The mansion that is the Paris home of Jacqueline, comtesse de Ribes has windows like lidded eyes and a formidable façade.
But this year the noble building on the Rue de la Bienfaisance has been a hub for the Countess of Clothing — the aristocrat with an artistic vision and a collection of dressy outfits that go on show this week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York: Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style (until 21st February 2016).
As a collector and creator, de Ribes’ collection includes both the haute couture of her aristocratic upbringing and the clothes she designed under her own label in the 1980s.
After 15 years as curator, Harold Koda is celebrating his swansong before retirement at the former Costume Institute.
“Simply the epitome of elegance”, wrote the Washington Post in 1984, describing this energetic aristocrat with a Nefertiti profile. She herself has a more lofty description of her look: “Elegance, the art of being astonishing — without creating astonishment.”
I spoke to Jacqueline and you can read here the language of fashion in her own words.
She was a client of Yves Saint Laurent, who saw in her traces of his beloved Marcel Proust and the author’s lead character, the Duchess of Guermantes.
So here is Jacqueline de Ribes in his words: “She is a beacon, she radiates, her long neck gleaming with the brilliance of a thousand lights. Lyre-bird. King bird. Bird of Paradise.”
My review of the Metropolitan Museum show will follow.
Suzy Menkes in conversation with Jacqueline de Ribes:
Suzy: I’m going to New York to see your exhibition.
Jacqueline de Ribes: For 11 months I’ve been under such incredible pressure, because everything had to be done here. I turned the house into an atelier. They have sewing machines in the dining room! The whole house is turned into a studio for photos… Did you get the catalogue?
Suzy: I did. You must be very proud of it.
Jacqueline: Yes, I worked a lot on the catalogue because I thought, at least I can control this; the rest I don’t know about. So I worked a lot, and did all the fittings.
Suzy: How early did you become interested in clothes? When you put things together and took your grandmother’s old gowns, you were so inventive when you were very young.
Jacqueline: Very, very early. I used to dress up in bathrobes and towels and everything that was hanging around. You probably saw the little picture of me in the catalogue?
Jacqueline: I have two hangers in my hair and the bath towel, I took the curtain down — it was big long curtain. I unstitched it and the next day we had to have someone sew it up again. This was on weekends in the country in places like the château that belonged to Marie-Hélène de Rothschild’s family.
Suzy: I wanted to ask you about one of your quotes after Christian Dior said it’s impossible to be sexy and elegant. You said that this is not true at all.
Jacqueline: I say it’s just more difficult!
Suzy: But is this because sexuality really comes from within? In the way you hold your body, the way you move?
Jacqueline: Yes, yes. I mean, you’re never sexy for everyone, anyway. And I think you’re not sexy because you undress, because you show everything — no. I think it’s more subtle than that.
Suzy: So do you think it’s in the way the body moves inside a dress?
Jacqueline: It’s in the way the body moves, and I would say it’s even the way you smile, the way you look, the way your eyes move.
Suzy: You know you may be the last survivor of Charlie de Beistegui’s costume ball in Venice in 1951? (Mexican mining heir Charlie de Beistegui’s grand costume parties were legendary, and guests wore the glamorous and theatrical outfits at which Jacqueline de Ribes excelled.)
Jacqueline: I think that I’m the last survivor of so many things now. Costumes? I did what Harold (Koda) called my first costume, which is a skirt made out of a potato bag.
Suzy: Ah. That is original!
Jacqueline: A sack of potatoes that I cut and I hemmed with a perfect fringe. Nobody gave me anything to play with except a sac de pomme de terres. There is a picture of me dancing on the beach, I’m ten years old I think, with a sack around the waist and a few flowers in my hair. The picture is very sweet and very nice and at the same time quite graceful really.
Suzy: It sounds amazing! I hope it will be in the show!
Jacqueline: For the Met, we work on Skype. Harold and I put the dresses together. He says, “Chère Jacqueline, I don’t know where to put the red dress because the red dress, it doesn’t fit…” I tell him to put the red dress right in the middle of all the black so we’re going to have a big red spot! I will send you the picture of me as a little girl dancing with my sister on the beach. It’s me with my sister and brother in dressing gowns, being really very un-chic — just to show you that we were not spoilt little children, dressed up from the Christian Dior baby shop. We were not at all spoilt in front of the château, but we have horrible slippers and horrible dressing gowns!
