Cloak and Dagger of the High Fashion World (Nov, 1959)
Cloak and Dagger of the High Fashion World
Here’s how glamor spies resort to complicated tricks to break through the ‘gilded iron curtain’ of the Paris couturiers… and how the ‘Mata Haris of High Fashion’ steal those precious secrets…
BY HENRI LECLAIR
If you think that international spies only hanker for juicy military secrets and the topmost confidences of diplomats, you are, of course, wrong. Espionage is actually hottest in relatively safer fields, where the secret agent, when caught, doesn’t face the prospect of the gallows and firing squads.
Innumerable spies are at large in the world today, snooping out people’s secrets under false flags. They spy on car makers, trying to outsmart one another with new designs and ingenious new gadgets. They are crawling for the scents of exclusive perfumers. Spies, spies, spies everywhere, seeking the ironclad secrets of big business and industry, including what the French call haut couture, the chichiest, most expensive, and — they hope — most exclusive of the big Parisian houses of high fashion and fad.
Unknown to most of us, the big business of coats-and-suits has its own exciting cloak-and-dagger sideshow. The big business of dressmaking simply swarms with leeches and para- sites, secret agents and bold counterfeiters. They make many a dishonest buck with other people’s dainty frills and thrills. The cloak-and-dagger influx of the fashion spies is hottest in hush-hush Parisian high fashion houses.
You are there — at the first showing of that exciting summer collection — behind locked doors — by special invitation — screened and trailed and guarded — for these top secrets you’re about to see — shown for the first time exclusively to a select few of the chosen clients ….
My lady has teased and tickled her solvent spouse until he melted at last and dished out two grand for the elaborate frock straight from Rue de la Paix in the heart of the great Parisian Fashion Belt. She expects to wear it at the next big charity shindig in the Waldorf and drive all her society friends and foes into convulsions of envy.
But when she makes her smartly delayed triumphant entry into the glittering ballroom, so dazzingly gowned to be frowned at with ahs and ohs, it’s she who turns sea-weed green with jealousy and frustration and anger. Wearing the identical gown (and probably wearing it even better), down to its last tricky plise on the lush brocade skirt, is her rival — a woman at that who could never afford such a dazzling creation at first hand.
Something precious and rare madam was supposed to possess alone in the whole wide world, a dream dress designed for her by one of the world’s most fashionable (and expensive) couturiers — is not the only one in the whole wide world! How did her rival acquire that identical second of an incomparable first? Certainly not directly from the designer! Such a double-cross would be inconceivable in the inner sanctums of high fashion! No self-respecting designer would survive such high treason!
The green-eyed rival who outshines her on the floor in that brazen replica of the unquestioned original is a glorified receiver of stolen goods. The design of the original dress was stolen by a sly spy who sneaked the secret to another, unscrupulous dressmaker from whom the rival had bought the gown, on the world’s most stylish black market, at a cut-rate price.
“THE LADY’S FRIEND”
It’s Paris in April. It may be cold outside, but it’s mighty hot in those gilded rooms off Champs-Elysee where the models are locked in their dressing rooms, awaiting the assignment of the new dresses to parade them before excited females and buyers from overseas, similarly locked in. The models are known for their discretion, or else they would be blacklisted and starve. The guests are known personally to the management, and if they are not exactly sworn to secrecy, they are expected to keep these pending secrets under their hats or risk blackballing that would mean professional or social suicide for most of them.
The scene may be anywhere in Paree where high fashion rules supreme — at Dior’s or Balenciaga’s, at Jacques Path’s or Patou’s it’s the same everywhere. The air is tense with electricity for it’s a privilege to be privy to all these quaint secrets and it’s always possible that a secret agent is in the exquisite audience.
Because the stakes are so high (a good fashion spy may rake up a fortune in a single season) and because the security precautions are so elaborate, the spy must resort to complicated tricks to break through this gilded iron curtain. He’s a pirate pure and simple, but his piracy has chic and style, for these are the best-dressed pirates in the world, with no black patch on their inquisitive eyes.
The simplest tricks is also best known to the big houses, but it’s the most difficult to combat. An accredited society lady attends the show, with proper credentials. She arrives with the numbered, embossed invitation in her gloved hand, made out to her name and carrying the stamped envelope in which it arrived. She’s checked and double-checked at the door. She must then wait until the saleslady who knows her personally identifies her and checks her in. There is no doubt in anybody’s mind that she is perfectly on the level. But she isn’t. She came with a dear friend of hers, not known to the house but vouched for by the lady — her best friend, she says, who’ll advise her on what to buy.
