Dubbed the ‘Travolta’, Victor Edelstein’s midnight-blue velvet gown sealed the reputation of Princess Diana as a style icon. Yet its designer downplays his part in creating her image and turned his back on fashion, as Richard Dennen discovers…
Dancing with John Travolta at the White House in a stunning midnight-blue dress was the moment that Princess Diana became a global icon. British royalty mixing with Hollywood star power and the American presidential elite sent the world’s media into a frenzy.
The occasion was a dinner given by President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy on the first evening of the Prince and Princess of Wales’s 1985 tour of the United States.
On the marble floor of the White House’s grand Entrance Hall, Diana danced with the President and actors Clint Eastwood and Tom Selleck, but it was the John Travolta moment – and the dress, which was created by British designer Victor Edelstein – that made headlines all over the world.
The ‘Travolta’ dress, as it became known, was one of Diana’s favourites and she wore it a number of times, on state visits, to film premieres and for her last official portrait, by Lord Snowdon, in 1997.
When Diana sold her collection of gowns at Christie’s in New York in 1997 after her divorce from Prince Charles, the Travolta dress went for £100,000, then the highest price ever paid for a dress at an auction. It was sold again in 2013 for £240,000, another record.
The dress is so famous it even has its own entry on Wikipedia. And now it’s on show as part of Diana: Her Fashion Story, the exhibition at Kensington Palace marking the 20th anniversary of the Princess’s death.
‘When Diana wore the dress at the White House, the press were very interested,’ says Victor. ‘I got ridiculous calls from American fashion journalists asking: “Why navy? Why velvet?” And I thought, “Give me a break!”
It was just a dress that she bought from my collection. People attach so much importance to it, but to me it was simply another dress. When she sold it, I thought how nice it was of her to make some money for charity, but if she hadn’t worn it, I can’t imagine it would have made much.’
As well as designing numerous gowns for Diana, Victor made his mark on the fashion world by dressing many of the rich socialites of the day.
‘Victor was in a league of his own,’ remembers Sarajane Hoare, former fashion director of Vogue. ‘He had amazing taste and cut.’ Char Pilcher, then fashion editor at Tatler, describes Victor as ‘the best of the British stable of couturiers at that time, a true talent’.
However, in 1993, at the height of his success, Victor gave up designing couture and is now a painter. He lives quietly with his wife Annamaria Succi in rural Oxfordshire, which is where we meet to talk about his fashion days. Now aged 71, he still dresses impeccably – today in a smart brown suit – and is surprisingly tall at 6ft 4in with a voice that rustles like taffeta.
Victor grew up in Hendon, Northwest London, in a Russian Jewish family involved in the rag trade. His father and grandfather made and sold clothes from Great Portland Street, then the centre of the industry, but Victor didn’t associate his love of high fashion with his family’s business.
‘I thought that being a designer meant working in gilded salons and throwing bolts of wonderful material around six-foot tall models. Real life isn’t quite like that,’ he says. He worked for a number of fashion companies, but ‘I got the sack from virtually everywhere I worked. I was too dreamy and hated it.’
But by the late 60s, after a stint in Paris, Victor was assisting the designer Barbara Hulanicki in the pattern room at Biba, the label of the moment. For 21-year-old Victor it was a revelation: ‘It was the most enjoyable job I ever had. I was working for a brand the whole world was looking to and for a designer I really admired.’
After Biba, Victor took a small room in Kensington and started making clothes for private clients. He went on to design for Christian Dior London and then, in 1978, he opened his own high-end ready-to-wear company, but swiftly went bankrupt.
Undeterred, three years later he opened his own couture house. ‘It was better for me to be designing couture. Ready-to-wear was too tricky. You need a certain volume to make it work and it’s very difficult to achieve that with expensive clothes unless you have a huge operation behind you.’
Meanwhile, Anna Harvey, then the deputy editor at Vogue, was advising the Princess of Wales on her wardrobe and suggested Victor. ‘There was a dearth of this sort of fashion house in London at the time,’ she says. ‘Victor’s collection was young, beautiful and much of it was perfect for the Princess.’
Diana, pregnant with Prince William at the time, asked for a maternity evening dress. ‘I was given the measurements,’ says Victor, ‘but they were elephantine. I thought, “She can’t be this size, even pregnant.” But I wasn’t able to meet or measure her, so the dress in pink organza was unwearable, of course.’
After Prince William was born, Victor went to see Diana at Kensington Palace and fitted the dress properly, re-modelling it to her slim post-baby figure. ‘She was so beautiful and sweet, and she seemed so vulnerable. I walked down the stairs afterwards and I was almost on air. She had that effect,’ he says.
The most successful dresses Princess Diana wore by Victor were from his collections, sometimes slightly altered, rather than designed especially for her. Standout pieces include a black silk off-the-shoulder jacket, which she wore to the ballet in Berlin; a midnight-blue silk crepe halter-neck evening dress she chose for a party at the Serpentine in London, and a fuchsia pink gown worn for a dinner at Mansion House in the City.
‘When I did design things for her I never felt I did them quite as well,’ Victor recalls. ‘It’s odd that when you design especially for someone – and I’ve seen other designers do the same thing – you try too hard and end up doing something that isn’t typical of you and isn’t that good.’
Princess Diana viewed Victor’s new collections sitting next to him at the couture dress rehearsals at the Hyde Park Hotel. Then, once she had made her choices, Victor would go to Kensington Palace for the fittings.
