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Diana wanted her dress shorter, but Paul Burrell and I said to her: that’s quite short enough! One of the princess’s favourite designers Jacques Azagury tells how he is now auctioning iconic designs that defined her last years

A warm summer evening and crowds gather outside London‘s Tate Britain to catch a glimpse of royalty, rock stars and models arriving at a gala fundraising dinner for the art gallery’s centenary.

A frenzy of flashbulbs greet the guests including Viscount Linley and his then-wife Serena, singer Bryan Ferry, model Iman, comedian Steve Martin and artist Damien Hirst.

But the undisputed guest of honour that night — July 1, 1997 — is Princess Diana, who’s also celebrating her 36th birthday. And as always, as she accepts gifts from well-wishers, all eyes are on what she’s wearing: a black gown by the couturier Jacques Azagury, with the Queen Mary Art Deco diamond and emerald choker about her neck.

The Princess had planned to wear another dress, but at the last minute ditched it for Azagury’s black Chantilly lace column, embroidered with sequins and beads, which the designer had gift-wrapped and delivered to Kensington Palace that day.

Princess Diana arriving at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice for a reception as part of the Biennale exhibition in 1995 Princess Diana arriving at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice for a reception as part of the Biennale exhibition in 1995

Princess Diana arriving at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice for a reception as part of the Biennale exhibition in 1995

Diana attends a gala and supper on her 36th birthday at the Tate Gallery in 1997 Diana attends a gala and supper on her 36th birthday at the Tate Gallery in 1997

Diana attends a gala and supper on her 36th birthday at the Tate Gallery in 1997

Diana visits Washington, US, at a Gala dinner held by the American Red Cross Diana visits Washington, US, at a Gala dinner held by the American Red Cross

Diana visits Washington, US, at a Gala dinner held by the American Red Cross 

‘I was delighted she chose to wear the dress I had given her,’ he tells me now. ‘It was her way of saying thank you.’

Ever gracious, the Princess wrote a formal thank you. That day, her last birthday, she spent quietly in her Kensington Palace apartment, where she received 90 bouquets and, according to Tina Brown’s biography The Diana Chronicles, listened as Prince Harry‘s classmates sang Happy Birthday over the phone from Eton.

At some point, she sat at her writing desk in her study, cluttered with photographs of her boys, blotters and silver trinkets, and penned a thank-you letter to Azagury for the gown. ‘Dear Jacques. I was quite overcome on opening your parcel!’ she wrote on her red-bordered stationery with its royal cypher. ‘I am absolutely thrilled to have been given such a beautiful dress for my birthday.

‘Thank you more than I can possibly say for making the day particularly special. Lots of love from Diana x’

It’s this letter, which the designer kept in a vault for 26 years, that will go under the hammer next month at Lay’s auctioneers, in Penzance, Cornwall, along with an identical version of the black lace dress. When making an original for the Princess, Azagury always created a ‘twin’ in the same measurements, and filed them away in his archive.

Now, as he retires from the fashion industry and closes his eponymous shop in London’s Knightsbridge, he’s decided it’s finally time to sell the Diana memorabilia.

The Jacques Azagury Personal Collection takes place at Lay’s Auctioneers, Penzance, Cornwall on December 7. Pictued, Jacques Azagury, Diana's fashion designer The Jacques Azagury Personal Collection takes place at Lay’s Auctioneers, Penzance, Cornwall on December 7. Pictued, Jacques Azagury, Diana's fashion designer

The Jacques Azagury Personal Collection takes place at Lay’s Auctioneers, Penzance, Cornwall on December 7. Pictued, Jacques Azagury, Diana’s fashion designer

Diana arriving at the Royal Albert Hall for Swan Lake wearing a dress by Jacques Azagury Diana arriving at the Royal Albert Hall for Swan Lake wearing a dress by Jacques Azagury

Diana arriving at the Royal Albert Hall for Swan Lake wearing a dress by Jacques Azagury

On December 7, twins of five of Diana’s most iconic dresses, which he dubs the ‘Famous Five’, will be up for sale, alongside letters, Christmas cards, patterns and a toile (a version of the garment made in cheaper fabric, and used for fittings).

