywood actor and producer Sanjay Kapoor. Kapoor, well on her way to becoming an actress herself, has chosen a scarlet red ruffled gown by the Indian couturier Lecoanet Hemant for the occasion and is in her element. “I am so excited!” she says as she settles into the makeup chair.
“Before coming here, I had a different idea in my head, but it’s been way more relaxed,” says Kayla Rockefeller, 20, the first member of the New York-based Rockefeller family to take part in the event.
“Everyone is just having fun and all the girls I have met so far are very sweet, very nice.” Rockefeller is currently studying marketing at Tulane University in New Orleans, though she has plans to return to New York to work in sustainable fashion. “I try to be very vigilant, and do the little things for the environment,” says Rockefeller. As a member of American royalty, she chose a strapless red tulle gown by Manhattan-based designer Gilles Mendel, whose brand J. Mendel has long been associated with uptown elegance. “I’m 5’9” and he does great dresses for tall girls,” she says.
“It’s just so exciting to meet all these girls from so many different countries,” says Yuet Sham from Hong Kong, who chose a showstopping feathered and sequined pink dress by the Lebanese designer Georges Hobeika for the night. A bubbly 18-year-old, Sham speaks four languages and has just started studying at university in Canada. “I haven’t picked my major yet, but I am interested in either creative writing or psychology—they’re kind of similar, because you can delve into different characters,” she says. She was certainly drawn to the fairy-tale fashion and dancing at Le Bal, but also the charitable causes. “I feel we should be empowering other women,” she says. “This part was really meaningful to me. I want to use my voice and the little fame I have to promote awareness and to inspire other people to do better for the world.”
Jane Li, a Harvard student and the daughter of Chinese actor and martial arts champion Jet Li and actress and businesswoman Nina Li, has long been involved in philanthropic causes. Her family were on the beach in the Maldives when the 2004 tsunami struck. “Life is so precious, and we are so fortunate to have survived. That has really stayed with me,” she says. For Le Bal, Li chose a delicate, square-necked crimson Dior gown with a dramatic cape.
“Everyone focuses on the Debs, but Le Bal is not about me but about letting everyone know that there are people in need,” says Asuka Ikenobo, a thoughtful 20-year-old who hails from the Kyoto family who invented the centuries-old practice of ikebana, the art of Japanese flower arranging. Ikenobo is currently studying mathematics and philosophy at the University of Bristol. “Philosophy seems irrelevant at times, but it’s not: it’s not just about knowledge, it’s about learning how to think, how to deduce something.”
In the makeup chair, Ikenobo comes across as shy and hesitant, but on the night, in a stunning Antonio Grimaldi dress adorned with silk feathers, she stands much taller. This, Renouard offers, is the allure of the couture—each girl comes into their own in a custom-fitted dream gown, styled with a stunning piece of jewellery by the Indian jeweller Harakh Mehta. “No matter how glamorous and privileged they are, it’s the first time these girls are wearing couture,” says Renouard, whose role extends to pairing the girls with each designer.
Princess Maria Carolina de Bourbon des Deux Siciles, 16, who hails from one of Europe’s oldest royal houses and has been eagerly awaiting this event for as long as she can remember, is certainly no stranger to luxury fashion. The houses of Chanel and Valentino were on the short list when it came to finding a dress, but when Renouard directed her towards a design by the Australian, London-based couturiers, Ralph and Russo, she was swayed. “I would say that the dress chose me because I knew straight away that this was it,” she says of the strapless, tulle gown, which is cast in the palest blue and adorned with gold embroidery. “It took 256 hours of work, it is incredible,” she says.
Rocio Zobel, 17, the youngest daughter of the Filipino-Spanish family that owns Ayala Corp, chose Dutch designer Jan Taminiau for the occasion. At 5’1 Zobel is petite, and thrilled with her dress because, “it makes me look much taller than I am,” she says with a laugh. In the dusty-coloured gown, which has a fitted bodice and full tulle skirt, she appears to float through the ballroom. Zobel attended the Bal with her older sister many years ago, so she knows what to expect. As such, she is more than a little nervous about the waltz, which marks the crescendo of the evening. “I have no idea how to dance the waltz, but my dad did it with my sister, so hopefully he can help,” she says, laughing.