‘Diana was always very friendly when I went there, but we never exchanged confidences. We talked about films or plays that we had seen or she would tell me about visits she’d done. We never had intimate conversations – thank God, because it would have put a terrible strain on one’s discretion!’ (Victor, of course, was famously discreet.)
‘At the last fitting for the Travolta dress – I fear it will always be called that – Diana was so pleased with it that she said, “I must show this to my husband.” Off she went and came back with the Prince of Wales. It was very funny, like something out of a TV show. He was obviously about to go out because he was covered with ribbons and decorations, but he was very nice about the dress.’
Victor can’t say if the ‘Diana effect’ brought him new couture clients because ‘they would never mention something like that’. But throughout the 80s, his business grew although he made no more than 150 dresses a season. His clients included the Duchess of Kent, Princess Michael, Princess Yasmin Aga Khan, Isabel Goldsmith, Lady Solti, Lady de Rothschild and American socialite Nan Kempner.
He also designed a pale pink organza dress with a bustle for Princess Margaret’s daughter Lady Sarah Armstrong-Jones’s 21st birthday party, and a strapless black velvet and pink duchesse satin dress for Anna Wintour when she was editing British Vogue (one of the only dresses she commissioned during her brief period living in London). So synonymous were his gowns with Princess Diana that her Madame Tussauds waxwork was dressed in Victor Edelstein.
Then it all stopped. ‘Suddenly people didn’t want to spend money on couture any more – even people with lots of money.’ A recession had begun, a grungy Kate Moss appeared on the cover of Vogue and the day of the fairy-tale ballgown was over. ‘We’d had a decade of rich women wearing ball dresses in London hotels and people giving black-tie dinners at home. Then in 1990 everyone started saying, “Come and have supper in the kitchen.” Well, you don’t need to wear a couture dress to do that.’
But in any case, Victor had become bored. He could see that his designs were not improving and the recession had made business bad. ‘If there was eventually going to be a new generation of younger women who wanted to buy couture they were not going to come to me. I didn’t want to turn into Norman Hartnell, bringing my mailing list up to date by checking the obituaries.’
So Victor gave it all up to become a painter. ‘I thought, “I really want to paint.” I’d “done” fashion so I shut up shop and I have never regretted it.’ He received dozens of letters from clients saying how sad they were. Princess Diana invited him to Kensington Palace. ‘I just went to say goodbye. She was very nice about it.’
Victor had a house in Spain and moved there with his wife Annamaria, who is also a painter. The couple, who met in 1969 and married in 1973, split up in the 80s before reuniting in the following decade. ‘In a funny way we never really separated but we lived separately. It just seemed the best thing to do at the time,’ Victor explains.
Annamaria worked at Sotheby’s and later as an art dealer, sharing Victor’s interest in art. When Victor still had his design studio he made her many dresses, including a pink double duchesse satin creation that she wore to Prince Charles’s 40th birthday dance at Buckingham Palace. They don’t have any children: ‘It just didn’t happen.’
The couple now live in the converted stable block of a large country pile in the Cotswolds. They paint together in the sitting room, but each have their own corner. Victor specialises in portraits and interiors and his subjects include the fashion designer Bruce Oldfield, who has remained a friend, former couture clients and their children and grandchildren, and the interiors of various great houses and Venetian palazzos.
Does he miss designing couture? ‘I used to have nightmares that I was still doing it. It was such a relief to wake up and realise I was no longer in fashion,’ he says. He quotes Balenciaga: ‘The life of a couturier is the life of a dog.’
He smiles when he remembers the sort of life his former clients led and recalls a snippet overheard during a fitting at his studio: ‘I can’t take much more of it,’ a woman complained. ‘We’ve got to go to a banquet at Buckingham Palace tonight, which means we won’t get home until two. My maid will have gone to bed so I will have to take off my tiara myself and put it in the safe. I just can’t cope.’ He seems far too nice to be in the modern fashion world: ‘When I look at it today, I’m just puzzled.’
Victor was at his home in Spain when he heard on the BBC World Service that the Princess was dead. ‘I was very sad,’ he recalls. ‘I couldn’t believe it. And yet there was a sense of inevitability about it.’ He and his wife attended the funeral: ‘It sounds callous but it was a marvellous opportunity for people-watching – it was packed with famous faces. I looked down the aisle as the coffin went past and saw Luciano Pavarotti cross himself and then burst out crying, his huge frame shaking.’
Diana touched many lives with her warmth and kindness and Victor remembers her fondly. And, crucially for designers like him, she was ‘our ambassador. She brought a huge amount of attention to British designers.’
In February, Victor went to the opening of the exhibition of Princess Diana’s dresses at Kensington Palace. Of the three dresses that he designed on display, one is a 1987 evening dress made for an official visit to Germany – black lace laid over magenta silk to create a rich bronze; another is in bottle-green silk velvet with 40s-style shoulders – the sort of dress that Diana might have worn for a private dinner. It has a cluster of small indentations on the front of the skirt, which the curators have speculated might be the little paw prints of young princes clinging to their mother. ‘I don’t remember designing it for her at all,’ says Victor. ‘I made her dresses for 11 years, so it’s quite difficult to remember every single one.’
But it’s the Travolta dress that is still the show stopper. ‘The original model was in burgundy, but the Princess thought she’d like it more in blue. I agreed that it suited her much better than the burgundy. I just thought it was a nice dress.’
Diana: Her Fashion Story is at Kensington Palace, London W8. For further information and to book tickets, visit hrp.org.uk/diana or call 0844 482 7799
Victor Edelstein: portraits and interiors