Rocio Zobel At The Le Bal des Débutantes 2019
A glamorous night of couture gowns, custom jewellery, dashing cavaliers, and endless dancing—many a young lady must have imagined herself in such a scenario at least once. Fairy tale princesses, whose happily ever afters play out in such enviable ways, have given an even more aspirational turn to the concept of a ball. Though such grand events take place in the real world, they are extremely exclusive, with very few deemed eligible for an invitation. The debutante ball—whether we are speaking of the International Debutante Ball, the Queen Charlotte’s Ball, or Le Bal des Débutantes—is one such occasion. Since 1992, French PR maven Ophélie Renouard has been the driving force of Le Bal des Débutantes—or Le Bal, as it is more famously known—the most high-profile debutante ball in the world. It is an annual by-invite-only couture event that brings together promising young ladies, aged 16 to 22, from different countries and presents them to society. Once called the Crillon Ball, it was held at the Hôtel de Crillon until 2012, as the hotel had closed for extensive renovations the year after. The Hôtel Raphael, Palais de Chaillot, and The Peninsula Paris served as alternate venues in the succeeding years. In 2018, le Bal found its new home at the Shangri-La Hotel, Paris, one of the most stunning properties owned by the Shangri-La Group.
The debutantes are usually daughters of royals, aristocrats, political figures, business tycoons, and celebrities. Some notable debs are Ava Philippe, daughter of Hollywood personalities Ryan Philippe and Reese Witherspoon; countesses Sara von Faber-Castell and Victoria von Faber-Castell, twin sisters and members of the family behind the famous pen and pencil empire; Autumn Whitaker and True Whitaker, daughters of the esteemed actor Forest Whitaker; and Kyra Kennedy, a model, socialite, and daughter of Robert F Kennedy Jnr. The Philippines has been regularly represented as well, having on its roster Monica Urquijo Zobel, Paloma Urquijo Zobel, Emily Madrigal, Monica Concepcion, Kayla Uytengsu, and Natalia Zobel, among others in preceding balls.
Following in older sister Natalia’s footsteps is Rocio Mercedes Zobel, the youngest daughter of Iñigo and Maricris Zobel. Passionate about theatre production and dancing, Rocio took up summer classes at Alvin Ailey in New York City, where she studied classical ballet. At present, she is focused on fashion, design, staging, and photography. Currently studying in England, she hopes to go to America to further her studies in the arts and design.
“I was extremely excited to have been invited, as I had gone before to support my sister Natalia when I was much younger,” shared the spirited 17-year-old. “Though I had a bit of an idea of what was going to happen, it is very different when you yourself are a debutante—there was a lot more to digest than I expected. I spoke to my sister at length about it, and we were happy to be able to bond over such a unique experience.”
The planning and preparation period for the ball is an extensive process, which, for the debutantes, involves meetings with the organisers, designers, jewellers, dance instructors, as well as their families and cavaliers. “When I first encountered her [Ophélie Renouard], I thought she looked like a French version of Anna Wintour! She was so kind and helpful, and always had an answer to any question I would ask,” recalls Rocio of meeting le Bal’s prime mover.
She was, of course, most excited about her gown, custom-made by Dutch designer Jan Taminiau, who is already familiar with the Zobels. Rocio is extremely grateful for Taminiau’s team, who accommodated all her requests and alteration needs. Her fittings were done in Madrid, with the team flying out from Amsterdam. “I asked for the top of the dress to be changed, so they had to do some reworking and tweaking,” said the young deb. “Jan was so easy to work with, and I had so much fun! It was so worth it though, and it felt amazing to see what I had envisioned—and in my favourite colour, too—materialise in real life.” The end result was a beautiful piece that fit her perfectly, with a strapless top embroidered with layers of beaded tulle that cascaded down to a skirt made of silk organza. Taminiau himself described it as “a nude cloud of frou frou.”
On the day of the ball (“Which was surprisingly the calmest, what with all the preparations finally in place!” she shared), Rocio did a few interviews and a final rehearsal for the walk before being whisked off to early hair and make-up sessions with Alexandre de Paris and By Terry, respectively. All debs then donned their gowns, shoes, and jewellery—sponsored by Harakh—for the individual and group photoshoots. Joining Rocio this year were Jane Li, daughter of Chinese action star Jet Li; Shanaya Kapoor, daughter of Bollywood actor Sanjay Kapoor; and Araminta Mellon, daughter of Jimmy Choo co-founder Tamara Mellon; among others. She became good friends with many of the girls, growing closest to Kayla Rockefeller, the great-granddaughter of former US Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, and twin sisters Cristina Iglesias and Victoria Iglesias, daughters of Spanish singer-songwriter Julio Iglesias. She looks forward to seeing the twins when she flies off to Spain and hopes to be in New York with them next year.
She also had strong support from home through her parents, Iñigo and Maricris, and her cavalier, boyfriend Marty Romualdez. “I was so nervous—especially for the walk—so I was glad I got to go with Marty, who I am comfortable with because we have been together for some time,” Rocio says. “I also had a wonderful time with my parents, who were there for me every step of the way. Doing the waltz with my dad was a great experience! I had never danced the waltz before, but since I used to dance and my dad is also a really good dancer, it came easy for us.” After the affair wrapped up, the ladies hung up their gowns and returned their jewels, commemorating the special occasion with a fun night out.
Having been involved in projects in the Philippines related to assisting disadvantaged children and addressing marine conservation concerns, Rocio appreciates the philanthropic side of Le Bal. For the longest time, the ball has been raising money for two charities: the Seleni Institute, which supports teen mothers’ reproductive health and mental well-being, and Enfants d’Asie, which helps pave the way for disadvantaged children in Southeast Asia to have a better future. “The Enfants d’Asie initiative, specifically, support a cause close to my heart and is centred in a region that I am from,” she shared. “Having the opportunity to give back on its own is already so rewarding as I am so blessed, but being able to do so where I grew up makes it all the more special.”
As a bit of advice to the debutantes that will come after, Rocio says, “Be grateful for the opportunity; it is such a rare one. Even though you are doing so much and are preparing so extensively, don’t forget to enjoy each and every moment because time just flies by when you’re there! Also, do try and connect with the people; I loved getting to meet all the girls and look forward to creating even more memories with them.”
This feature story originally titled as Small's World was published in the March 2020 issue of Tatler Philippines. Download it via Zinio, Magzter, or Pressreader.
- Photography Tim Griffiths
- Art Direction Anton San Diego
- Location Shangri-La Hotel, Paris