Queen of couture: meet Mouna Ayoub, the Cinderella who became world's biggest couture buyer

The Associated Press

Mounay Ayoub, the world’s biggest haute couture collector and billionaire divorcee, answers the Associated Press in Gennevilliers, outside Paris, Wednesday, Feb.5, 2014. The 56-year-old queen of couture can these days be found away from her Monaco home at a decidedly unglamorous warehouse in the suburb of Gennevilliers, where she’s paring down her assets _ if only slightly _ by auctioning off the contents of her old boat, the Phocea, that was until 2004 the largest sailing yacht in the world. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

Associated Press + More

By THOMAS ADAMSON, AP Fashion Writer

GENNEVILLIERS, France (AP) — She emerges Venus-like out of a mist of hairspray with tousled hair, a shimmering 50,000-euro Chanel jacket and a 1,000-watt smile.

"Hello daarling," says Mouna Ayoub huskily with the warm familiarity of old friends (even though we've met only once before) — walking around a decor of gigantic silver oyster shells and blue glass buoys to kiss me.

The billionaire divorcee's claim to fame: owning the world's largest collection of haute couture — a 1,600-piece wardrobe in which each gown costs between 50,000 and 290,000 euros ($70,000-$400,000). She never wears the same dress twice, and sometimes never at all.

The couture diva may hide it well, but she's stressed today.

She's working hard to prepare an auction of the sparkling sea-themed contents of her old yacht, the Phocea, and has ditched her nicotine patches and gone back to Marlboro Lights.

The Lebanese socialite is perhaps the best-known member of an uber-elite group of superrich women who keep alive haute couture, the 150-year-old Parisian tradition of making astronomically-priced, made-to-measure gowns. She's also perhaps its most eccentric.

Her wardrobe alone may be enough to bankroll a small country. But she still prefers to take a 60-cent coffee from the machine in the auction warehouse in Gennevilliers, near Paris, instead of ordering in.

It's glamour mixed with down-to-earth.

She doesn't even have time for a proper lunch, and offers me one of the egg sandwiches that she produces from a bag with her well-manicured hand sporting fingerless gloves and a huge rose-shaped diamond ring.

Lying around her (and the egg sandwiches) in the warehouse outside Paris are trinkets resembling the cavern of a billionaire Little Mermaid that lined the inside of what was, until 2004, the largest sailing yacht in the world that she refurbished for $17 million.

The 56-year-old has friends in high places. Her good friend King Carlos of Spain was a frequent sleepover visitor on her yacht and fashion designer pal Karl Lagerfeld once stripped her naked for a photo-shoot.

She's also a couture philanthropist. She has just donated what's been described as the most expensive dress ever made to Paris' Musee de la Mode — a gold Chanel traffic-stopper that cost over 300,000 euros ($412,000).

Ayoub's is a living rags-to-riches fairytale. It goes like this: beautiful but impoverished waitress in Paris spotted by a billionaire prince charming who falls in love and sweeps her feet to a life of luxury and glamour.

Ayoub now wears couture every time she has a public engagement before stashing the gown away in a sleepy French village to be preserved forever.

But even this Lebanese Cinderella has moments when reality bites.

Take when her yacht scraped a rock along Corsica's coast in 2002, and she nearly drowned. In a panic, she boarded a lifeboat with the bare essentials: a Jean Paul Gaultier gown to look chic for rescue, and a Louis Vuitton bag with $9.6 million of jewels inside. When the captain throttled up suddenly, the lifeboat capsized — and she was thrown into the chilly waters. Fortunately, she saw her jewel-filled bag floating meters (feet) away.

"I would have gone diving for it at the bottom of the ocean if it had sank, but luckily the bag was made from a new patent leather that floated," she said.

("I took off my gown and swam naked to the bag," she revealed in a post-interview SMS. "I have a feeling I am confessing to a priest.")

For a sense of her fabulous wealth, instead of taking a bank loan to do up the Phocea, she raised the money by selling off a diamond she'd bought, "The Mouna," which just happens be the largest yellow diamond ever graded.

Ayoub first met her fairytale prince when she was a 20-year-old working in a late-night Lebanese restaurant who, in her own words, "had no money at all."