Madame Rochas Is a Perfume, but Helene Has Returned to Prove That First There Was the Woman

updated 06/16/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/16/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Though a charter member of the old jet set (Aristotle Onassis used to invite her to join him and Maria Callas on his yacht), Hélène Rochas resents the association. "Terms like 'jet set' refer to people who don't work," she sniffs, "and I do." Vraiment. Madame Rochas, widow of Paris perfume mogul Marcel Rochas and the inspiration for the fragrance that bears her name, is back on the job. After a decade of globe-hopping and acquiring a 115-foot yacht, Hélène has returned to Parfums Rochas as "image consultant."

Though as decorative as ever at 56, Rochas has never been a mere corporate adornment. Following Marcel's death in 1955, Hélène took over and ran the company until 1970—the year she sold out to the French chemical company Roussel-Uclaf for a reported $40 million. She was privately "disappointed" with their stewardship of the name, and when a new management team asked her back Hélène eagerly accepted. "Rochas was always in my heart," she sighs. "I would look in windows and see the perfumes, and I felt a sadness."

Rochas' current president, Jacques Pecqueraux, is delighted to have Madame. "She is our nose, our intuition, our mirror," he exults with French fervor. In more concrete terms, Hélène is helping the cosmetics firm diversify. So far she has launched a new men's fragrance called Macassar and designed a line of all-white lingerie. White is her trademark, but Madame is not too grande to be practical. She insisted that the bedwear be of an easily pack-able, washable synthetic fabric; she also had the gowns cut short in front and long in back to facilitate the climbing of stairs. "She was the spirit of Rochas and she will put them back on top," observes Oscar de la Renta. His wife, Françoise, suggests that Hélène is the Gallic Gloria Vanderbilt.

Rochas herself gallantly concedes that she is the creation of her late husband Marcel, who was 22 years her senior. Her father was a World War I hero, her mother France's first woman dentist. Hélène was studying acting when she bumped into Rochas on a Paris Métro in 1942. Already an established designer, he asked her to work for him—as a hat model. "I was very vexed," she recalls, "because he didn't think I was old or elegant enough to model his dresses." He promptly set out to change that, playing Pygmalion to her willing Galatea. "I was," she smiles, "a good student."

Five years after their brief courtship and marriage, the bride led him to create Femme perfume. Their union also produced two children: François, 36, a vineyard owner, and Sophie, 34, the wife of a Paris disco owner. Sophie and her mother rarely speak. "We fight terribly," says Hélène, the first to admit her own career caused the rupture. "I was not a good mother."

Since her seven-year second marriage to theatrical producer André Bernheim broke up in 1965, Hélène has lived and traveled with Paris boutique owner Kim D'Estainville, 44. Madame denies they are secretly wed. "We don't need it," she shrugs. "I'd be afraid to change the relationship."

Still, Héléne, who divides her time between a house in Paris and an apartment on Fifth Avenue, maintains the traditional French view on the role of women. "I work, but I don't want to get taken for a women's libber," she insists. Rochas is no less adamant about resisting the global obsession with youth. She refuses to exercise—"It's so boring"—or to have a facelift. "I'd rather keep myself the way I am," she asserts. "After 30, you get the face you deserve." That's a paraphrase of author George Orwell, but Monsieur Rochas is still her mentor. "Young women," says Madame, "are never elegant."

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