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SISTER ACT( Daniel Peres)
Everyone may still be talking about those fairy-tale weddings, but the Miller girls-Marie-Chantal of Greece and Alexandra von Furstenberg-have moved on.
Marie-Chantal wanted everything to be just right. In a couple of hours, she would be off to Windsor Castle for a quiet dinner with the Queen. It was one of many pre-wedding soirees organized for her to meet her fiance's extended family-all of them royal-but it was this one that prompted the most distress.
"I was never more terrified in my entire life,"she says. To make certain all would go well, Marie-Chantal had a professional on hand to help with her hair and makeup. She also had her fashionable younger sister, Alexandra, with her for advice and moral support. "I wanted everything to be impeccable," she notes.
So when Alex offered up the alpha-hydroxy acid, which Marie-Chantal mistakenly took for plain lotion, she generously applied it to her face, thinking it would be just the right base for her makeup. Things went downhill from there. "It was the worst experience of my life," she recalls with a shudder. The makeup wouldn't hold properly. Marie-Chantal panicked. Alex-like any sister would-laughed uncontrollably. Despite the facial faux pas, however, the dinner went off without a hitch. "After it was over, I knew that I could make it through anything in life," says Marie-Chantal.
Fortunately for Marie-Chantal, her life has been a charmed one, right down to her nuptials to her Prince Charming, Pavlos of Greece. One of the most talked-about unions in recent history, their wedding at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Aghia Sophia in London and the surrounding festivies-including a magnificent ball for 900-made news around the world.
Even today, nearly two years later, her marriage into the exiled Greek royal family still resonates. In a recent New York Times business story on her father, the Duty-Free Shops founder and billionaire Robert Miller, the reporter couldn't help but mention the wedding, very high up in the story. "They always do that," says Marie-Chantal. "Blah, blah, blah. Enough with the wedding already. Please!"
Those same sentiments are echoed by Alex, who only several months after her sister's lavish London affair, was married in New York with nearly the same splendor-if fewer royal guests-to Alexandre von Furstenberg, the son of Diane and Egon. Their older sister, Pia, married Christopher Getty in 1992, but their wedding, which included a traditional Indonesian ceremony in Bali, complete with the couple on elephant back, didn't make quite as big a splash.
So the younger two sisters-who are still, and undoubtedly always will be, referred to as the Miller girls-are out to prove that they're more than just blushing brides with bottomless bank accounts. For the past year, Alex has been employed as a creative director at Diane von Furstenberg Studio. A self-proclaimed perfectionist, the 24-year-old is very much at home in the fashion business, particularly with regard to her mother-in-law.
"I've been with my husband for six years," says Alex. "And in that time I've grown very close to Diane. We would always talk about fashion, and she eventually became interested in my point of view because I was a young person who was out and about, and who, like most women, enjoys clothes."
In August, the two are launching a new line called Diane, to be sold exclusively Saks Fifth Avenue. "She approached me with this idea for 'Diane,'" Alex explains. "She really wanted, I guess, to come back in a sense. To reach a younger group of people. My generation."
Alex has loved fashion since she was a child. Born in Hong Kong, where her father established the Duty Free Shops retail empire, Alex couldn't help but be inspired by her ultra-stylish Ecuadorian mother, Chantal. But it wasn't until the family moved to Paris some years later-to a hotel particulier on the Ile St.Louis-that her fashion sense bloomed. She was only 10 at the time and had already lived in Switzerland and Hawaii, as well as Hong Kong. But that Parisian je ne sais quoi made the greatest impact.
"I used to marvel at the French girls in grade school," she says. "They were so stylish it was amazing. Paris really had a very big impact on me, because at the time I was there I was really coming of age. And Parisian women are the most stylish in the world."
Later, after the Millers moved to New York in the mid-Eighties, Alex Miller and Alex von Furstenberg met at the Carlyle, where he lived with his mother and sister, Tatiana, two floors below the Millers' apartment. She was 14 at the time, and one day riding the elevator down to the lobby with Marie-Chantal, the doors opened and he walked in. "I was all googly-eyed," she says. "Our friendship developed over the years, and when I turned 18, we started dating. We've been together ever since."
More or less anyway. After trying her hand at the Parsons School of Design for a semester, Alex followed her love to Brown, where he was a junior. When von Furstenberg, who is three years older that his wife, graduated and returned to New York, she then transferred to NYU. There were several brief periods of separation, when both parties strayed from the relationship. The most notable were her well-publicized dates with Matt Dillon. Now, though, she says she's never been happier.
After their Hawaiian honeymoon, the Alexes-as their friends call the couple-took off for Los Angeles, where they had planned to begin their life together. They rented a house in Beverly Hills and the new bride started working as an assistant buyer at Tracey Ross. But West Coast living lasted only a year.
"I really thought we were going to stay there," she says. "But the finance world was not strong enough for my husband. The funny thing about L.A. is that when you're there it's like a vacation. You have skiing around one corner and the beach around the next. You forget there's another world."
Back in New York, where he set up shop as a hedge-fund broker with Pavlos, and she started in with her mother-in-law, they began a long search for an apartment. "We couldn't find anything," says Alex. "All I knew was that we wanted a lot of sunlight and that we wanted to be by the park because we jog." They ended up at the Carlyle. "It's incredible, isn't it?" she says, sipping Perrier downstairs at the Carlyle bar. "All of the elevator guys and concierge and housekeeping people remember us. They're all trying to take credit for introducing us."
