“Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style”

All Photos: Randy Brooke
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The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute has mounted only four exhibitions devoted solely to the personal style and wardrobes of a specific woman (and only one was a public figure). “Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years, May 2001; “Nan Kempner, American Chic”, December 2006; Rara Avis: Selections from the Iris Apfel Collection, September 2006; and “Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style” which opens on Thursday November 19 and runs through February, 2016.

Assorted Magazine spreads

There was a press preview on Tuesday morning, during which time I had a chance to look at photographs, ephemera, and 60 ensembles (haute couture and ready-to-wear dating from 1962 to the present), which are displayed in the Anna Wintour Costume Center. Together, they help paint a style portrait of the Countess de Ribes, the legendary 86 year old French born aristocrat, fashion icon, fashion muse, fashion designer, businesswoman, producer, philanthropist, with an almost other worldly elegance, who grew up wearing haute couture and was inducted into the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame in 1962.

Harold Koda

This exhibition (which was 8 years in the making), was curated by Harold Koda, who spent 6 months pouring through about 1,000 items from Jacqueline de Ribe’s enviable closets. He will step down as the Curator in Charge of the Costume Institute in January (a title he has held since 2000) and will be replaced by Andrew Bolton. When I asked him what ‘Act 2’ will be, he smiled and said he really doesn’t know. But he certainly seemed quite happy and excited about the prospect. “I’ve been fantasizing about this moment (retirement) for a long time”, he noted. He also admitted that he has “left three other times”. (Nancy Chilton joked that “he’s the best leaver”!) So when I pointed out that perhaps this will be yet another false alarm. He said, no, not this time. “It’s important to know when the right time to leave is.”

In any case, I guess you can say that this exhibition is Harold’s ‘Swan Song’, which it quite fitting given that his subject matter is known for her long, graceful neck and gazelle like frame, has long been celebrated for her swan like beauty and was in fact, dubbed a “Swan” by both Richard Avedon, who took some of her most memorable portraits, and Truman Capote, who used the term to describe his inner circle of extraordinarily stylish, jet setting friends. But perhaps more important than being the ultimate Swan, Jacqueline is the ultimate DIY-er (do it yourselfer). Long before avant-garde Japanese designers like Rei Kawakubo and Junya Watanabe deconstructed and recycled, the Countess routinely took a scissor and “cannibalized” her existing designs in order to transform and personalize them to her own exacting specifications.

Bal du Oriental Gown

This was exemplified by a fantastical gown, created for and worn to Alexis de Rede’s Bal Oriental, 1969, which was described as being “among the most ambitious design projects undertaken by the designer”. The Countess was determined to avoid all the obvious cliches. “I knew there would be a lot of bare tummies with jewels, so I decided that I would wear fur”. She literally cannibalized a tulle Dior gown, a Guy Laroche evening coat, a Jean Desses dress, and made sable trim from a vintage cape for the finishing effect.

Yves Saint Laurent black buckskin fringed tunic, skirt,
and black sequined embroidered sleeved blouse

Then there was the Yves Saint Laurent black fringed buckskin tunic, black silk jersey skirt, and silk taffeta blouse with black sequined embroidered sleeves from autumn winter 1968 haute couture. The embroidery on the sleeved had originally been gold sequins but the Countess requested that black be substituted..

Dior white silk satin double face evening dress,
autumn /winter 1979 haute couture

My favorite example is the Dior white silk satin double face evening dress from autumn winter 1979- 1980 haute couture. The Countess had asked for a smaller bow knot to be removed from the waist and a larger one added to the shoulders. When Marc Bohan saw her wearing it out, he asked, “Is it mine?” She teasingly replied, “Officially!” (By the way, Harold’s descriptions which accompanied the ensembles were the most personalized and informative). That there is almost nothing in her closet, or in the exhibit, that was not changed or altered in some matter is for me what is most interesting and relevant about the exhibit, and it was something Harold Koda emphasized during the course of his eloquent, insightful, and informative remarks, which were made midway through the press preview.

