PARIS — Myriam Ullens, the Belgian entrepreneur, philanthropist and art collector who founded the Maison Ullens label, has died at the age of 70, the house confirmed on Thursday.
Ullens was shot and killed in front of her home in the village of Ohain in Belgium on Wednesday, according to local media reports. She was in a car with her husband, billionaire industrialist Guy Ullens, who was reported injured but survived the attack.
Her stepson Nicolas Ullens has been charged with murder after giving himself up to police, saying the shooting was motivated by a financial dispute, the reports said. The public prosecutor’s office for the French-speaking province of Walloon Brabant did not immediately reply to a request for information.
“It is with great sadness that we learn of the sudden passing of Baroness Myriam Ullens de Schooten Whettnal, entrepreneur, benefactor and collector, engaged in art, fashion and philanthropy,” Maison Ullens said in a statement.
“With her husband Guy Ullens, she initiated in 1993 an ambitious educational program in Nepal, the Ullens School, which is both an orphanage, a care center and an educational center for primary and secondary education,” it said.
“After surviving cancer in 2003, she developed the Mimi Ullens Foundation, a foundation active in cancer research in eight French, Belgian and Swiss hospitals,” it added. “Mimi constantly reminded us that the most important thing is to say ‘thank you’ to life every day. This is how she would want everyone to remember her.”
Her luxury clothing label, launched in 2009, was inspired by her love for travel and dressed prominent women including former First Lady Melania Trump. Having worked in the past with designers such as Véronique Leroy, Kim Laursen and Haider Ackermann, the house recently tapped Belgian designer Christian Wijnants as artistic director.
“I loved working with her,” said Leroy, who helped to launch the brand and remained there until 2014. “When I met her for the first time, we immediately got on very well because we’re both Belgian, so it was familiar territory, and she was a person with a wonderful sense of humor and a great zest for life.”
The first thing Leroy designed was a travel kit consisting of reversible cashmere separates designed to be worn on the plane, as a chic alternative to pajamas or athleticwear. Billed as “wearable luxury” for globe-trotters, the brand’s offering subsequently expanded to include shearling and leather pieces, as well as wool denim.
“It was a blank page when I started there, so it was great,” said the designer, recalling that her best memory of Ullens was “our laughing fits, because she was funny.”
“I’m in shock. My thoughts are with her family. It’s just terrible, because there’s a whole team that has worked with Myriam for a number of years,” she added. “It’s horrible. It’s surreal.”
Born in Germany, Ullens began her career in the food business. Following her wedding in 1999 to Guy Ullens, a Belgian entrepreneur and baron, she became active in the art world. Having amassed a vast collection, the couple founded the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing in 2007, which was subsequently sold and renamed UCCA Center for Contemporary Art.
They remained active through the Switzerland-based Guy & Myriam Ullens Foundation, focusing on new areas including digital art.
Recently, Maison Ullens named senior executives to help it expand its retail footprint, with Wijnants charged with reenergizing the brand’s image.
“I would like to take Maison Ullens even further in terms of image. To be able to offer even more versatile, more accessorized, more colorful silhouettes in order to create a new dynamic, a new energy while respecting our basic DNA,” Ullens told WWD at the time.
Designer and stylist Hervé Pierre, who worked with Trump during her first lady run, recalled meeting Ullens and her husband on a helipad in Greece a decade ago. She disembarked wearing a pale blue tweed Chanel haute couture daytime dress with three circular cutouts and a raspberry suede Hermès Kelly bag.
As the helicopter’s blades whirred overhead, introductions were made all around and Pierre teased her that it was wrong to wear such a frock for a landing in Greece, as shorts and flip-flops were what he and others were wearing. With that, the wind then swept a light coating of sand all over her Chanel dress and everyone laughed, Pierre said.
“We laughed a lot in Greece, in Paris and in New York with her husband Guy. They were fusional. The chemistry between these two people was palpable. They were made for each other,” Pierre said. “I am stunned and I can still hardly process what happened.”
Pierre singled out Ullens’ generosity as one of her most important qualities. As a cancer survivor, Ullens understood how fashion and beauty could be used to help patients rebuild their confidence.
“She would have climbed mountains to help you. She was one of the first women to create a foundation to help women go through cancer treatments. She put together a team to offer wigs, makeup and other services for cancer patients, who unfortunately didn’t have the budgets for that to regain their confidence,” Pierre said, adding there are YouTube videos showing their “simply extraordinary” reactions.
While visiting his family in France over the Christmas holidays in 2016, Pierre was urgently asked to meet with a mutual friend of Ullens’ and Trump’s in Brussels, for what turned out to be a pre-interview for the stylist post for the future FLOTUS. “They wanted to be sure that I was reliable and was fit for that kind of work. I passed the test,” he said.
Venezuelan entrepreneur, philanthropist and investor Carmen Busquets also paid tribute to Ullens.
“Myriam’s generosity, passion and integrity shone through everything she did, from her philanthropic work to the quality of the product she created for her own brand and the sincerity of her friendship,” she said.
“She had a profound understanding of what needed to be done in order to create a better world for us all to live in and truly walked her talk. There aren’t many people in the fashion and art world who are prepared to put the work in and get their hands dirty when it comes to philanthropy, like Myriam did. She was an example to many and it saddens me she has left us too soon.”
— With contributions from Rosemary Feitelberg, New York