It's very rare for the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to mount an exhibition around a single individual — only Jackie Kennedy (in 2001), Iris Apfel (in 2005) and Nan Kempner (in 2006) have nabbed that particular honor. On Thursday, the Institute will open its fourth exhibit in this line: "Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style."
Curator in Charge Harold Koda has been working on the exhibit for the past eight years, after several friends, including the late designer Oscar de la Renta, told Koda about the French aristocrat and designer Countess Jacqueline de Ribes's impressive archive of clothing. "She showed us a sampling of what she had, [Curator] Andrew [Bolton] and I, and what was fascinating for me was that I immediately responded, and Andrew, when he saw the '80s things, he just didn't understand what they were," Koda says. "Because it was New Romantics, Alexander McQueen starting up, John Galliano — that's [Andrew's] idea of the '80s. But my idea of the '80s in New York was that first pre-crash exuberance, and I thought, 'God, this is so incredible because it's a kind of window into that moment and we don't have this anymore.'"
The heyday of the impeccably dressed society woman, with her balls and black tie events every night, is long gone. But many of those "women of style," as Koda calls them, didn't keep their clothes. And few had the influence or talent to collaborate with couture ateliers, as de Ribes often did, or go on to start their own labels — all of which made her a ripe candidate for an exhibit.
Countess Jacqueline de Ribes was born in 1929 in Paris to aristocratic parents, and demonstrated an early knack for design — an image in the exhibition shows her and her sister wearing hula skirts made out of potato sacks. She married Édouard, Vicomte de Ribes, at age 19 and already had a reputation for style by the time Richard Avedon photographed her in 1955. (The photograph is immortalized in Truman Capote's book of "swans," the writer's nickname for his beautiful female friends.) "She has a perfect nose. I feel sorry for the near-beauties with small noses," said Avedon.
In the '50s and '60s, de Ribes employed a dressmaker to make original designs; she also bought pieces from Guy Laroche, Jean Dessès, Marc Bohan and Yves Saint Laurent (both at Dior and his eponymous label). Even before she started modifying their designs, a privilege for haute couture customers, de Ribes experimented in ways that were shocking then: layering a turtleneck under a dress, for example, or mixing different designers in a single look. For a White Ball in 1969, Bohan allowed the Dior atelier to produce an ivory silk crepe fringed dress (on the left in the image above) that she conceived for the occasion, going way beyond the typical couture client experience.
The most striking room in the exhibition features elaborate gowns de Ribes wore to three masked balls in the '60s and '70s, which she told Koda was her most creative work. For these costume events, de Ribes "cannibalized couture gowns" and modified them with inexpensive fabrics and elaborate embroideries. The dress she wore to Alexis de Redé’s Bal Oriental in 1969 (see image below) was described in Vogue at the time as "a Napoleon III version of Turquerie" and made by copying couture from her closet — a Dior gown, a Guy Laroche evening coat and a Jean Dessès dress. "Imagine how a Victorian would picture a Mongol princess. That's my costume," she said.
It wasn't until 1982 that de Ribes decided to launch her own collection, which her husband said she had to finance herself, and her debut runway show managed to draw designers Yves Saint Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro, Valentino and WWD editor John Fairchild. Koda describes the signature element of her design as a "360-degree" approach. "What is a beautiful neckline, what is it when she's leaving a room — is she still interesting? So she really is concerned about the back," he says. The collection was well-received; she signed an exclusive three-year contract with Saks Fifth Avenue and it grossed $3 million annually by 1985, according to Vanity Fair. But the business suffered when a Japanese cosmetics conglomerate bought a minority stake in 1986, and as de Ribes's health declined in the late '80s and '90s.
"Even though in this process she's had moments of fragility, once it comes to a detail of mannequin or a dress, she's completely charged up," says Koda. "Her son Jean said last night, 'You know, in our family we say my mother has always had a very fragile constitution. Imagine what a nightmare it would be if she didn't?'" Koda says de Ribes is proud to have worked throughout her life, despite being an aristocrat. But her aristocratic sensibilities made her hesitant to allow the Costume Institute to spotlight her, hence the eight-year-long process. "She wasn't willing to have a show, she felt to have the focus on her was sort of tasteless but over time we convinced her that [the exhibit] would be about that arc of creativity from a child to a designer," says Koda.
For those too young to remember the days de Ribes featured prominently in magazines' society pages, Koda hopes the exhibit will illustrate an era when elegant — rather than sexy — style ruled, and demonstrate de Ribes's attention to detail and love of timeless exuberance. "Many of these dresses I think are wearable now, but you don't have the circumstance in which to wear them," he says. "She's designing for real women but when she designs for them, she designs for how to flatter them."
"Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style" is on display at the Anna Wintour Costume Center at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from Nov. 19 to Feb. 21. De Ribes was due to be in New York this week for the exhibition's opening on Thursday, but cancelled her trip in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris last week.