La Mode

The Drakenstein Heemkring has a fascinating collection of taped interviews, and it was while I was listening to the all but forgotten Tape No.42 in the Heemkring’s archives that I discovered that a really famous couturier lived in Paarl in the early 1900s.

Paarl’s “Christian Dior” was of course Braam (Abraham Lochner) de Villiers of La Mode on the corner of Main and Hout Streets.

The tape records a conversation between WA de Klerk and Marguerite de Villiers and her recollections provide a lively peak into Paarl before World War II.

Braam de Villiers was born in the 1870s and was the eldest of six children and the head of the family after their parent’s early death. Braam showed his flair for fashion and design from an early age, and by the turn of the century he travelled regularly to New York, Rome and Paris to view the latest fashions.

Back home, his sisters Kitty and Gerty – then in their late teens – provided ideal models to show off his gowns. Fashion conscious women thought nothing of driving from Cape Town to Paarl for an appointment with Braam de Villiers. In Paarl women were equally enthralled by his gowns and anyone who had aspirations to be noticed and seen, wore his creations. And as everybody went to church on Sundays, the morning service provided a ideal opportunity to show off the latest La Mode creations.

In the interview, his niece Marguerite de Villiers recalls that on Sunday mornings her uncle would dress up his two sisters – beautiful gowns with matching hats – and then set off to church in his limousine driven by Floris the chauffeur. Then, with perfect timing they would wait until everybody was seated before making an entrance.

In those days people had their own pews in church, and Braam’s pew was in the third row from the front, right under the pulpit. Little wonder then that Braam and his sisters’ progress down the aisle would be followed by urgent whispers of “what are the La Modes wearing, what are the La Modes wearing”. After the service the gowns, style of the hat or the choice of material would be discussed in great detail.

When the two girls finished their schooling at La Rochelle, he took them on a Grand Tour of Europe to finish off their education.

Marguerite de Villiers recalls that while they were on this Grand Tour, Braam met his future wife Clara Hussey, an American heiress from Pittsburgh. The couple were married in Pittsburgh in 1911. On the return journey Kitty met another wealthy American businessman, Henry Schwab, and they were married the following year.

In 1913 Braam and Clara bought the farm Klein Constantia and moved to Cape Town.  They restored the farm and threw lavish parties. For the young Marguerite it was a magical period  of candle lit dinners, silver and fashionable people. For the children Braam and Clara organised “goblin parties’ during which Floris had to dress up as a goblin.

Visits to Paarl became less frequent, but were still marked by more parties and an endless stream of visitors.

Braam de Villiers died in 1930. A memorial service was held at Klein Constantia, followed by another service in Paarl. Hundreds crowded the Toringkerk to pay their last respects to one of Paarl’s great personalities.

[The article was written by Marguerite Lombard and appeared in the Paarl Post, 4 July 2008]