Middle East-infused boutique favoured by Princess Diana brings down the curtain

Legendary designer Jacques Azagury credits his Moroccan and French roots for influencing his successful career

Jacques Azagury, fashion designer, is closing his business. Mark Chilvers for The National
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Jacques Azagury’s instinctive flair for fashion first became evident at the age of three when he would insist on picking out his own outfits from the stylish wardrobe his mother had assembled for him.

His British-Moroccan family had a generational sense of flair. Blend in some French and Algerian roots and his cosmopolitan credentials were there from the moment he was born. Looking your best was a way of life for the Azagurys and their social set on the streets of 1950s Casablanca.

Arab and Parisian influences were easy to spot in the elegant outfits that dominated the Atlantic seaboard city with a stellar, jet-set reputation.

Speaking to The National this week, Azagury recalled the way his mother Alice would lovingly look on as her toddler son assembled an outfit, ready to step in and make suggestions.

Four decades later when he was a sought-after couturier, his mother was still on hand. The pair often worked in tandem, never more so than when her son would be asked to dress Princess Diana in an elegant gown.

His attention to detail, skilful hand in creating well-cut pieces and talent for matching different fabrics was also noticed by well-heeled shoppers from the Middle East.

"We had hundreds of clients from the region down through the years," he remembered. "There were sheikhas and royals and people from the big Middle Eastern families."

Some of his most recent clients included a member of the Omani royal family and a woman in the Arab world who requested a robe to wear at the wedding of Jordan's Crown Prince Hussein and Rajwa Al Saif in Amman.

Azagury credits his mother for playing a key part in his successful fashion career, during which he operated a boutique in Knightsbridge, London, for more than 35 years.

As he prepares to close the shutters on the shop, the designer opened up about the journey that led him to dressing the world-famous princess, who many saw as one of the most beautiful women in the world.

Situated on the edge of Hyde Park and surrounded by embassies, the Azagury boutique has for decades been a stalwart in the busy shopping parade.

After starting his business in the 1970s, Azagury opened the boutique in 1987 with his business partner and sister Solange.

His dresses, mostly evening wear, were quickly noticed by big retailers and began to appear in collections carried by Harrods, Browns, Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman.

Before long members of royal families from around the world and actors preparing to strut the red carpet were knocking on his door.

He looked back on the Eighties fashion era when he would waltz into Vogue’s offices and show his designs to director Grace Coddington, before PR and assistants were all over the industry.

“I would just go up to the office and show her a dress. She’d say ‘I like that’ and the next thing I knew it was in Vogue magazine," he said.

“It was a very different world.”

'Dressing Diana was career highlight'

But Princess Diana earned a place in Azagury’s heart like no other client and until her tragic death in a car crash in Paris in 1997 they called each other friends.

"For me, she’s still alive. Occasionally I will think of her popping through the door," Azagury said from his boutique in the upmarket west London district.

“I can’t deny it. It really was the highlight of my career.

“She’s the only person I ever got excited about meeting, about her wearing my clothes, the whole aura. It was always wonderful when she used to come here."

“She said she also liked to come to the shop because it got her away from the palace,” he said with a grin.

Sometimes she would make appointments, other times she would turn up unannounced. In the early days she was escorted by security guards, but towards the end she arrived alone, Azagury said.

He made 18 dresses for the former Princess of Wales, including the last batch which he refers to as the "famous five". The high profile that Princess Diana brought was a boon in many ways. Not least because his shop in the heart of Knightsbridge attracted an avalanche of patrons from the Middle East.

From around the Arabian Gulf and his native North Africa, the clientele included regulars and drop-ins from people on holiday. The staff records show hundreds of names from the region, all appreciative of the elegantly cut clothing so well modelled by the woman married to the heir to the British crown.

Among the clothes supplied by Azagury was the garment the mother of two wore at a party to celebrate her 36th birthday, which would be her last.

Photos of the Princess of Hearts, as she was known to her fans, wearing the black Chantilly lace beaded evening gown went around the world and became a poignant reminder of her beauty when she died two months later.

The dress was more than the other dresses he made for her – it was a birthday gift.

As the wife of Prince Charles and mother of the future king, Diana grew accustomed to every detail of her outfits being closely scrutinised.

Azagury remembered the princess's eagerness to be creative with dresses and adapt them to her graceful and refined style.

The relationship was grounded in trust, he said.

“She said to me once ‘I always come in because I know I’m going to get exactly what I want’," he said.

"She'd come into the shop and she'd see something and then we would adapt it either by colour or by length. I never sat down and did 100 sketches for her – that’s not the way we worked.

"It was very symbiotic. I knew what she liked and she knew that I would be able to achieve it. Absolute trust."

Their bond is evidenced by the framed set of photos she gave him as a gift him shortly before her death, showing her wearing some of his designs. “Dearest Jacques, lots of love from Diana,” it reads, signed off with a kiss.

The princess gave the picture to her friend the day she left for Paris, which was her final trip.

"It was a bit strange," he said about arriving at work to find Diana's butler waiting with the photos.

"She always used to write me letters and say thank you, but to send a picture, it's almost like a goodbye present.

"It was almost like a premonition. She didn't send me pictures of her wearing the dresses before."

Later, when he received the news that the princess had died, he was in disbelief.

"It was truly shocking and devastating," he said. "I had to be told about four times before it actually sunk in."

More than a quarter of a century after the tragedy that rocked the UK royal family and sent shockwaves around the world, Azagury's memories and bond with Princess Diana still have a place in his life, even as he prepares to retire.

The boutique will close in late September and is having a closing-down sale.

After a beach holiday in Goa, he plans to settle into his new pad in London and while some interior design questions may still be unanswered, the wall furniture is not one of them.

The triptych of gold-framed photos Diana gave him, including the personal message, will be afforded a prime spot.

"When I'm moving to my new apartment it will have pride of place," he said.

"It was such a personal thing I would never get rid of it."

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Updated: September 11, 2023, 1:19 PM