The day following his haute couture fashion show in Paris's Palais de la Découverte, Stéphane Rolland hosts a very discreet soirée in Cartier's grand boutique just off the Place Vendôme. This is a very private party to showcase some of his new collection and archive pieces, all draped with precious Cartier jewels, to a few very special Middle Eastern clients. These mysterious ladies, Saudi royalty purportedly among them, would never attend a catwalk show and sit alongside film stars and fashion editors. You will never see a photograph of them. Heavily surrounded by their security, they value their privacy. However, they love the fun of being in Paris and choosing their new wardrobe from a fashion presentation.
Offering such a personal service is important even in the already rarefied world of haute couture. As a result Rolland is finding an increasing amount of his time is spent in the Middle East (at least once a month) and mostly in Riyadh to oversee fittings. It is one of his biggest markets. There are also a lot of wealthy Kuwaitis snapping up his gowns and long evening dresses. "I go for three days or so and try to make the maximum number of fittings in that time," says Rolland. "I have a driver or they send me one and I do the fittings at their palaces. It is very well organised and it is fun. We come back to Paris exhausted, but what a nice time."
Rolland, 43, has the darkly handsome looks of a matinée idol, with a thick mane of long black hair that flops over his chiselled cheekbones and warm, brooding eyes. He has obviously inherited the best characteristics of his French and Italian/Spanish parentage. He launched his couture house only two years ago at one of Paris's chicest addresses in the Avenue George V, but had 10 years experience in couture prior to that as the designer at Jean-Louis Scherrer.
His style is very different today to the collections he created at Scherrer, where he felt he had to be respectful of the house's founder. Scherrer was a very traditional house with a chic but bourgeois style, whereas Rolland's look is a sculpted, modern, streamlined elegance. "I love architecture and modern art. I like to create partnerships with artists and sculptors," he says as we sit on the dark plush leather sofas of his salon two days after his show.
Hanging on the rails around the room are dresses the colour of desert sand scattered with a crazy paving of appliqué (small, irregular shapes of Plexiglas covered in fabric) rather than the traditional frills and beading one usually associates with haute couture. "I don't like it when (the designs) are too busy. Even if you see a lot of work on my dress the line is very understated," he explains. "And I am fed up with the mermaid look."
It is the chic black gowns and velvet jackets with their piped decoration (inspired by the Russian tsars exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London), the stark white dresses and the tailoring with their slender rolled collars that are attracting the new, young clients to his label. Between 60 and 70 per cent of his clientele is less than 30 years old, Rolland says, which is remarkable in the luxurious world of couture, where a cocktail dress can cost anything from 18,000-20,000 (Dh108,000-120,000).
"I have very young girls and they are a very different clientele to those that would go for flounce - you know, busy designs." It is very strange he muses, but he thinks they are learning from their mothers and if their mothers weren't actual haute couture clients then they were certainly attracted by the quality and finish. "I use a lot of cashmere," he says of the new fall/winter collection, in which even the wedding dress is sculpted in white cashmere and covered with the cracked stone effect of appliqué. "The bride looks like a Russian tsarina with broken ice on her dress," he enthuses. The style of the 1970s is one of the underlying influences on all his collections, but the sculptor Richard Serra and the furniture designer Karim Rashid are current sources of inspiration too.
A lot of his look is very tailored."I love the ambiguity of masculine and feminine, strong and fragile, dark and light." For Rolland, his role as a couturier also includes a smattering of psychotherapy, which he applies in a charming and solicitous way without the client realising it. If , for example, she is an extrovert or wants to be more extrovert, or has a very public profile, he will adapt the dress accordingly. "I try to understand who you are in a few minutes. It is totally psychology."