The friend is a spy! She bribed the lady to front for her, to smuggle her into this Tibet of high fashion, and now she is in. She sits in the. audience and watches the big parade of the glistening gowns. She seems to be interested, but not too much. And she certainly does nothing that would betray her purpose in being here. Her work begins only when the show ends. She advises her friend to make her choice among three or four gowns. The two retire to a fitting room where the chosen gowns are represented by models in close proximity to the two women.
The friend watches the fitting and notes with her mind’s eye every detail of the dresses. Afterwards, she rushes to her studio and sketches the top secret dresses from memory. Or she may be a dressmaker herself, working at her trade surreptitiously for a small coterie of inside clients, turning out the identical dresses at sharply cut rates.
The other favorite trick is known as that of “The Hesitant Client,” the well-heeled pain in the neck who can never make up her mind. Ninety-nine out of a hundred of these vacillators are strictly on the level — those feminine Hamlets who can never decide whether this or that dress is to be or not to be. But the hundredth is a cheat, and this is how she operates the trick.
She will go to the show on excellent credentials and pass even the closest scrutiny. She is excited and exhuberant, full of flattery and apparently of dough. Three dresses in particular struck her fancy, but, dear me, she cannot make up her mind. She wants to show them to her husband and let him pick what he likes best. Being a good customer and so trustworthy all around, the house agrees to send the three dresses to her home on approval. Next day she calls the house. She buys the one her husband chose, would they please pick up the other two? It goes without saying that she had them copied in the meantime.
This trick isn’t practiced by professional fashion spies as much as by those smart society ladies who try to be even smarter. They can afford the price of only a single original creation but would like to have several. They buy the one from the creator and have the other two made up by a clandestine little dressmaker on the pattern of the ones sent her on approval.
Among the spies who infest the big fashion houses are representatives of competitive designers who do not come to steal but merely to see what the rival house has up its sleeves. Behind the hottest espionage battle in the field is the ruthless rivalry of the French and Italian houses. For decades, the French had a hegemony in the field, but considerable inroads were made in recent years by Italian newcomers to this lucrative fleshpot.
Starting from scratch only a decade ago, the Italian designers entered into an unholy alliance with Paris’ most nimble-fingered fashion pirates to steal for them basic ideas on which they could then start their own collections.
The Franco-Italian rivalry brought a boom to high fashion espionage. In a single case that could be broken only after long and painstaking investigation, a gang of sixteen pirates could be unmasked as working behind those locked doors in Paris for Italian clients. All of them were mundane and sophisticated people, the kind of suave spies you see in Hollywood thrillers, without the sinister background of their shadowy underworld. They move freely and easily in the parquets of the best drawing rooms behind a false front of soignee elegance. Nine members of the gang were exquisite women, dazzlingly dressed, apparently owners of fat bank accounts, well able to afford the prices of Dior or Balmain or Schiaparelli. Behind them stood seven cunning men, the actual operators of the organized racket. The women worked for them, and their bank accounts reflected merely the wealth and investment that goes into the financing of this piracy.
The gang was exceptionally successful. Before it was blown up and dragged into court, its members copied hundreds or thousands of originals from twenty of France’s top fashion houses. Such a monster attack on the secrets of Parisian haute couture is rare if only because it has in it the very seed of eventual betrayal, for no gang can operate in safety for long when it consists of so many members. Utmost discretion is a prime condition for the success of the fashion spy. But with so many in on the game, leaks may occur and usually do, and even a false step on the part of a single member will quickly lead to the exposal of the whole gang.
“THE LONE WOLF”
Knowing this full well, and experienced at the game, the fashion spies prefer to operate singly and individually, pulling off their transactions alone and catering to individual employers. How does a lone wolf among the high fashion spies actually operate?
On the basis of exclusive investigations inside the secret world of fashion espionage, TOP SECRET can describe for the first time some of the methods of these agents. The spy may operate directly on the spot, worming his way into the house under false flags; or he may operate by remote control, like a military spy watching a maneuver from a distance. Fashion spies are sup- posed to deliver the goods, produce a faithful sketch, not merely describe the dress they have seen. Consequently they have to copy the design while it’s being shown or immediately afterwards when it’s still fresh in their memory.
Innumerable sly tricks were used to accomplish both. A man entered a showing with perfect credentials. He was an elegant old gent, supposedly a retired general who’d lost his right arm in World War I. In actual fact he was a spy, one of the shrewdest of the lot. Far from having lost his good arm, it was right there under his jacket, working feverishly through the show, sketching models as they came.
