Jacqueline de Ribes has an actual title — she’s Jacqueline, Countess de Ribes — and she’s been given many more. “Reigning Queen of Paris,” for example, and “Empress of Café Society.” Unlike the formal title, which she was both born with and married into, the others she earned over 86 years of totally over-the-top living, doing things like arriving very late for dinner dressed in a Turkish disguise. Her father-in-law once described her as a cross between a Russian princess and a showgirl from the Folies Bergère.
De Ribes had a dark, if privileged, childhood in wartime France. There were châteaux, sure, but there were also Gestapo staying in them, and her parents were as glacial as they were glamorous — she often says that as a child she was kissed only once.
At 18, fresh out of the convent, she married Edouard de Ribes, and a particularly flamboyant uncle took her to buy some dresses at Christian Dior (“I’m the last customer on Earth who remembers the actual Christian Dior,” she points out). What followed was a lifetime of haute couture patronage (Dior, Jean Desses, Emanuel Ungaro, Yves Saint Laurent) and attendance at a never-ending cycle of charity galas and bals masqués.
De Ribes is unusually beautiful, with a long, graceful neck and a big, distinctive nose that inspired Richard Avedon (who photographed her dozens of times at the suggestion of Diana Vreeland) to express pity for all the other girls in the world with noses less extreme. Soon, lots of people were calling her Nefertiti.
As a fashion client, she could be quite imperial. “I always wanted bigger sleeves or shorter sleeves,” she says. “And they always said okay. They knew that Monsieur Saint Laurent would always agree with me.” Then, at age 53, de Ribes began her own label, picking up clients in America (Barbara Walters, for one), Tokyo, and elsewhere with a collection that matched her lifestyle: black-tie dresses with long sleeves and necklines, but also suggestive panels of sheer black lace. When her family refused to invest, she found backers on her own.
A few years ago, Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute were invited to lunch at her Parisian hôtel particulier and discovered an astonishing cache of perfectly preserved couture. On November 19, an exhibition opens featuring clothes from all the major couture houses as well as from her own line.
At 86, the countess is a great-grandmother of three and still quite busy in Paris. She was widowed several years ago and mourns her husband deeply. “My real admirer was my husband,” she says. “He was wonderful, and I am just so sad without him every single day.” She still keeps up with fashion (she likes the new team at Valentino) and has lots to say about style. Like on the topic of vulgarity: “First of all, loudness in general is vulgar. You can have loudness in so many ways. The way you move, the way you talk. If you laugh too loudly, it’s vulgar.” And on sex appeal: “You must remember that you’re never going to be sexy for everyone. You are sexy for someone, and for someone else you are not. Being totally nude is not sexy. The art of being sexy is to suggest. To let people have fantasy.”
Asked whether, in all her titled years, she ever made a fashion mistake, she has this to say: “My mirror is my best adviser. Once I did make a mistake. There was a great hairdresser in Paris named Alexandre, and he was going to have a story on him in Life magazine. He said, ‘Could you give me the great favor that I will do your hair in front of the camera of Life?’ But then, after, when I saw the pictures, I discovered that I had hair up in the air and I was covered with too many diamonds! I only did it to be nice to him. And I hope he was happy.”
The Met show is a couture lover’s dream. These clothes were made perfectly, and they were worn in the context for which they were intended, a context that doesn’t really exist anymore. No one would’ve thought to whip out cameras at the parties de Ribes attended for most of her life, an idea almost inconceivable in an age when the whole point of fashion can sometimes feel like providing fodder for Instagram. There was never an ounce of democracy in any piece of this wardrobe, and now here it is, available for the world to lay eyes on. “My upbringing was always to be discreet,” de Ribes says. “When you are an aristocrat, you are not supposed to be in the press, so of course for me, this thing of being in a museum makes me go back in time — for the past 20 years, I have been very calm, and now to go back in the press when you are an old lady — I will just say that it is a very wonderful feeling.”
*This article appears in the October 19, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.