Lessons We Can Learn from Jacqueline de Ribes

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Jacqueline de Ribes, 1955Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Richard Avedon, © The Richard Avedon Foundation

The infinitely elegant Comtesse de Ribes – fashion icon, designer, muse, philanthropist – is the subject of an upcoming exhibition at the Met (and this week's Lessons to Learn)...

Iris Apfel, Loulou de la Falaise, Diana Vreeland... It would be perfectly understandable to assume that the Instagram generation had done its work making household names of the 20th century’s great stylish individuals. Yet, Jacqueline de Ribes, one of the graceful coterie of women labelled “the Swans” by Truman Capote, has yet to achieve the tip-of-the-tongue recognition her sensational life deserves.

That’s all set to change with Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style which opens at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute in New York on November 19. The exhibition charts the beguiling fashion life of a woman who owned only two dresses upon her marriage to Count Édouard de Ribes in 1948, but who went on to become a muse and collaborator with the likes of Yves Saint Laurent and Valentino, as well as a designer in her own right. At 86, de Ribes is of course just as elegant now as the fabulous tales of her earlier stylish escapades suggest. So, what can this icon of French refinement teach us?

1. Being a “slashie” is the most stimulating of careers
Given that she married into a vastly wealthy family, Countess de Ribes could happily have spent her life in a haze of luxurious social engagements. Instead, her unerring enthusiasm and creativity has seen her embrace a rich variety of occupations, a very elevated kind of precursor to today’s DJ/jeweller/yoga teachers. 

In the late 1950s, de Ribes became involved with the International Ballet of the Marquis de Cuevas, eventually becoming manager following the death of its founder, George de Cuevas. She even struck upon the genius marketing idea of recruiting Geraldine Chaplin (the 17 year-old daughter of Charlie) to dance in a production of Prokofiev’s Cinderella.

In a groundbreaking move, de Ribes was among the first high-flying fashion customers to launch her own label in 1983. Her inaugural show was hosted at the home of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, who sat in the front row alongside Ungaro and Valentino (in those days, it was really not the done thing for designers to attend one anothers’ shows). “Everybody was prepared to ridicule the society lady making fashion. But she made beautiful clothes,” WWD’s John Fairchild told Vanity Fair. “Jacqueline’s an elegant lady with a naughty twist.” De Ribes has also written columns for Marie Claire magazine, produced TV shows and raised huge amounts for charity.

2. It’s rather chic to inspire a television character 
Joan Collins’ portrayal of Alexis Colby in Dynasty has become television legend. When she was creating the character, it was de Ribes whom Collins looked to as a real-life muse. However, De Ribes’ status inspirational abilities aren’t limited to soap operas. Jean Paul Gaultier dedicated an haute couture collection to the Countess in 1999. He called it, Divine Jacqueline.

3. Customise your couture
Oscar de la Renta once described Jacqueline de Ribes magnificent entrance to a party thus: “An exotic vision, the aristocratic beauty was swaddled from the pinnacle of her tasseled hat to the tips of her pointed slippers in a fantastically opulent Turkish disguise, ingeniously cobbled together by the Vicomtesse herself from three of her old haute couture dresses; organza lamé from a remnant market; and a sable cape, acquired from an impoverished ballerina.” While it’s improbable that any of us own any “old” couture to craft into fancy dress attire, there’s inspiration in the idea of delighting in and experimenting with the possibilities our wardrobes afford us.

4. Make your life too fantastical to be memoir-worthy 
While it’s almost certain that de Ribes’ autobiography would be a bestseller, she has said that a book will never happen. The reason? Quite simply that nobody would believe it. Considering de Ribes’ life has been punctuated by such episodes as childhood attempts to poison the nanny, sharing a home with the Gestapo and attending a party at which an Italian princess came dressed as her, this is entirely logical.

5. Even fabulous people have an occasional crisis of confidence
While dining in New York one lunchtime in the early 1950s, Jacqueline was approached by then fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar, Diana Vreeland. Captivated by de Ribes’ otherworldly look, she declared that she would like Richard Avedon to shoot her the following day. De Ribes rushed to the hairdresser and beautician, transforming herself for the session. Yet, on arrival Vreeland declared, ’I want you to be how you were yesterday!’ It proved a valuable lesson in confidence and originality.

6. Never doubt the possibility of a spectacular comeback
In the 1990s, Jacqueline de Ribes suffered a series of health issues and was forced to close her design label. That might have been her cue to retire to a quiet life away from the public eye. Yet, with the Légion d’honneur which she received from the French state in 2010 and the Met’s soon-to-be unveiled exhibit, a fittingly elegant comeback seems to have been perfectly orchestrated.

Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style runs from November 19, 2015 to February 21, 2016 at The Costume Institute, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.