It’s another unseasonably hot summer day in Paris when I approach 31 Rue Cambon, the site of Chanel’s haute couture salon, where celebrities, influencers, and society doyennes come to get fitted in bespoke looks. I’m here to meet Lara Cosima Henckle von Donnersmarck, a 20-year-old Parsons student and Dior intern who’s the daughter of Oscar-award winning filmmaker Florian Henckle von Donnersmarck and the descendant of a large and influential Austro-German family. Over the last few months, Cosima has amassed more than 140,000 followers on TikTok with videos casually displaying her opulent lifestyle. In a world of quiet luxury, Cosima is uncharacteristically loud: she has a Marie Antoinette-esque apartment in the center of Paris, sits front row at fashion week, and attends balls in Spain on a whim. She is ethereally beautiful—her stylist, Eve Dupouy, describes her as a “goddess”—with a cherubic face and long legs that give the impression of benevolent saintdom as she smiles down at you, Elf Bar disposable vape clutched firmly in hand.
The reception to Cosima’s content has been mixed: Depending on which side of the internet you frequent, she’s either an aspirational old money icon who makes Sofia Richie’s cash look like it was printed in 2022, or an irredeemable nepo baby. Comments on her posts range from total strangers engaging in tense back-and-forths about whether or not she comes from “blood money,” while others write wistfully of her photos, “the aesthetics are unworldly.”
Regardless of which side you may fall on, if you’ve come across Cosima’s content, you’re probably obsessed with her. In person, she’s a sweet, unassured 20-year-old who is keenly interested in fashion and is trying to figure out her place in the world—one that isn’t defined by her famous parents. And she’s doing so in the public eye, where the polarizing reactions to her online persona echo a question ELLE’s Véronique Hyland posed in a recent column: do we want to eat the rich, or dress like them?
Perhaps the answer is both, but today we’re here to dress like them. Cosima has invited us to tag along for the day as she tries on dresses for this year’s Le Bal des Débutantes, Paris’ most exclusive debutante ball that has counted celebrity guests like Margaret Qualley and Ava Phillippe among its participants. This year’s ball will be held at the luxe Shangri-La Hotel on November 25, and Cosima is on the hunt for a statement-making ensemble worthy of her growing social media following. The ball has only one rule—that the attendees must wear couture—and since its inception in 1958, couturiers have competed to dress scions of industry and nobility like Cosima.
At Chanel, we’re whisked up to a private salon on the second floor, replete with coffee and a tray of pastries that remain untouched, and promptly introduced to the couture seamstresses. Dupouy, Cosima’s stylist, has preselected a number of archival pieces, including a tiered and feathered mint green gown with diamond butterflies affixed to the shoulder. The consensus is that, while beautiful, nothing she tries on is exactly what she’s going for, and Cosima is intent on making a statement.
“That’s the most important thing in fashion to me: it’s not just something beautiful, but it can also bring attention to a lot of important issues,” Cosima tells me later over Zoom. “I’m going for something that can make a statement and possibly aid a cause I’m passionate about.”
Next, we take a taxi to the light-filled atelier of Ashi Studio, where Saudi designer Mohammad Ashi gives us a guided tour of his most recent collection. Cosima casually struts out in six-inch platforms and a disco ball-like gown that practically looks like it was painted on her, and we all can’t help but ooh and aah with approval. The dress was made by hand sewing thousands of small mirrors together, and it took months to make. Despite the immediate wow factor, it’s still not exactly what Cosima is envisioning for the ball. After all, she’s in her “redemption era,” as she calls it, so she’s being especially choosy.
There’s a reason for that: Cosima actually started making TikToks last year, her first year as an intern at Dior, but when one of her outfits went viral on social media (and not for its virtues), she quit for a year, put her head down at Parsons, and decided to return this summer to debut her more refined taste. She says that though people online were “brutal,” the feedback ultimately helped her hone her style.
“I have to say: bullying worked,” she jokes.
After our visit to Ashi Studio, Cosima is off to Elie Saab to try on more gowns, and I excuse myself from the dreamlike escape so I can return home to the regular world. Later that night, she posts a photo on Instagram of herself in a metal mesh Gaultier gown. “This is the best thing I have ever seen,” writes one follower. “Yeah totally not like her family made money during the 30s and 40s through any immoral means,” comments another. That redemption era may have to last a little longer than Cosima had planned.
Jessica Roy is the former Digital Director of ELLE.com. Prior to that, she worked as the News Editor of The Cut. She likes baking, running, and Instagrams of your dog.