06/22/2009 11:04 PM | By Polly Vernon
At the very best of times, Monaco is ridiculous. Oh, but now - when the rest of the world languishes in a recession, when everyone who hasn't already lost their job is worried that they might - Monaco seems like a horribly inappropriate joke.
It is the weekend of the Monaco Grand Prix. Monaco is worse, even, than usual, because anyone who is anyone (and loaded) is here at the same time.
Rows and rows of private jets idle on the runway at Nice airport; their occupants are helicoptering the 40 kilometres to Monte Carlo, where they'll join the rest of their parties on the monster boats that bob about in the harbour dwarfing the town and blocking the horizon.
Either that or they'll head for the Hotel Columbus - David Coulthard's venture into hospitality - where they'll stay in £6,000-a-night (Dh36,323) suites.
But the credit crunch has hit Monaco too. Minibars remain unravaged; champagne aperitifs are not quite the thing. Town gossip focuses on whose fortune has shrunk from £3 billion to £2 billion over the course of the past four short months.
That - and how insufferable Jenson Button has become since he hit a winning streak. The thing in Monaco is that the more the super-rich suffer, the flashier they become in an attempt to detract from the truth.
I'm here to meet Petra Ecclestone. She is the youngest daughter of self-made billionaire and Formula One CEO Bernie Ecclestone and his ex-wife-of-three-months, Slavica.
Petra is 21 years old, the heir to a billion-pound fortune; a 1.72 metre Glamazon with legs that end where most people's necks begin, and hair that is bleached Rich Heiress Blonde.
She was born into Formula One royalty - as Ecclestone's daughter, she's practically as revered as Albert of Monaco himself - and clearly she should be horrendous.
Spoilt, overindulged and hopelessly disconnected from the world outside of her moneyed, cosseted existence. But she is not.
Ecclestone is in Monaco, partly for the Grand Prix ("I've been coming every year since I was four, so for me, it's a bit..." She trails off. Boring, I suggest.
"Erm... Well..." She doesn't want to say boring. Normal, then? "Yeah. Yes. Normal."), but mainly because she's got a fashion label to promote.
The Amber Lounge fashion show is a big, bold, Swarovski-studded pre-race fandango, produced by Sonia (sister of Eddie) Irvine.
There's an auction (all funds will go to the Elton John Aids Foundation; David Furnish will preside) and a catwalk show of Petra Ecclestone's menswear label Form, alongside the latest offerings from brands like Elizabeth Hurley Beach.
Form is a super-luxe collection of cashmere separates and low-key tailoring; for the purposes of the runway show it'll be modelled by an assortment of Formula One drivers, among them Jenson Button, who goes on to win the race in two days time, and last year's darling (and winner), Lewis Hamilton.
The F1 drivers were happy to offer their services as a favour to Bernie. Elizabeth Hurley, Arun Nayar, David Walliams, Princess Beatrice and Bernie (naturally) will sit in the front row of the show, alongside Prince Albert himself. Although, Petra will tell me, Albert always leaves halfway through.
She isn't sure why.
I first met Petra Ecclestone at her Knightsbridge studio, two days before both she and I flew to Monaco (I went on EasyJet; Petra on Bernie's private jet). She was being photographed in Form's London headquarters, a big fifth-floor space situated a block or two down Brompton Road from Harrods.
Rails of Form samples, of well-tailored, quietly luxurious suits and shirts and olive-green trench coats, surrounded us; Ecclestone's staff bustled about, usefully.
It was immediately apparent that Petra Ecclestone was not nearly as showy or attention-seeking as you might expect. She was not stupid or loud, patronising or especially demanding.
She was quiet and self-contained to the point of being somewhat distant; closed off, a little aloof. But at one point she laughed, and it was snorting, goofy, unconsidered, and sweet. Later she'll tell me: "I do find myself quite funny."
I meet her again in Monaco. It's the morning of the Amber Lounge event. We're sitting in the lobby bar of Coulthard's Columbus, which is where she's staying.
Ecclestone is drinking tea and wearing a yellow sundress. She burned her shoulders the day before. "I thought I'd be OK, because I already had a little bit of brown," she says.
I'm not sure if this is jet-set parlance or the slightly mixed-up English of the daughter of a Croatian supermodel. "So I didn't put any factor on. But then - I wasn't. Ha ha!"
She's a little twitchy, a little nervy. She says she didn't sleep because she's worried about the show. About what, precisely?
"Everything. That the clothes won't arrive on time, that the drivers will be late. I stress. I'm a control freak. Everything has to be done on time. You have to hit deadlines. I'm a perfectionist. I expect it from everyone who works with me."
Are you a strict boss?
"Yes. Very," she says, and she laughs again, but only because it's true.
Are your staff - there are seven of them in all - are they scared of you? She pauses. "I don't know. Sometimes. I'm nice, but then... I guess they have to know their place."
Ecclestone says she always wanted to be a fashion designer. She's vague about the evolution of her ambition. "It's always been my passion. When I was younger I was always drawing sketches. I loved fashion. I was quite experimental with clothes. I loved making my own clothes and things."
When I ask her why she chose to make menswear rather than the more glamorous, obvious option of womenswear, she ditches the whimsy for something much more business-like and impressive. "Bigger niche," she says brusquely, pragmatically. "Womenswear was too saturated."
She got a place at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design after finishing her A-levels, but decided not to take it up. "I wanted to get on with it."
Her father arranged for her to work with Edward Sexton, the Savile Row tailor who'd made Bernie's suits for 30 years and who once trained up Stella McCartney, so had form in the field of apprenticing celebrity daughters and turning them into fully functioning tailors.
What are the logistics on collaborating with Sexton, I ask. Who does what, exactly?
"My dad contacted him first, and I'd give him my designs and he'd kind of make it into a 3D format, and basically Edward's no longer working for Form."
No? I say, surprised. "No," she says firmly. I look inquiring. She offers no further information. "Basically we have the patterns that he's done and the block patterns don't change. Basically."
Ecclestone will show her second collection for Form at that night's catwalk show. She sold the first collection to Harrods without the involvement of Bernie. She wangled the meeting with the menswear buyer for the department store; she took it alone, she closed the deal.
She was 19 years old at the time. Form went in store in October 2008 and became the third-best-selling label on its floor, outperforming Dior menswear.
This is not shabby, especially when you consider that Form's jumpers sell for something in the region of £420 (Dh2,542) a pop; the coats are £1,800 (Dh10,897) at the very least. (Bernie owns two Form jackets. He went into Harrods, unaccompanied, to purchase them. He did not pay mates' rates.)
So it's started well, I say. What does she want from her company, ultimately?
"I want it to be a worldwide brand. I want global recognition. I want big stand-alone stores across the globe. I want the Form logo, the laurel wreath, to be as recognisable as the Ralph Lauren pony."
Goodness, I say. Is failure an option? "Not really. I don't waste time doubting myself."
So you just assume you won't fail?
She's planning a womenswear equivalent, which will be younger, more affordable, fresher, funkier, she says; it'll hit the shops next autumn. And then?
"I'd like to get into charity work."
- Guardian News & Media Ltd, London 2009
Elizabeth Hurley Beach
photos by wenn