Suzy and Jacqueline de Ribes attend a party in 2008 to celebrate Twenty Years of Suzy at The Herald Tribune
Count and Countess Edouard De Ribes in 2006
Suzy: That proves to me what I have always believed — that a real sense of style comes from within. It’s nothing to do with how you’re brought up, it’s something inside you, as with any artist.
Jacqueline: I am reading something very interesting now about the 19th-century Comtesse Greffulhe exhibition at Palais Galliera. She was also a very celebrated artist who put all her talent into dressing up. She was surrounded by intelligent people, so dressing up doesn’t mean that you are frivolous. It has nothing to do with frivolity, really.
Jacqueline: What other pictures would you like to have?
Suzy: Something that is specially close to your heart — that you designed yourself or from Yves Saint Laurent. What you felt in your heart was your personal style.
Jacqueline: Hmm. I have a picture of me in a hat that I made myself, which is a veil that I sewed, piled up with violets that I sewed on to become a huge hat. Actually, it’s the veil that I’m wearing on the invitation for the Met. That’s something I did when I was 25. I love the idea of a veil. There is a picture of me, of the kind that you would call “one afternoon in the garden”. I covered my hair with flowers and to make the flowers stand up, I put them in the holes of a colander. I put that on my head, held with a band, with the flowers.
Suzy: Very inventive!
Jacqueline: What else would you like?
Suzy: Something from your own collections in the 1980s or from Yves Saint Laurent. What you think expresses your style, your personality, your essence and everything that is Jacqueline de Ribes.
Jacqueline: What do I love? There is Jacqueline de Ribes as a very severe dress. Something which is very, very me is a dress where the skirt is a black veil against white satin, from the waist to the hip. The other one that is very me but also rather severe is all black on black. It’s not Yves Saint Laurent but it’s Jacqueline de Ribes and Armani — meaning I cut up an Armani dress and kept the skirt.
Suzy: So you’re saying you cut off the skirt of the Armani Privé and put your own top on it?
Jacqueline: Yes! But I did it with the agreement of the atelier. I did it often!
Suzy: What about one red dress that you really love?
Jacqueline: There are three red dresses that I love. I love the red one from Dior that I made as a replica of the one I used to wear in the Sixties; and then I love the red one of Madame Grès, and I adore… no, I love ALL my red ones!
Suzy: There must be one dress you really love?
Jacqueline: I love the very simple Valentino gown. The original was not bouffant, like this, on the hip. The bouffant was low, below, just above the knee. I changed it to fit above the hip!
Suzy: Clever, very clever.
Jacqueline: But the couturier has always been there and I’ve worked very closely with them. There are two red dresses in the same colours, bought the same year – one at Dior and one at Yves Saint Laurent. It’s amazing! The one at Yves Saint Laurent, nobody bought the dress — it was too expensive and too simple. The other one is Dior, and the only other person who bought one was Grace of Monaco.
Jacqueline de Ribes in Christian Dior, 1959
Jacqueline de Ribes in her own design, 1985
Jacqueline de Ribes with her hairstyle by Kenneth, 1955. (The Richard Avedon Foundation.)
Suzy: Tell me something, Jacqueline. Aren’t I right that Valentino once worked for you, that you found him and he did drawings for you?
Jacqueline: The exact story is the following. When I went on my first trip to America in 1952, I met Oleg Cassini. We discussed fashion and he liked the way I dressed. At that time I had only two or three haute couture pieces and the other things I’d done by myself. And he said, “Jacqueline, could you work for me in Paris?” I said yes and transformed part of the attic into an atelier. But I had no money to buy the fabrics, so I did the dresses in muslin. I was only 22 or 23. I didn’t know how to sketch or to make a nice drawing, and at that time I used to dress partly at Jean Dessès. I told him my story about Oleg Cassini and he was very amused, and I said, “I don’t know how to draw what I create in a chic way.” And he told me, “But I have an Italian illustrator who would be very happy to earn a little more money after working hours and do the drawings for you.” And this was Valentino.
Suzy: So you found Valentino before everybody else!
Jacqueline: Valentino came to me around 6pm once a week. But he always wanted to add a bow or a frill, and I always said no! One day he told me he was leaving Paris. I said, “How can you leave? Are you crazy? How can you leave Paris, it’s the center of the world of fashion! What are you going to do in Rome?” He lived in one room, some little place, very modest, and he left. Two years later I received the invitation for his couture collection. I was mad; I was so jealous, I can’t tell you! So then of course this is how things started. A few years ago I said to Valentino, “Do you remember the fight about the bows and frills?” He said, “Oh, but you must admit that my bows took me quite far!”