Dressmaking Was Not Beneath India's Princess Sumair—now Only Her Prices Are Untouchable

updated 05/05/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/05/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In her Fifth Avenue showroom, the walls are painted a soft peach. The color, explains Princess Sumair wistfully, matches her late father's favorite turban. He was the Maharaja of Patiala, ruler of India's five million Sikhs. As his eldest daughter (the maharaja sired an estimated 52 children by eight wives and more than 150 concubines) "Sumi" lived a life of almost shameful elegance. She was brought up in a quarter-mile-long palace with 400 rooms, 3,500 downstairs servants, a garage containing 275 Rolls-Royces and fountains that flowed with gallons of Schiaparelli perfume imported from Paris.

The days of the raj have passed, but not Princess Sumair's if-you-have-to-ask-the-price-you-can't-afford-it sense of style. With a bejeweled and befeathered line of gowns that range in price from $1,200 to $12,000, she is arguably the most expensive designer in the world today.

Although Seventh Avenue is only beginning to discover the princess, she first caught the attention of the very, very rich in the early '60s. One day Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton walked into Sumair's haute couture house on Avenue Georges Cinq in Paris and wrote a $250,000 check for most of the spring collection.

Sumi closed her Paris shop in 1967 to go to work as a financial adviser for several Swiss banks (she has a Ph.D. in economics from Cambridge). But last June, against the advice of her bankers and her second husband, fur designer Jack Boughton (a brief first marriage ended in divorce), Sumair decided to return to designing. "Everybody said I would break my neck," says Sumair, who set up headquarters in New York City and went about stockpiling $600,000 worth of imported Swiss velvets, brocades, Iamés, hand-painted silk chiffons and georgettes studded with crystals at $500 a yard. "There's no possibility I will fail," she shrugs.

The princess coyly refuses to divulge the names of current customers (Happy Rockefeller is one), but they range from wealthy South Americans to Saudi royalty and homegrown tycoons. Sumair has little trouble communicating with them; in addition to flawless English she speaks French, Italian, German and enough Arabic to get by. "Some of my clients are very difficult," she sighs. "But they are justified. If they are going to pay my prices, they have to be demanding."

She is careful not to neglect the merely well-to-do. Early this summer the 5'1", size 6 Sumair will go on tour to promote her first petite ready-to-wear collection for Don Sophisticates. Her dresses and suits will cost between $120 and $200 and some will bear the Sumair insignia, a small gold crown. They will be carried by Bloomingdale's and Saks in New York, Dallas' Neiman-Marcus and I. Magnin in California. "Sumi," marvels Don Sophisticates chairman Herbert Rounick, "is a tiger—a real tiger."

The analogy is not inappropriate; Sumair grew up surrounded by jungle cats. Born at Dehra Dun near the foot of the Himalayas around 1930 (she will not divulge her precise age), Sumi remembers that as a little girl she bribed the French cook's children to buy her European fashion magazines at the Patiala railway station. Of her mother the maharani, she says, "I could never get to her. She was always praying for my father's soul because of all his mistresses. I was brought up by English governesses who put me in the closet for being naughty. I am still afraid of the dark."

Engaged at 4 to an Indian prince she eventually did not marry, Sumair recalls that as a child she was "a devil. I used to come into the palace," she smiles, "with chickens and monkeys on my back." Shipped off to England when she was 8, she studied at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Surrey before going on to English and economics studies at Cambridge. Her family (Sumair's brother became maharaja on her father's death in 1938) was enraged when she announced her intention to become a dressmaker—in India a trade considered suitable only for Untouchables. By now, she says, "they have gotten over it."

These days home for Sumair and Jack, her Milwaukee-born husband since 1977 and also her business partner, is a sleek two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan's Olympic Tower. A light sleeper, she is often awake and sketching in bed before dawn. Between morning and afternoon fittings, she lunches expensively at the Pierre Hotel or Le Cirque—where she has her own table—on smoked salmon and Dom Perignon. "It's not snobbish," she insists. "I just get sick from anything else." She has never been without luxury, but the princess declares with a straight face, "I can forget all this. If I have to, I can scrub floors."

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