Jacqueline de Ribes achieved rare crossover: the elegant French Countess and socialite, considered a style icon during the ’50s and ’60s, became a designer in her own right at the age of 53. Now, a new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute,Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style, chronicles the glamorous life of the “Reigning Queen of Paris,” and her transformation from a favorite client of all the big couture houses to the head of her own.
“The thing that really comes across [in the exhibition] is that from the very beginning she is someone who wanted to create,” says Harold Koda, head of the Met’s Costume Institute and curator of the show. As a child growing up in a château in wartime France, de Ribes was fascinated watching her grandmother get fitted for high society events. She and her sister would create costumes of Medieval maidens or Hula dancers, stripping potato sacks into grass skirts.
That impulse to create carried over to her adult life when, as the wife of the aristocrat Edouard de Ribes, she became the one in the fitting room. A favorite client of designers like Oscar de la Renta, Christian Dior, and Yves Saint Laurent, de Ribes asked for bold modifications and was always respected for her keen eye. “She was an elegant model for their designs so they gave her wider berth than other clients,” Koda says. “Marc Bohan [House of Dior] basically turned over the atelier to her one time to make her design. It was really about respecting someone they felt was a fellow creator.”
Besides having a distinct aesthetic and impeccable sense of style, de Ribes also had a rigorous work ethic and razor sharp attention to details. She wanted to work, but the family she married into thought it unseemly for someone of her status to do anything other than philanthropic work. When her friend George de Cuevas died, in 1961, she managed his ballet company for a few years and produced a French TV series in the ’60s, but these short-term projects still left her unsatisfied.
It wasn’t until 1981, at the encouragement of Yves Saint Laurent, that de Ribes decided to launch her own label. (When her family refused to invest, she found her own backers). At that point, Koda says, she was more than well-prepared for the business of fashion. “As she was being fitted she refined her skills watching her dressmaker. By the time she has the support and endorsement to go out on her own, she can style, fit, drape–if there’s a pucker here she knows how to get rid of it.” Drawing was the one thing she couldn’t do, and for that she hired a friend of a friend, a young unknown named Valentino (yes, that Valentino).
Her own line drew heavily on her sleek and elegant personal style (and black-tie lifestyle), but she also loved to use color and dramatic details that stop just short of theatricality. Though known for her slender cut and form-fitting gowns, her designs were actually very forgiving. She was the rare dressmaker who knew what it felt like to wear one all night. “To be a style icon is to understand posing, lighting, the colors that are attractive to you and everything that has to do with creating an image,” Koda says. “The thing about being a style icon and then being a designer is that you filter out as much as you embrace. It’s about a very edited vision without compromise.”
Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art Of Style is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute until February 21.