Assorted photographs

He first explained that Jacqueline de Ribes was actually planning to fly in from Paris for this event, but in light of the terrorist attacks over the weekend, she thought it was “unseemly” to be celebrating in that way and wanted to remain in Paris with her those in mourning. But because she feels the exhibition (a “small visual essay” in Harold’s words) represents the “freedom of creativity”, which should be celebrated, it would bring a measure of joy.

Jacqueline de Ribes and Marlon Brando

He went on to speak about how long it took to actually convince her to do the exhibition because she is a private woman, an aristocrat, and was ambivalent to the idea that her clothing would represent her. But she said yes, after convincing her that it would be done as the “narrative arc of a young child” which would re-introduce her to a young generation not familiar with her. He explained that the first image you see when you come down the stairs, is a photograph of Jacqueline and her sister, both children. She has taken two potato sacks and shredded them into hula skirts. There are also pictures of her as a teenager dressed up as a Medieval Lady. “She was always DIY”, Harold said, “She loved making things”. “From the time she was a child (6 years old), she was making things. She is always very hands on even as a child. Early on as a child, she has an intuition about creation”.

Ralph Lauren ensembles

“Then as a young married woman, she has a dressmaker. She has ideas but cannot sketch. She goes to Jean Desses and asks if he knows someone who can do the sketches for her, and he recommends a young very talented assistant, Valentino. So Valentino does the sketches which enable her to create her own clothes. In her 20’s, she makes all the best dressed lists. She begins to go to the couture, but unlike most other couture clients, she never leaves something untouched. She loves to change a color, change a fabric, and change the dimensions of a gown. Couturiers admired her so much they turned over their ateliers in some instances.to her to do her designs”.

The ivory Dior silk satin evening gown worn to the White Ball,
autumn/winter haute couture 1978

He then mentions this “remarkable white fringe dress that I relate back to the hula skirt”. “She is going to the White Ball in London and she does a design, and Marc Bohan turns over the Dior atelier to her in a gesture of friendship and admiration”.

“So, she starts as a child with native skills; is already doing design as a young married woman; then goes on to become a client of the couture; and now she’s a client who is understanding every single step of the process and in the technique. And then finally, in the 1980’s, she fulfils her dream to actually become a commercial designer. Her family tried to dissuade her, because an aristocratic woman like her was not supposed to enter commerce. Her late husband gave her his blessing but said she had to raise her own money. She comes to New York and puts together the business because she was so passionate about this vehicle for self-expression”.

“The story in here isn’t simply just about an elegant style which I feel is disappearing. But because of that I think there’s a kind of nuance to seeing these clothes. Where were they worn? How were they worn?. Would they have contemporary relevance? Her concern was if young girls would actually be interested. Does anyone want to be elegant rather than sexy? You know I hope this exhibition will raise those issues.

She herself is so consistent. Her own style was so strong that no matter the period, she was always in fashion. But she was not following every trend. She had filtered that fashion moment to conform to Jacqueline de Ribe’s own identity. So, that consistency is so clear throughout the whole show that it’s hard to date things. It’s a show that really takes study. If you just walk through, it’s just beautiful dresses. But if you examine each piece and think about the intellect, the rigor, the discipline that went into either purchasing or creating the garment, it will be a much more fulfilling show for you.”

Mary McFadden

I went back to the museum later in the day, where there was a well-attended reception in honor of the exhibit (no, the clothes on display didn’t change but some of the people did). Among those who turned out: WWD’s Etta Froio, FIT’s Dr. Valerie Steele, Susan Fales-Hill, Patrick McDonald (the dandy is back in New York after a short stint living in Palm Springs), Uke Ide, Miki Hagasa, Mary McFadden, Teri Agins and Yeohlee (who were both headed to the 92 street Y to watch Stan Herman being interviewed by Fern Mallis), and Carolina Herrera, a longtime friend of the Countess. When I asked her what she thought of the exhibition, she said that while she knows Jacqueline and her clothes very well, seeing them displayed this way is a treat.

There had been a black tie dinner sponsored by Dior planned for this evening, but it was cancelled after Countess de Ribes announced she would not make the trip to New York from Paris, following the terrorist attacks over the weekend. In its place, there will be a private viewing held for a business attire-clad crowd.

– Marilyn Kirschner

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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