Once upon a time — 1976, in fact — a beautiful, poor 18-year-old Lebanese waitress named Mouna Ayoub was cleaning tables in Paris. She caught the eye of an older man, a billionaire from Saudi Arabia. They married, and he soon whisked her away from France to a life of gilded splendor in the desert kingdom.
A rags-to-riches story — but not exactly a fairy tale. Ms. Ayoub was often lonely and unhappy. To distract herself, she threw herself into a new pastime: buying clothes. Not just any clothes, but haute couture looks made to order by a handful of Parisian houses that can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $300,000.
Today Ms. Ayoub, who divorced her husband in 1997, owns more than 2,700 pieces, making her collection of haute couture one of the world’s largest. On Nov. 20, 252 pieces designed by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel will go on sale in Paris.
The sale, called the Golden Years of Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel From the Mona Ayoub Haute Couture Collection, is organized by Maurice Auction in Paris and the British fashion auctioneer Kerry Taylor. The pieces are from the early 1990s to 2014 and include embroidered lace evening gowns, sequined cocktail suits and classic wool crepe jackets, along with classic flap bags, belts, jewelry and shoes.
So, why is Ms. Ayoub selling them now?
“Well, for one thing, I don’t fit into my clothes anymore,” Ms. Ayoub, 66, said. She was seated in a private salon at the Hotel Costes in Paris earlier this month and wore a monochrome tunic of graphic camellia prints with a matching bag and black patent leather knee-high boots. (All brand-new fall 2023 Chanel, of course.)
“But the real reason,” she said, “is that I’ve carefully looked after many of these Karl pieces for 30 or 40 years now, and he is no longer with us. So it’s about time they were seen and that somebody else got a chance to wear and enjoy them.”
Ms. Ayoub has rules when it comes to her collection. She requires four fittings for each outfit, but preferably six. If a piece is not perfect, it will be returned. Many couture houses have their very own Mouna mannequin so that they can tailor clothes to her in case she is not available for a fitting. (“Essential,” she said.)
She never wears the same dress twice, and sometimes never at all. She guessed that 90 percent of the Chanel auction lots have never been worn in public. Instead, they have been preserved in special boxes in which they lie flat and are shielded from light, dust, humidity and the archenemy — moths — in a high-security warehouse outside Paris.
“I am fanatical about couture,” Ms. Ayoub said. “For so long it was my greatest passion.” Often, she said, she acquired pieces simply for their beauty and craftsmanship.
“The world doesn’t always see couture pieces as works of art, which it should,” she said. “When I started buying couture in the early 1990s, it was because I wanted to protect this world and the beauty it created at a time when as a business it was under threat.”
“Don’t forget, my collection came from the fact I could buy what I wanted, but I couldn’t publicly wear what I bought,” she said, referring to restrictions on what women could wear in Saudi Arabia. “My favorite part was the fitting, with the wonderful seamstresses, and being surrounded by all the love and attention they would give you.”
Part of the proceeds of the auction will go to Fondation des Femmes, a French charity for women affected by violence and abuse. Four of its shelters had been earmarked for closure after a drop in funding. Money from the sale will help keep two of them open.
Ms. Ayoub said her biggest passion now is her eight grandchildren. She still buys couture, but for a specific wedding or red carpet event. She likes Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior and Virginie Viard at Chanel, and Giorgio Armani, but she is particularly excited by the couture creations of Daniel Roseberry, the American designer now at Schiaparelli, and Kim Jones at Fendi. She still wears a piece only once.
Was there an outfit from the auction collection that she loved the most? A long black Coromandel coat from the fall 1996 Chanel show at the Ritz in Paris, she said, where it had been modeled by Stella Tennant.
Inspired by the 18th-century Chinese lacquer screens that adorned Gabrielle Chanel’s private apartment, it was said to have taken seamstresses at Maison Lesage more than 800 hours to create. In 2012, Ms Ayoub wore it to a party at a Chanel boutique, open with a black turtleneck and pants. Mr. Lagerfeld was not happy.
“He was very annoyed,” Ms. Ayoub said. “He said that it was not at all how it was supposed to be worn and that it should be closed.” She explained to him that she had gained weight since the 1990s and that fastening it would be impossible.
“He thought that was very funny,” she said with a smile. “He said, ‘Oh, Mouna, join the club!’”