Anyone making such sketches, no matter how stealthily and surreptitiously, during the show is likely to be spotted, discreetly accosted and asked to show the “notes” she or he has made. But few are the dexterous fashion spies who can get away with sketching during a show. The closest such an intrepid spy could get to the models was by establishing himself in an apartment across the street from the house where the show was held, setting up high-powered binoculars on a firm tripod, focusing it on the show and sketching the models as they appeared. He was unmasked, and now the big houses either heavily curtain the windows of the big rooms where the show takes place or make certain that no unauthorized person is settled in any of the apartments across the street.
Another fashion spy refused to await the shows to get his sketches on paper. He aligned himself with a pretty model who inched her way into the confidence of a prominent house. At first working but occasionally, she became a permanent fixture in due course. During fittings in a certain room, she would moodily wander close to a certain window which was left open during the summer months, thus exposing the dress she was fitting to her accomplice who was sitting in a room across the street with binoculars, making sketches of the dress thus displayed in what was truly a one-man show.
Few fashion spies now depend on the old method of sketching and use instead the favorite system of all spies: miniature photography with hidden cameras. The same little machines which the world’s most notorious (and successful) spies had used to copy military or diplomatic secrets are also employed in this game. The little camera may be concealed in innumerable places. A pretty young woman came to a big fashion show with a stylish hat which had an abundance of artificial flowers for its decoration — and the camera was right there in that deceptive floral arrangement. A handsome young fashion spy found out from insiders planted in the house that on a certain day, the new models would be photographed in the Place de la Concorde. Great precautions were taken to keep all unauthorized persons away from the spot, but nobody paid any attention to the young man, apparently looking at the Tuileries through a pair of binoculars. In actual fact, the spy-glass had another window at the side, with a tiny camera hidden inside. While he seemed to be looking straight forward, he was taking pictures of the models as they were being photographed to his left.
Cameras were found built into the handbags of impeccable ladies and one strapped to a man’s leg, operated by the ingenious device of a release which led up to the pocket of his pants. A camera was concealed in a wristwatch, and another peeped at the show through the buttonhole of a suave spy’s lapel. The collection of a single Parisian house today contains several dozen such miniature cameras, all confiscated from fallen spies who entered the shows with honest faces but under false pretenses.
The fashion spy may be operating singly, but the stolen secrets are handled by elaborate organizations whose activities threaten the big houses in their very foundations. Espionage is but the first step to success in fashion piracy — the stolen design must be developed either into sketches or more frequently into models like the one from which it is copied. These Parisian copycats operate throbbing houses of their own and frequently overflow as far as the Riviera. In one such house raided by the police, there were found all the intricate tricks that all the big spy rings will use. From the outside the house betrayed nothing of its purpose and true enough, the counterfeiting of the stolen designs was going on in parts of the house to which it seemed the front office didn’t even have any entrance. When the police examined a grandfather clock in the manager’s office, it was found that it concealed the actual entrance to the secret room where the pilfered patterns were stored and where nimble hands were busy making up the counterfeit dresses from the stolen originals.
Faced with such a brash attack on their secrets, the big Parisian fashion houses banded together and organized their own defense. By now, these defensive forces and means are more elaborate than those of the attack. The organization under which they operate is called Chambre Syndicate de la Haute Couture Francaise, a sort of chamber of commerce of high fashion. Headed by the director of the House of Patou, the Chambre has its own police force and counter-espionage agency, to prevent the stealing and counterfeiting, not only of the original designs, but also of the patterns and accessories.
The first line of defense is a tight-lipped secrecy — as far as possible, even the dates of the showings are kept secret from the public at large, so as not to alert the actual and potential fashion spies. All insiders are carefully screened because it was found that some of the biggest piracy cases were pulled by insiders — prominent society ladies among members of the audience, or mannequins and so-called premiere maids, supervisors of the workrooms, among the employees.
The identity of the industry’s own secret agents is kept a secret and frequently it will happen that a man suspected of being an aggressive fashion spy is in reality a counter-spy of the industry setting a trap for an hostile agent.
Long in advance of a showing, before the finished products are unveiled before the invited representatives of the public, the collections are shown to the industry’s counter-spies. These highly-trained men and women then register in their minds the sacrosanct designs and accessories, to enable them to trace them to department stores, show-windows, and even private closets where their counterfeits may eventually turn up. From there, they work their way back and usually land the culprit behind the pilferage.
In general, the haute couture of France has loyal friends and employees and it is a special fifth column that conducts this campaign on its secrecies. The vast majority of the fashion spies are not even French — they come from Eastern Europe and South America and work for foreign clients. It’s impossible to assess in exact terms the damage this ruthless espionage is causing to this exquisite trade in beauty and elegance, but it easily runs into the millions.