Eleanor Lam is no stranger to high society's glitter and glamour. Her father is entertainment tycoon Peter Lam, and her mother is actress-turned-socialite Lynn Hsieh. Lam is used to being in the spotlight but, even for her, the Parisian Le Bal des Débutantes was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. "It's a night filled with glamour and excitement and, of course, gorgeous gowns," she says. "Any girl would enjoy being dolled up and trying on fabulous gowns."
Lam was among the 24 young women from around the world invited to the ball held last November at the heritage Hotel Raphael in the heart of Paris.
On the night of the ball, the debs (debutantes) were dressed in lavish haute couture gowns created by top fashion houses the likes of Dior, Elie Saab and Giambattista Valli. After spending hours with a small army of make-up artists and hairstylists to perfect their looks, the debs make their entrance on the arms of their cavaliers and waltz the rest of the night away.
While the original purpose of debutante balls - to introduce well-presented young women from upper-class families to society as well as to potential husbands - might have lost its cultural relevance, modern debutante balls have reinvented themselves as highly exclusive social networking events that not only appeal to eligible socialites, but also to luxury brand sponsors.
The tradition has been reinvented in Paris, London and New York, and has even sparked new editions in Shanghai. In addition to the Parisian Le Bal, another prominent debutante ball in the 1960s and '70s - The London Season - was revived by former deb Jennie Hallam-Peel in 2007.
In 2011, Hallam-Peel helped Chinese socialite Vivian Chow Wong launch the Shanghai International Debutante Ball. The first edition of the Shanghai ball took place at the heritage Waldorf Astoria hotel on the Bund and has since moved to the nearby Peninsula Hotel. Luxury brands such as jeweller Chaumet and French luxury beauty brand Guerlain are among the headline sponsors for the event.
"The introduction of international debutantes enhances the social life and experience of all participants. It also [promotes] international understanding," says London Season organiser Hallam-Peel.
Ophélie Renouard, founder of Parisian Le Bal, agrees. "In this age of Facebook and other social media, these girls don't need to be introduced to society. The event now serves as their couture and media premiere. Even if they come from privileged families, they might not have tried a couture gown or worn fabulous jewellery, and most of the time, they have not been [featured] in the media." Le Bal, named one of the top 10 parties in the world by Forbes, was created by Renouard in 1992. It puts a modern spin on the traditional ball by bringing in French couturiers and high jewellers to dress the debs.
Lam was fitted with a Dior couture gown which made her feel like a modern-day princess. "When I tried on the gown, I instantly knew it was the one," she says.
"I love the gorgeous beadings and intricate details such as pockets on each side, which are perfect for a lip gloss and an iPhone. It also comes with a tuxedo jacket, which gives the gown an edge."
Le Bal has since grown into a party of the year, where European aristocrats mingle with heiresses of Asian and Russian billionaires, politicians and international stars. Among the debs were actor Sylvester Stallone's daughter, Sophia Stallone; musician Phil Collins' daughter, actress Lily Collins; Britain's Lord Ivar Mountbatten's daughter, Ella Mountbatten; and former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's daughter, Barbara Berlusconi.
The purpose for the debutante balls might have shifted, yet the selection of debs remain ultra-exclusive. Family background naturally comes first in the screening process. To be invited to the Le Bal, for example, Renouard says the debutante has to be very special. "Her looks, style, lineage or achievements [have to be outstanding]."
Chow Wong agrees. "A deb needs to be well educated and well-mannered. If she needs an etiquette lesson, she won't be on my invitation list."
Family background, however, isn't the only requirement, Renouard adds. In 2013, for example, Lauren Marbe, the then-17-year-old daughter of a British taxi driver, was invited because she has an IQ of 161 - higher than that of Albert Einstein.
Lavish experience and networking aside, being part of the stellar event also helps to boost the debs' CV - which makes the invitation to the exclusive balls a sought-after ticket for the world's rich and famous.
"When I see the number of requests that Le Bal gets every week of the year, I have to admit that the event is a true fantasy for the debs and cavaliers," Renouard says.
Debutante balls have opened up to Asian socialites in recent years, addressing the booming Asian economy and the region's ultra-high-net-worth individuals. Parisian Le Bal first included Asian debs in 2003 with the participation of Wan Baobao, granddaughter of Wan Li, former chairman of the China's National People's Congress, as well as Penelope Pei-Tang from China and Candy Soo from Singapore.
"I'm proud to be Chinese ... the event was memorable and out-of-the-ordinary," Soo says.
Putting Asia on the map also helps raise awareness of debutante balls. Although it takes place in China, Chow Wong says the Shanghai International Debutante Ball is an international event, hence only two to three Chinese debs are included each year.
"The purpose of having the ball in Shanghai is to catch up on the international trend," says Chow Wong, whose father is Beijing opera master Zhou Xinfang. "You have the ball in Paris, London, New York and now Shanghai, a city with so much history and heritage to offer."
Recent Asian debs include Jen Hau, daughter of Taipei's former mayor Hau Lung-bin, and Annie Liang, a descendant of famous Chinese scholar and philosopher Liang Qichao.