He adapts his ideas to the customs, the personality, and the roles of his clients, many of whom are also businesswomen. "Just because a client is a billionaire doesn't mean she doesn't work. But I give her the possibility to be sexy, attractive and glamorous." You don't get much more glamorous than two of his most beautiful clients (photographs of whom wearing his dresses flash around the world): Queen Rania of Jordan and Sheikha Mozah of Qatar. Queen Rania wore a shaded beige and white gown with jewelled cuffs to award the prizes at the Ahel al-Himmeh ceremony in Amman last month, while Sheika Mozah wore one of his elegant dresses - a slender white gown with a shaded black waistline, jewelled belt and black turban - during the state visit of the Emir of Qatar to Paris in late June.
Rolland first met Sheika Mozah 10 years ago when he was working at Jean-Louis Scherrer and she came to the salon. "It's a lovely story," he says warmly. "She didn't tell me who she was - I had no idea. And I only discovered when I was on a flight to her country and saw her face in a magazine and thought 'Oh my goodness, my client is the Emir and his wife - they are royalty!'" Still somewhat astounded but thrilled, he says: "They were so kind and sweet and delicate and great PRs for their country."
Queen Rania has become a client more recently and he is currently working on his fourth gown for her. They met through friends and he loves working with her, not just because she is a great beauty, but also because she knows exactly what she likes and has a very high level of professionalism. "If you dress someone like Sheikha Mozah or Queen Rania you have to understand their way of life, how busy they are and the image they want to project."
His clients are not solely from the Middle East, of course, but are also from Russia, Lithuania, Uzbekistan, Greece, France ("I have five new French clients this season, but there are not so many French customers in haute couture") and South America. South America, coincidentally, is where Rolland spent some of his childhood. Although a member of the French aristocracy (a fact he is at pains to downplay), he grew up in Argentina, Paraguay and the French West Indies. He developed an interest in architecture, sculpture, photography and modern art.
However, his destiny lay in Paris, where he studied fashion at the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture. At the age of 20 he was hired by Balenciaga to design menswear. He left when he was 24 and launched his own label before being hired by Scherrer. It was a wonderful opportunity to learn the métier of haute couture and to gain entry into the exclusive couture club as an official couturier member of the French federation that oversees and regulates the haute couture and prêt-a-porter business.
During his 10 years at Scherrer, however, he realised that he was not suited to work for others; he is too independent. "When I decided to leave Scherrer (in early 2007) it was the talk of the town. I asked for nothing. I took the decision not knowing what I would do tomorrow, but I knew it was impossible to continue." Luckily a friend approached him with two businessmen who were willing to invest in launching a house with him, but they wanted to recoup their investment in two years. He showed his first couture collection a few months later in July 2007 and repaid them within 18 months - a remarkable achievement. He is now totally independent.
He voices his admiration for Pierre Cardin, the former couturier who is now in his 80s and retained ownership of his business, although not of his many licenses. "I admire him for his independence; he is totally free and does what he wants in life," he says hinting at the situation that has most of Paris couture tied into big luxury fashion empires like LVMH and Richemont and that has led to Christian Lacroix's house being placed in administration by its American owners, the Falic brothers.
Yet despite the possible demise of Lacroix and the shrinking number of houses that still present haute couture collections, Rolland feels very positive about the future of haute couture. "If you just retain it as a marketing strategy then you kill it, but if you consider what you are doing is making wearable dresses using modern couture techniques and fabrics then you have a chance of selling your designs more easily. I only want to do 'real' clothes," he says.
These "real" clothes are so far standing him in good stead. We are ushered from the main salon into a smaller one next door as more clients arrive. "They are new; I've not met them before," he whispers as I try to catch a glimpse of them. No doubt he will be winging his way back to the Middle East very soon. His first trip was 12 years ago and, he says: "If I compare what I saw then to today, I wouldn't recognise it."
He particularly enjoys being in the desert and visiting a beautiful, old palace that's outside Riyadh, almost a ruin, he says, though he cannot remember its name. "It's a spectacular place." Amman is another destination he would like to discover, having found the Jordanians so welcoming on his initial trips to fit Queen Rania.