Christina Stambolian, the designer behind Princess Diana’s ‘revenge’ dress
The petite Greek designer Christina Stambolian will go down in fashion history as the creator of Princess Diana’s famous ‘Revenge’ dress – the Little Black Dress she wore to The Serpentine Gallery for a dinner hosted by Vanity Fair on 29th June 1994. It was the night of Prince Charles’s Panorama interview, in which for the first time he publicly admitted adultery. But Diana, in Christina’s dress, stole his thunder.
What a difference a dress makes – particularly a wicked little black bombshell that graced the front pages of pretty much every national newspaper the following morning.This was the LBD that marked a defining moment for both the world’s most photographed woman and the dress-maker.
This one iconic dress would catapault Christina Stambolian to overnight fame. Other designers made many more dresses for Diana, but the only piece created for her by Christina became a fashion icon – a classic case of less is more. Slinky and sensuous, it played to Diana’s assets – legs and décolletage – providing the perfect setting for a stunning pearl choker.
But there’s much more to this story than a pretty dress. Diana had also bought a dress for that evening from Italian designer Valentino, whose fashion house rashly trumpeted the princess’s choice of dress by hastily issuing a press release claiming that HRH would be wearing the Valentino that evening. Diana, annoyed at the label’s presumption, wore Christina’s dress instead. As a result, the fashion press got egg all over its collective face. Which is how I first got to meet Christina, when I was fashion director of the Daily Express.While the Diana dress represents the high point of Stambolian’s career, the threads of her life were actually defined by the receipt of two gifts – a Singer sewing machine and a Siamese cat .“My flatmate had a Singer,” says Christina. “She left me her Siamese and her sewing machine. I still have the machine and I adore it.
“From the moment I was born, I was crazy about cats,” she recalls. “My parents wouldn’t allow me to have one until I was about eight. I was permanently being scratched by strays.”
Christina was born in Volos, Greece, the younger daughter of Kyriakos, a tailor, and Assimina ,an embroiderer. “My father was a very good tailor,” she says. “He had his own shop – even now people come up to me and say, ‘I still have a suit from him.’ He made coats for us children.I didn’t appreciate them at the time, though I would like them now.
“My mother worked at home. She was so artistic and sensitive. Ours was a simple, real childhood, in no way privileged, just very, very nice. I had my grandparents who adored me, especially grandfather Stefanos Agopian, a real sweetie who sold nuts. I remember this one room in his house, filled with walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds. He would break them by hand and make white almonds. My grandmother Christina was a housewife, very austere. A strict protestant, she would take me to church on a Sunday and pinch me if I got fidgety.”
Christina’s most vivid childhood memory “is the time my father bought me a bike, my first adult bike at 18 and cycling on pillion to a beautiful house, belonging to my mother’s friend”.Christina has lived in Marylebone since 1974, first on Hallam Street, then in her present home on New Cavendish Street.
Do you think that fashion was in your genes?
Yes, I suppose that’s where I get it from – my parents. As a child, I only had one doll, that I adored. I made lots of clothes for her when I was six or seven. I was always messing about with miniature clothes
When did you develop your love of fashion?
I was about 15 or 16 when I started making my own clothes. I didn’t have a machine – my mother had one but I could never master it – then I moved to Athens where everything was done by hand. I was 18 when my father found me a husband, but I wasn’t ready for marriage. I really wanted to do something artistic, so I sought help from my godfather, who managed to change my father’s mind. I spent four years at Vacalo Art College in Athens whilst also working in the offices of The Royal House in Athens doing sketches for magazines, which meant that I could go to college and finance it out of my wages. I loved Athens at the time. I was young, everything was great.
What brought you to London?
The promise of a job in Paris that never materialised. It was 1968 and I was in London, staying with my sister Miné who had worked as a nurse, then married and became a housewife and mother. Within a week, I had found a job with a company called AJ Woolf in Great Portland Street, the heart of the rag trade. I didn’t speak a word of English, so Douglas, my boss, suggested I go to college – International House in Piccadilly. In my second job, with Ian Ross, I learned a lot. I started making patterns, moulding fabrics on the stand. I made a few mistakes but it was a good learning curve. We rowed because I was late on one occasion, so he fired me! Replying to an advertisement in the famous DR (Draper’s Record) resulted in a job with Harold Horovitz, aka DP Designs. I put some sketches together and off I went. It was so easy at the time, and my career just took off. Harold was my mentor. Then in 1974 , I met my ex- husband David Goodwin, a hotel manager, through an Italian friend.
How did you meet the Princess of Wales?
She came to my shop on Beauchamp Place. I had met her once before in the ladies in San Lorenzo. At the time we just smiled, said hello. It was three years later, at the end of the summer of 1991, that the Princess of Wales came to the shop with her brother Lord Spencer. I drew a few ideas for her and despite the fact that she insisted “no way will I have anything too open or my arms showing,” I managed to convince her. After rejecting ivory as ‘too virginal’, she finally agreed to black and we went for it – a short, little black dress with vee bodice in silk jacquard, falling onto a chiffon skirt.
Your dress figures as one of “50 dresses that changed the world” in the Design Museum’s book. Has the so-called ‘revenge’ dress been life-changing for you?
I have had good and bad times with this dress – the good times include going to the Christie’s auction in New York, meeting people who I would otherwise never have met, working with the Franklyn Mint and Collectable Concepts. And the money bought me a holiday home in Greece. The dress’s legacy is perhaps the best aspect. The dress was bought at a charity auction by Scottish Collector Graeme Mackenzie for $74,000, and he takes good care of it, though he too has had some problems with it, like insurance – having to put it in a special cabinet at the right temperature for silk. Two sketches of the ‘Revenge’ dress were auctioned at £3,000 each.There were also many Diana books that featured interviews with me and pictures of the dress.
I admit that name and fame-wise it has helped my career, yes. But I have done so much else – designing, boutiques in Paris and Beauchamp Place, 15 catwalk shows, and suddenly this dress has eclipsed everything else. Yet some of my designs were so retro, so Hollywood, and worn by Kim Wilde, Hannah Gordon, Gloria Hunniford. I also went through a lot of upsetting times as a result of this dress. Even now there are still errors accrediting it to Valentino, and an old boss of mine talked to the newspapers and tried to exploit me.
If your dress could tell its story, what would it be?
It would say lots of things, like: “I was languishing in the wardrobe for three years until Diana’s butler, Paul Burrell had an idea. He chose me for her, pulling me out of the wardrobe saying, ‘that’s the one you should wear.’ The doors opened and I thought – I am getting an airing at last. I am going to change everybody’s life. I may have only been worth £900 initially but I certainly paid dividends. I may have been a dress-in-waiting for a long time, but I have enjoyed a charmed and charitable life, so the wait was worthwhile.”
Who do you think has replaced Diana as a fashion icon?
Victoria Beckham – I like her things; she’s not like anybody else. She has this passion for fashion, she lives and dies for it. She’s always impeccable, a great dresser. She knows what she’s doing and has a lot of style. I don’t know her personally but I like what I see. She’s the New Royalty – I mean, she married on a throne, didn’t she?
Any leisure activities?
I am involved with an animal charity, Philosos, in Greece, which rescues cats and dogs. It’s like the Greek RSPCA. I have a cat called Assimina, named after my Mother. I also started learning to design icons, but gave up after a year, as I found it too precise. What I really love is designing beautiful dresses.
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