Asma Assad’s modern style led people to think she was not a typical dictator’s wife. How wrong they were
Can Louboutins be recycled? And if so, via which bin? Not long ago, of course, any charity shop would have fallen upon them. But what woman, however desperate for chic, would now want to advertise, along with Louboutin’s ever more vulgar red soles, a shared, “as worn by” aesthetic with Asma al-Assad, wife of the Syrian opthamologist-turned-assassin? The leaked emails detailing Mrs Assad’s recent online shopping have reaffirmed, indelibly, the close style affinity between Christian Louboutin and Mrs Assad, whose many on-trend accessories have long been associated, by those in the know, with a vibrant, modern political message of some description. Basically: how could someone this fash forward ever be mean? It’s as if Wallis Simpson never happened.
Even before Vogue‘s Joan Juliet Buck, in her unforgettable 2011 tribute to Asma, the “freshest and most magnetic of first ladies”, discerned the philanthropic intent underpinning Asma’s embellished heels, the Huff Post also detected something impressive in “her love for Christian Louboutin platforms”. Paris Match called her a “ray of light in a country full of shadows” and, when reminded of Bashar al-Assad’s brutality, Nicholas Sarkozy protested, with the authority of a lifetime steeped in bling: “With a wife as modern as his, he can’t be completely bad”. Asma’s only rival, in on-trend politics, has been fellow autocrat’s wife Queen Rania of Jordan, of whom her friend Wendi Murdoch said, in another Vogue profile: “She’s modern; she thinks being queen is a job”. But that much could have been guessed, surely, from her shoes.
For the brands favoured by the dictators’ wives, the bonuses – until recently – went beyond regular name-checks. While Mrs Assad hinted at a democratic passion simply by wearing the same platforms as Victoria Beckham, Angelina Jolie and Carla Bruni, Mr Louboutin responded with sympathy for Syrian materials and culture. Asma was spotted with “a Syrian silk Louboutin tote”. Louboutin went one better with a Syrian house, in Aleppo. “Darling,” he told a US interviewer, “I am totally broke, but it was love at first sight”.
Happily for Mr Louboutin’s post-Arab Spring weekend breaks, the town is reported to be so loyal to the Assads that rebels in Damascus have reportedly held up signs reading: “Aleppo wouldn’t rise even if it took Viagra.”
But how helpful to Louboutin, outside Aleppo, is continuing endorsement by the Syrian ray of light also known (by the Sun) as “Sexy Brit bringing Syria in from cold“? Her loyalty at a time of national crisis cannot be faulted. One notable email, dated early February, around the time her family’s home town of Homs was being smashed to pieces, finds Mrs Assad still determined to share her love for some all-crystal Louboutin heels for £3,795.
“Does anything catch your eye?” she emails a friend, adding: “these pieces are not made for the general public.” Her correspondent – maybe more pragmatic, maybe slower on six-inch heels – says she loves them but no, thank you: “They’re not going 2 b useful any time soon unfortunately”.
Though it’s possible Louboutin executives are celebrating this uncovenanted global publicity, so recent that the relevant trotters must still be in stock, it is easier to imagine them scouring the literature on brand damage limitation for appropriate strategies when a luxe name becomes aspirational only to would-be torturers.
What did Burberry do, way back, after its hideous checks were appropriated by proletarians? But that level of brand nuisance is probably as instructive to Louboutin as Abercrombie & Fitch's offer of a cash bribe to the makers of the reality TV show Jersey Shore, whose cast have been draped in their shirts, to stop "distressing" A&F core customers – who are commonly, to judge from my part of north London, aged between 11 and 16, and dividing their time between school and the nearest off-licence.
Mercifully for most of the named suppliers to Assad HQ, their speciality is what How to Spend It (a magazine aimed at people Goldman Sachs has identified as “muppets”) would celebrate as “under the radar” or, better still, “bespoke”. Something bespoke is, necessarily, unaffordable by most non-muppets, and, at the same time, capable of being made yet more exclusive via the introduction of more exotic materials, eg beaten gold, refinements that may also be portrayed as creative. Minus her assocations with bloodshed, torture, and tyranny, Asma is patently its ideal reader. So much so that her name was dropped, by way of a powerful muppet attraction, in a recent How To Spend It piece about “a niche brand” and “insider’s choice” jeweller she had patronised: “Syria’s first lady has been snapped wearing its Sabbia earrings,” breathed the author.
Maybe, inhabiting this world, Asma commissioned her console table, a classic of shiny bespokeness, after reading about insider’s choice, Adam Williams, in last October’s How to Spend It. “Most people choose patinated bronze,” Williams said, “although gold leaf is also popular.”
And that seems to be just about all Mrs Assad has in common with the familiar, dictator’s style codified by Peter York in his 2005 classic about 16 despots’ interiors, “each with their own uniquely frightful chic”. What may have confused Vogue, Sarkozy and a host of Asma’s admirers into thinking her a reformer is her defiance of York’s thesis, to the effect that dictators have comically bad taste, which they share with “everyday rich folk in petro-dollar world”. Helpfully – if How to Spend It does not routinely prove the point – her shopping lists indicate that evil does not, invariably, announce itself in quantities of marble, chandeliers and animal print, in a dictator’s fat, gold-smeared bergère and his fat, matching wife.
Equally – the Assads’ emails astonishingly confirm – fash-forwardness and style do not invariably attest to sincere, progressive values. If they did, the stylish Mrs Cameron, the patron saint of minimalist kitchens, would support a mansion tax, and Anna Wintour, chicest of them all, would be crushing the right, instead of using her magazine to sanitise a tyrant by depicting his wife as a reformer. Admittedly, to judge by last week’s obsession with the great premiers’ wives’ fash-off, Vogue‘s faith in designer dresses, belts and shoes as crucial signifiers of inner worth is already widely shared. Mrs Cameron’s pink top was taken, for instance, to be a triumph of tactful diplomacy, while her black mac was declared creditably iconic, if a little black.
Appearing – in Chanel – at last-week’s White House banquet, Wintour also upheld fashion’s values, consigning the al-Assad embarrassment to history, along with Vogue‘s equally incautious outburst of admiration for another allegedly modernising beauty, Queen Rania of Jordan: “Whether at a UN delegation or on YouTube, Queen Rania’s persuasive style is changing attitudes,” Vogue announced. She definitely changed a few last year when, following a spectacular party for 600 in which the number 40 was projected on to rocky outcrops, Bedouin tribesmen accused her of corruption and extravagance.
Mercifully for the Louboutin brand when it reaches the desert, they probably have no idea where she buys her shoes.
from Catherine Bennett