It is 1996 and Jemima Khan calls to ask if you can design a dress for a celebrity whose name she cannot yet disclose. If you are Rizwan Beyg, you get the feeling that you will be creating something for none other than the world’s most famous and most photographed woman: Diana, Princess of Wales.
“I have a guest coming over, a very famous celebrity coming in. I would like you to make something for her,” Beyg told SAMAA Digital in an exclusive interview on Friday. “So being very curious, I said, who is that person? And she said right now it’s not confirmed, so I can’t really, you know, tell you who it is.”
The designer, who had trained as an architect, had launched his label in 1989 but had swiftly become known as one of Pakistan’s top designers, and would have been a natural choice for Mrs Khan. Given his suspicions she would be attending the Shaukat Khanum hospital fundraiser, he started doing his homework. Not only did he have to keep in mind Diana’s style but also royal sensibilities: not too much skin, weighted hems. He discovered, for example, that she loved pearls and off-white.
“Diana was very experimental because she was one of the few people who had broken away from the typical monarchy… of what they used to wear,” said Beyg. “I decided to make her an Achkan, which is basically like a man’s version of sherwani.” He wanted, however, to make it a softer, more feminine version with contemporary craftsmanship.
The western embroidery was done in silk thread in five shades of white, including cream and apple white. Since she was coming to Pakistan and was experimental, he made her a modern version of the shalwar called the ‘trouser shalwar’.
The embroidery took about three and a half weeks and the tailoring just about five days, so the outfit was ready in a month. He was going to have it delivered but Jemima Khan said that he should actually meet her.
“It was like a dream come true because I was actually going to meet one of the hugest celebrities and one of the biggest fashion icons in Pakistan,” he said. “I hadn’t told anybody. It was a big secret because I really didn’t know if it was going to fit her, first of all, [or if] she was actually going to wear it.”
The meeting took place at one of Imran Khan’s friend’s homes. Sitting in the drawing room, with his heart thumping, all Beyg could think of was whether the suit was going to fit her or if she would even wear it.
“Like a dream, Diana walks [in] and she’s sitting there and I’m thinking, this is unreal,” said Beyg. “You know, I’m a designer from a third world country who’s probably never, you know, dreamt of meeting, meeting somebody like Diana. Such a big superstar.”
Of course, he immediately fell in love because she was spectacular. He found her shy, soft-spoken and the epitome of grace and sensitivity. As a designer would, he noted that she was also rather tall, at 5’11 barefoot.
All the doubts were put to rest when Diana said she would wear it but because she had just come after a long 12-hour flight she would prefer to try it after freshening up. And so after about 20 minutes of having tea and chatting, Beyg sought to beg leave because he noticed that she was nearly nodding off. But before saying goodbye he asked if he could make a request. She seemed a little nervous but he pressed ahead to ask if he could have a photograph with her.
She agreed and he rushed outside to get his camera from the car, only to discover he had forgotten it at home.
She picked up on the disappointment when he went back in and suggested he go get his camera while she waited. “This was such a human thing to do you know. She actually extended herself and she said please go and get your camera,” said Beyg. “So I, of course, like a madman rushed into the car, drove all the way back out, picked up my camera came back.”
When he stepped in the drawing room he saw that she had put on the outfit. “You can’t take a picture of me with you without me in your outfit,” she had said to him.
Two days later Beyg saw pictures in the press of Diana wearing his suit at the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital fundraising dinner. The international media carried the ivory ensemble bringing Beyg deep recognition. His suit is still at the memorial where she’s buried in Althorp. “People like Armani and Valentino commented on the dress and said it was beautiful, it was elegant, it was traditional but at the same time, it was modern,” he recalled.
People started to pour into his studio to try to get their hands on a copy. “It was exclusively made for Diana, It would only be for Diana,” he said to them all.
The design was never repeated. It was never replicated. Like Diana, it was unique.
You can watch the full interview here:
With additional reporting by Abeer Mahar for SAMAA Digital.