Designer Diaries – Rappel and the Countess of Barcelona

Hofdame Note: Thank you to our Baguette Iselen for bringing a bit of surprise and a lot of zazz to our Designer Diary series. I smiled all the way through this one!

This Designer Diary is a huge surprise for me, to be honest, because for children that were born in the 80s and early 90s, Rappel is a television personality, funny but eccentric, a bit grotesque and even ridiculous sometimes, wearing colourful and very shiny sequined tunics and vintage glasses. He’s also famous for his pics wearing a tiny, animal print Speedo swimming trunk every summer, and, believe me, it’s not beautiful. I vaguely heard about his life before he became the high-society ladies’ fortune-teller but recently, I’ve discovered he was more important than I ever expected and even dressed a royal lady in one of the most important days of her life.

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Rafael Francisco Payá Pinilla was born in Madrid in 1954 in a bourgeois family that ran a prosperous business related to fashion. His grandfather worked as a milliner and married his grandmother who was a customer of the store, Rappel’s great-grandmother gave the couple money to start their own business: a fur shop that worked with a very young designer called Cristobal Balenciaga. But the Civil War ruined the family business and Balenciaga, who became a good friend, gave them money to start a new one: a fabric shop. A very special one because it was in an apartment and every room stored different fabrics: fancy silks and velvets separated from wool and tweed for suits. It was a sumptuous place where high-society ladies felt comfortable and, promoted by the famous Balenciaga, it soon became a success.

So young Rappel grew up wrapping the big statue of Apollo that greeted customers in the entrance hall with his parents’ fancy fabrics and everybody noticed soon that the boy had a gift given that ladies always demanded those same fabrics. At the same time, his nanny was interested in reading tarot cards and the boy learned it as a hobby showing great sensitivity with deeply intuitive predictions. He studied French Philology in Paris and later design and pattern methods with Balenciaga himself, opening his atelier on the floor above his parents’ shop in 1962. Obviously, the family had good contacts and boosted his career. And this is how he met María de las Mercedes of Bourbon and Orleans, the Countess of Barcelona, who came back to Spain from exile in 1975 when his son Juan Carlos became king. Rappel claims that all the clothes she wore during those years when she was still able to walk were designed by him.

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She was also a good friend who enjoyed visiting the atelier but was unable to stand for long hours so he had a mannequin with her measurements and designed dresses that the Countess tried in her house later. Her niece Esperanza of Bourbon, countess Zamoyski, used to go with her and asked Rappel to leave more fabric on the seams to be able to adjust the dresses to her body later since her aunt gave her old garments as a present. The Countess of Barcelona asked him to design the most important outfit she wore in 1975, the suit she wore the day his husband, Head of the House of Bourbon, renounced his rights to the throne so their son, Juan Carlos, could become the new king. She was torn between red or yellow, like the Spanish flag, and Rappel designed two different outfits for the Countess to choose that morning. She went for the yellow one after begging him to restrain his tendency to choose colourful and flashy patterns, and yet, he lined the jacket lapels with the same flower fabric of the shirt.

He repeated the same successful trick a few times, with jackets in solid colours, pleated skirts, and eye-catching shirts like he did with the red outfit the Countess wore to attend Elena’s First Communion. Or the burgundy one with the scarf around the neck (unfortunately I couldn’t find a colour pic) He also designed very 70s flashy dresses like the white and yellow she wore to attend prince Felipe’s First Communion.

After 22 years being a successful designer, Rappel decided to make a radical change in his life when his 1-year-old baby died from meningitis, and realized most of his very famous clients, like the marchioness of Ampudia, Empress Soraya, or Gunilla Von Bismarck, for example, went to his atelier because they wanted him to read their palms and not to buy a dress. He became the high-society fortune-teller and lived in Marbella during the golden years, meeting Saudi princes, Adnan Khashoggi, queen Fabiola’s brother Jaime of Mora and Aragón and Christina Onassis, who became his best friend because he never talked about money when reading her tarot cards.


Later, he worked in a radio station, several TV programs, and reality shows and became this bizarre character we all know today. But we shouldn’t forget that, years ago, he used to had dinner with the Counts of Barcelona and later, sneaked out of Christina Onassis’ hotel room to take her to the beach far away from the paparazzi. She loved to jump in his white Volkswagen Beetle that was completely re-upholstered with Scottish tartan fabric, from the ceiling to the seats, they ate fish and chips with coke sitting on the sand and she confessed that he was the only real friend she had, the only one who didn’t want her money or fame.