The birthday dress, plus the letter, is estimated to reach £15,000 to £20,000 — but may go for much more. The merest association with Diana is hugely desirable these days, and a number of other pieces have fetched very large sums recently.

Witness, her black sheep jumper, made by British brand Warm & Wonderful, which sold in September for nearly £1 million. And the sale by widower Louis Petho of three of his late wife Ellen’s Diana dresses, which she bought for £50,000 at Christie’s in 1997, a month before Diana died. Listed for £500,000, they sold for £1.35 million

Diana so loved the Azagury dresses that she did not put them into that Christie’s sale of 79 of her gowns, which raised £1.96 million for the Marsden Hospital Cancer Fund and AIDS Crisis Trust. Later, the Famous Five went on display at her childhood home Althorp in Northamptonshire. They are now believed to belong to Princes William and Harry.

‘I’ve had pleasure out of [the twins] for the past 26 years,’ explains Jacques, who was born in Morocco but has lived in London since the 1960s. ‘I don’t want to lock them up in a safe, never to be seen again. I would really like to pass them on to somebody else who can enjoy them.’

It’s almost 40 years since Jacques first met the Princess — at his 1985 autumn/winter New Romantics Collection at London’s Hyde Park Hotel. Vogue fashion editor Anna Harvey tapped him on the shoulder and told him there was someone she’d like him to meet. ‘I turned around and there she was straight in front of me,’ he recalls, ‘which kind of threw me. Then literally we were just talking.

‘She had this magic of making you feel at ease within seconds. A few weeks later we got a call from the Palace saying: ‘Princess Diana would like to visit your atelier. Would that be OK?’ That was really the start of our relationship. I usually take everything in my stride, but I have to admit, every time I saw Diana wearing my clothes, I did get very excited.’

Jacques and his sister Solange were invited to Kensington Palace to discuss the dress she wanted, the first of 18 he would make for her — a ballerina-length gown, with a royal blue organza skirt and black bodice embroidered with stars.

‘The very first time Solange and I went to the palace together was quite surreal,’ says Jacques. ‘We looked at ourselves and thought: ‘Are we really here?’ Diana loved coming to the shop and our workrooms in Soho. I think she liked the atmosphere of the workroom — she would always pop her head in and say hello to the workforce.

‘But often, time wouldn’t allow her to, so I would go to the palace with the dress to do the fittings. The children would be walking and running around the room while we were trying to work and then their nanny would take them away.’

The first of the Famous Five is the red mini dress she wore on June 8, 1995, in Venice at a fundraiser for London’s Serpentine Gallery, during her separation from Prince Charles. Determined to outshine the future Queen Camilla, who fled to Venice to take refuge when news of her affair with Charles broke in 1992, Diana visiting the city three years later, wore a beaded, red silk two-piece dress, which showed off her long legs.

Afterwards she sent Azagury and his team a thank-you note.

‘I didn’t know when she planned to wear it until I saw it in the papers,’ recalls Jacques. ‘It was much shorter than the other dresses I had made her. Everybody was wearing shorter skirts and she wanted to be more fashionable, so her skirt hems slowly crept up.’

After that, Diana always turned to Jacques when looking for a ‘knock-’em-dead’ dress.

The night her infamous Panorama interview was aired, for example — November 20, 1995 — she attended a dinner and fashion show for Cancer Research at London’s Bridgewater House in a long, black silk dress, with a sequinned corded lace bodice and fishtail hem.

‘It was a very quick turnaround,’ says Jacques. ‘She confided in me that she had done the interview and wanted something very simple and sexy to wear on the night [of the broadcast].

