Jacqueline de Ribes photographed by Richard Avedon

If you purchased the September issue of Vanity Fair, then you are familiar with Jacqueline de Ribes. That extraordinary life, that closet, that talent, that profile! To say that I’m obsessed would be an understatement. A designer herself and a muse to many — Emilio Pucci called her “Giraffina,” or “baby giraffe”; Yves Saint Laurent called her “an ivory unicorn”; Oleg Cassini found her “elegant to the point of distraction”; and Valentino named her “the last Queen of Paris” — Jacqueline is an undeniable style icon. To add to the intrigue, Jacqueline was a good friend of Nan Kempner, the ultimate style hero of this blog. Together they ruled the social scene for a good number of decades, Nan in New York and Jacqueline in Paris.

in Christian Dior at home in Paris, 1959

She was born a Countess on Bastille Day in 1929 and to a life of privilege, but spent her teenage years in Nazi-occupied Hendaye, France, where they requisitioned her family home and used Jacqueline’s room as a torture chamber. The experience left her very humble and eventually lead to her becoming a serious philanthropist. She married Vicomte Édouard de Ribes at the age of 19 (believe it or not, at the time she only owned two dresses). She soon became one of the most regarded socialites and her insane love for couture was unleashed! “You have to see Jacqueline against the backdrop of postwar Paris. People had been so deprived during the war, everyone was trying to enjoy life, ” said Hélène de Ludinghausen, former directrice of Yves Saint Laurent. Her favourite designer? Christian Dior and, of course, his young apprentice YSL. Diana Vreeland, then fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar, soon took notice and had Avedon shoot Jacqueline. The result was the iconic cameo-like profile portrait with her swan-like long neck, exaggerated cat eyes, her large distinct nose, and long thick mane. Avedon described her as having the “perfect nose” and added “I feel sorry for near-beauties with small noses.”

“Between 1950 and 1955, I figured out my style. The real change occurred between 1953 and 1954. It had to do with my eye makeup. Everyone said I looked like Nefertiti—I don’t, but that’s how I got the idea.”

wearing Pucci abroad La Creole, Starvos Niarchos‘ yacht, 1956
She soon became a friend and muse of many designers, often collaborating with them rather than just being a patron. She recalls Oleg Cassini telling her “I feel you are a frustrated designer. Would you do things for me?” She had a natural talent for cutting and draping and learned to make patterns very quickly. She would cut patterns in her home and send toiles to Cassini in New York where he would then construct the garments. She hired a young Italian to help her with the drawings — it was Valentino! He stayed with her for about a year and went back to Rome to start his own couture house. Jacqueline became a loyal friend and client.

on a glacier of Cervina with speed skier Leo Gasperl, late 1950s
wearing Pucci at the Agnelis‘ la Leopolda, late 1950s

in Dior, early 1960s

Her cutting skills were getting quite notorious. She was hired as Emilio Pucci’s assistant who proclaimed that “she could walk in Christian Dior’s shoes.” Although she loved fashion and was a talented designer, Jacqueline was discouraged to start her own label: women of her upbringing and class were not encouraged to work. She settled into family life with her husband and children and continued to “aid” and support other designers. And, of course, attend fabulous parties in fabulous clothes!
with her children in early 1960s

As times changed, so had class views on labour. By the 1980s, Jacqueline finally mustered up the courage to start her own line. Her family thought she was out of her mind. She moved her studio into YSL’s attic and started cutting and draping. In 1983, during Paris Fashion Week she presented a 14 look collection at her house. YSL lent her his lighting and sound people and he sat front row along with Pierre Bergé, Ungaro and Valentino. “Everybody was prepared to ridicule the society lady making fashion. But she made beautiful clothes. Jacqueline’s an elegant lady with a naughty twist,” said Women’s Wear Daily.

The collection was a critical and commercial hit. Saks Fifth Avenue signed her to an exclusive three-year contract. Saks even made mannequins that were replicas of her own image! Unfortunately, Jacqueline underwent a hemilaminectomy, which left her unable to walk for three years from 1994 to 1997, and she was forced to retire from fashion.

with YSL, one of her closest friends, at Hotel Lambert, mid 1980s

wearing a gown from her own label and Harry Winston earrings, 1980s
posing with her collection, early 1980s
photographed by Victor Skrebenski, 1983

In 1999 Jean-Paul Gaultier, the French designer, dedicated his collection to Jacqueline as the quintessence of Parisian elegance. Metropolitan Museum’s The Costume Institute is planning a retrospective of her life, her creations and her couture collections. In her collection, other than countless Diors, Valentions, Ungaros, Balenciagas, YSLs, Manolo Blahniks, are a pair of shoes and a belt that once belonged to Marie Antoinette and a jeweled headpiece once worn by Sarah Bernhardt. Harold Koda of The Costume Institute is determined to tell the story of a woman who was not just a clothes horse but also a creator and someone that understood the art of couture from inside out. Jacqueline de Ribes is personally helping to curate the exhibition. She lives in her home city of Paris, France.

I would be happy if I possessed 1/10 of Jacqueline’s elegance. I wish I could be called “an ivory unicorn!”

Further Reading:

Going from Riches to Rags, Designing Vicomtesse Jacqueline De Ribes Reaps as She Sews: Handsomely. People Magazine.

The Doyenne of ‘Le Tout Paris.’ NY Times.

The Last Queen of Paris. Vanity Fair.