Alex worked on the apartment, which overlooks Central Park, with decorator Vincent Wolf. "I wanted a very Out of Africa, colonial look," she says. "Very white with dark wood. It's very bright and casual and we have these big white sofas." Alex is proud to admit she didn't consult her mother-who has done up houses in Hong Kong, Paris, New York, London and Gstaad-on the apartment. "She has impeccable taste, I know," she says. "Her style of decorating is incredible, but I wanted to do it my own way. I wanted her to come in and see it finished and see what I was capable of doing." When they moved in mid-March, von Furstenberg carried his bride across the threshold. "It was very romantic," she says. "We had champagne the first night to toast our new life."
One day, she hopes to have a family. And even then, Alex plans to keep right on working-maybe even establish her own fashion label someday. "Both of my sisters are full-time mothers, which I think is great," she says. "But I think I'll probably be a career mom."
Life as a full-time mother suits Marie-Chantal just fine. "I really want to be a modern mother," says the 27-year-old. "I would love to be a career woman, but I also want to be a full-time mother. I want to have five kids. I want a mini-van with five baby seats in the back."
For some months now, she has been living a few blocks away from her younger sister with Pavlos and their baby daughter, Maria-Olympia, in the Miller family's $11.7 million townhouse on 71st Street. Although they have a house of their own in Greenwich, the couple hasn't been spending much time there since Pavlos left his post at Basil shipping in Connecticut to begin work with von Furstenberg. "We're trying to figure out where we're going to live now," say Marie-Chantal over lunch at a small Madison Avenue bistro. "We're really going to have to see what happens with my husband's job."
She pulls out and coos over baby pictures without prompting and happily recounts the first smile, the first tooth, even the first day. "She was born in New York Hospital," says Marie-Chantal. "Both of our families were there. They were all over the place. I honestly think I was more exhausted from dealing with everyone than from having the baby."
The middle of the three sisters, Marie-Chantal-her friends call her MC-was born in London, but like her baby sister, fell hard for Paris, where she moved at 14. When she was 23, she was living there with her Shih Tzus and studying at L'Ecole du Louvre, when she decided to visit her sister, Pia, in San Francisco, making a pit stop at Philip Niarchos' birthday party in New Orleans. That's where she met Pavlos. "That was it," she says. "I was planning on making my life in Paris, but after that night everything changed."
They were married just over two years later and she quickly became pregnant. With the marriage came the title of Crown Princess, which she shrugs off for now. "Being a princess is not a major role in my life. It's not about 'Marie-Chantal of Greece.'" Still, a caller to her Greenwich house is told, "The Princess is in the city." And yes, she has a tiara.
Marie-Chantal has been so affected by the birth of her child that she has decided to create a children's charity. With the help of her father, she is in the early stages of developing a foundation to aid both needy and gifted children. "I've been so fortunate in my life, and I thank my parents for that," she says. "I know a lot of people are going to be thinking, 'Oh yeah, sure, charities. That's what she'll become.' It's not that. If you can, it's always nice to give a little back."
This month, Marie-Chantal will be cutting her teeth in the charity arena, when she and Pavlos co-chair the New York City Ballet Spring Gala at Lincoln Center. A one-time aspiring ballerina herself, she's taking the night very seriously and is not content to just lend her name. "These dancers have so much enthusiasm and commitment," she says. "I think it's really important for people my age to get involved."
Marie-Chantal has been working with event planner Robert Isabell to help attract a younger, hipper crowd. "It's going to be a different set of people," says Isabell. "Marie-Chantal has great instincts." Isabell, who organized Marie-Chantal's and Alex's weddings, says he hopes his relationship with the Millers lasts a very long time. "Are you kidding? I want to be planning her daughter's wedding," he says with a smile.
The ballet will be the first time the young princess will receive top billing at a prominent society gala. She was supposed to join Liz Tilberis and Helen David-Weill in co-chairing last year's Costume Institute Gala, but pulled out at the last moment. The gala was honoring Christian Dior and was underwritten by its parent company LVMH, which made a move to purchase the Duty Free Shops shortly after Marie-Chantal signed on. But when Robert Miller, who owns 38 percent of DFS, started battling LVMH's Bernard Arnault, Marie-Chantal decided to step down as co-chair. "Given the circumstances, I felt it was the best thing to do," she say. "My family comes first."
The decision brought criticism from some quarters, something to which both Alex and Marie-Chantal have grown accustomed. First, there was the backlash from the extravagance of their weddings ($1 million was spent on Ecuadoran roses alone at Marie-Chantal's). Then, of course, there's the Gilded-Age aura of the marriages; there were those who suggested that the unions were carefully orchestrated business deals made by their father and the parents of their husbands to insure respectable family names for their girls-and more than respectable fortunes for the young men.
"It's not true," says Alex. "I'm sure it sounds that way when you look at my sisters and me. It's an easy take on us. I met my husband when I was a kid. But if that's what people want to say, that's fine. We know our values."
Perhaps the biggest hit came when New York Magazines reported that Alex and Marie-Chantal were seen doing cocaine in the bathroom of the Bowery Bar. "That was the worst," says Marie-Chantal. "I was pregnant at the time! That even made the news in Greece. People were saying that I had a drug problem. My father called from Europe to see what was going on. I was horrified. Yes, I was there that night, but I wasn't doing any drugs."
"People thrive in negativity," says Alex. "Sometimes people want to see you fail. I suppose you should just expect things to happen. I can't stop my life." Both sisters are quick to point out that one of the things their father has given them over the years is great advice. "He's always told us to be careful of the press," says Marie-Chantal. "That with the good, there's always some bad. Somebody once called me a 'bourgeois do-nothing,'" she continues. "It's just that people are always going back to these weddings. People are going to hate us for what we have. But nobody really ever sees the other side of us, when we're in the park in our sweatpants or with rollers in our hair and facial masks. It's always at big parties. "That's not all we do, you know."