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The Collectors: Meet the Three Women Taking Their Love of Extraordinary Pieces to New Heights

Time Traveler
Saudi designer Layla Moussa grounds her vast collection as a marker for the future

 Layla Moussa In Vintage Romeo Gigli

Layla Moussa in vintage Romeo Gigli. Photo: Majid Angawi

“I started collecting at an early age,” says Saudi textile connoisseur and designer Layla Moussa, whose recent purchases include a canoe, a carriage now sitting in her Beirut apartment, and an Indian marble garden room. “I’ve always loved clothes, vintage and new.” In her typically self-deprecating humor, she adds laughingly, “But I gave that up when I realized I became vintage myself and both the garments and my face looked as tired as each other!” Moussa is the epitome of elegance. Her white hair is styled in a chic crop and her hawk-like eyes are as piercing as her wit. She fills her spaces across London, Beirut, and Jeddah with pieces from contemporary brands like Prada that she hopes will serve as interest for the future. “These are pieces that I feel will be relevant and worth keeping,” she nods. They include everything from shoes to sunglasses, or “a garment, knowing that it does not look good on me and I won’t wear it, but it will be a good vintage piece, which my granddaughters will enjoy using one day – hopefully.”

An early 20th century Spanish suit

The call to collect exceptional craft, often associated with vintage design, continues to beckon. Pieces from American costume jeweler Miriam Haskell, Har, Coppola e Toppo, Chand, and Schiaparelli, and bags from Judith Leiber appeal to her discerning eye. A self-proclaimed “textile addict,” Moussa collects 17th, 18th, and 19th-century textiles, and says the best way to care for fabric – whether clothing or antiques – is to wrap it in acid-free paper, which she purchases in London.

Layla Moussa

A 19th Century hand-embroidered Chinese shawl from the private collection of Mariano Fortuny

While her textiles are bought from auction, vintage clothes are scoured from dealers and via word-of-mouth. “Connections are everything,” she says. When an item is purchased, it enters her collection for the long haul. “I don’t sell my clothes, but I do sometimes give some away to women or girls who I love.” She considers that “everything changes with age” – including her taste in interiors and clothing. “I find that, with clothes, you evolve more with age, but with furniture, you can sometimes change drastically – what you didn’t like as a young woman, you might find yourself loving at a later stage in your life.” And yet, what comes next remains a mystery. “I have no idea what I will acquire. It is always a surprise that comes my way. Who knows what’s next.”

Beyond the Mold
Michelle Elie has spent the better part of the last two decades in Comme des Garçons. Now, an exhibition is set to showcase her collection.

Michelle Elie

Michelle Elie. Photo: Carlotta Maniago

Michelle Elie is a fashion aficionado who has elevated the concept of collecting to dizzying new heights. The American-Haitian jewelry designer and former model walks the walk and talks the talk when it comes to her profound love of the work created by one of fashion’s most avant-garde designers, Rei Kawakubo. “When I first discovered Comme des Garçons, I found it so intriguing. I loved how architectural Rei’s designs were and how they challenged people’s perceptions in regards to what is considered beautiful. They spoke to me on a profound level,” says Elie. For decades, Elie has not only collected but regularly worn some of the most envelope-pushing pieces Kawakubo has ever created for her line. Not surprisingly, she is an evergreen favorite of street style photographers outside fashion shows – while inside the venues, guests seated next to Elie are often in for an experience as they try to coexist with her often voluminous, three-dimensional Kawakubo designs. “The smart PRs know to always put me at the end of a row,” says Elie with a laugh.

Courtesy of Michelle Elie

For Elie, being dressed in Comme des Garçons isn’t about attracting the attention of others; wearing the clothing is a personal statement. “There are pieces that help me, because they are so exaggerated or deform the body. When I was a model I was always fighting against my natural shape, trying to reduce it – I have a bum, I have hips – but Rei’s pieces, because they distort the body, they make me feel at peace with my own body,” recounts Elie.

 Michelle Elie

Courtesy of Michelle Elie

Die-hard Comme des Garçons fans are in luck because Elie has finally decided to open her closet doors for all the world to see. On April 2, the Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, Michelle Elie Wears Comme des Garçons exhibit will open at the Museum Angewandte Kunst in Frankfurt. There, 50 pieces from the more than 70 Comme des Garçons garments Elie has collected over 25 years will be on display. “I hope this exhibit will help change people’s perspective about clothes. I want them to see how Rei is able to give a different approach to clothing; to challenge them so that they can see fashion with new eyes.”

Ice Queen
Emirati Ghada Sawalmah, CEO of Gargash Hospital in Dubai, has an eye for all that sparkles

Ghada Sawalmah

Ghada Sawalmah wearing pieces from her Bulgari collection. Photo: Ankita Chandra

Gazing down at a 16.9 carat canary yellow diamond solitaire – a gift from her mother for her 25th birthday – Ghada Sawalmah recalls how her love of fine jewelry started thanks to her grandmother. “I would go with her to the gold souk on Thursdays and she would teach me the difference between stones and cuts, even when I was a child,” recalls Sawalmah. “She would offer to buy me bangles but I always wanted the ice,” she says with a laugh.

The top tray showcases a selection of Bulgari jewels, while the bottom tray houses Van Cleef & Arpels pieces. Photo: Ankita Chandra

The CEO of Gargash Hospital in Dubai considers jewelry to be portable art. “You can have a canvas at home and bring people around to see it, while jewelry is something you can take around with you. It’s more fun.” When making an investment, Sawalmah always goes with her gut – whether eschewing a typical beige palette to design the family-owned hospital (founded and chaired by her mother, Dr Husnia Gargash) to look like a yacht with nautical hues, or not spending more than three hours choosing a gemstone. “If it’s something we have to think about for longer than a day, we won’t buy it, because it means that we don’t love it.”

Ghada Sawalmah

Ghada Sawalmah wears a Bulgari watch and custom Damiani ring, with a privately sourced aquamarine.

Sawalmah is invited to all the high jewelry houses’ exclusive presentations – Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels – but has a soft spot for Bulgari. “My yellow diamond is from Bulgari,” she offers, as is her Serpenti high jewelry necklace. “We were looking at the Serpentis, but all the faces seemed to appear the same. Then, we came across this one, and it happened to be the largest Serpenti ever made. It was the one.” She has worn it coiled like a choker, as a sautoir, in her hair, around her arm, and even her waist. “It’s such a fun piece to play with – like a snake.”

A Bulgari ring.

As for her pending nuptials, she will wear a Bulgari tiara already tucked away in the family safe, along with a Van Cleef & Arpels necklace featuring the Socrates flower. “No one in the family has worn it yet,” she says. “There are only two in the world.” When it comes to receiving jewelry, does she like to be surprised? “Absolutely,” she confirms. “And it’s not always about price. Sometimes you can have an expensive piece but it looks like it’s wearing you.” She points to a pair of chandelier earrings with delicate dangling pearls. “These belonged to my great-grandmother, and are very special.”

Originally published in the March 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia

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