‘I knew exactly what we were dealing with so I wanted it to be sensational. She tried on three dresses and we decided on that one. Then it was whisked up for her in three days.

‘I saw her for a final fitting on the morning the interview was to be broadcast. She seemed relieved. She knew it would cause a furore but she said: ‘I haven’t said anything bad. I haven’t said anything wrong. I’ve just said everything the way it is.’ And she was right. I think it was her way of moving on.’

The third dress in the auction is a ‘twin’ version of the red silk column dress Diana wore to a Red Cross Gala dinner in Washington, in the U.S, on June 17, 1997. With its beaded bodice, low-cut back, long skirt, and matching sash, trimmed at the end in red bugle beads, it perfectly complemented her skin tone. It’s being sold with a bodice toile that Jacques fitted on the princess plus the patterns.

‘She nearly didn’t get that dress,’ admits Jacques. ‘Diana’s butler Paul Burrell called me at home at 7am and said: ‘Jacques. Is the dress on the way?’

I said: ‘Which dress?’ and he said: ‘The red dress.’ I said: ‘Oh my God. It’s not finished.’ And he said: ‘We’re leaving at 11am.’

So, I got two girls to meet me at the shop immediately and they got straight to work. We got it to the palace just before they left.

‘Diana phoned and said: ‘Jacques. You got me in a flap here,’ and I said: ‘You were in a flap!

The dress wasn’t half-made this morning.’ Then we just laughed about it.’

Jacques also created the ice-blue silk georgette number, with crystal bugle beads and set off by bows on the straps, that Diana wore on June 3, 1997, for a Royal Gala Performance of Swan Lake at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

It is being sold with the order form which reveals Diana’s measurements: 39.5, 29, 36in. ‘I think that was the culmination of all the dresses I made for her,’ muses Jacques. ‘It had all the ingredients to make it sensational.

Princess Diana’s thank-you notes to Azagury, for her birthday dress, left, and her Venice dress, above Princess Diana’s thank-you notes to Azagury, for her birthday dress, left, and her Venice dress, above

Princess Diana’s thank-you notes to Azagury, for her birthday dress, left, and her Venice dress, above

‘At that stage, Diana was super confident, knew herself and how she wanted to look. She wanted to go shorter but Paul and I were saying: ‘OK. That’s quite short enough.’

‘She loved that dress so much that I came up with the idea of gifting her an even more glamorous version. She had no idea I was making it and I was amazed it fitted without any fittings. It was the last of my dresses that she ever wore.’

Jacques last spoke to Diana on the morning she left for the South of France, when she phoned to say she was sending him a parcel. It was August 21, 1997, ten days before she met her death in Paris.

‘I was coming home from a club at 6am and was entering my apartment when I heard the phone ringing,’ he says. ‘It was a girlfriend of mine, who said: ‘Turn on the TV.’

‘I said: ‘What is it?’ She said: ‘Diana’s been killed in a car crash.’ I was just totally numb, in shock and disbelief.

‘At the funeral, I sat in the front row and felt in control until the coffin came in. When I saw it, I broke down and sobbed. ‘

Jacques hopes to be in Goa, India, with his partner David Harrod, a retired accountant, when the sale takes place. ‘I’m not sentimental about the past,’ he says.

But there is one piece he will never sell — the framed photograph, which came in that parcel: it shows Diana in three poses wearing three of her Famous Five dresses, inscribed: ‘Dearest Jacques. Lots of love from Diana. x’

‘When I got to the shop, a butler was outside and handed me this parcel,’ he recalls. ‘Inside was a framed picture of her in three of my dresses, her favourites. I was really touched.

I thought: ‘Oh my God. This woman who is so busy is still kind enough to do something like this for me.’ She would have chosen those photographs herself and the frame. It was the last token of her affection that I ever received.’

The Jacques Azagury Personal Collection takes place at Lay’s Auctioneers, Penzance, Cornwall on December 7.

Earl of SnowdonTate BritainPaul Burrell

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