Going from Riches to Rags, Designing Vicomtesse Jacqueline De Ribes Reaps as She Sews: Handsomely

updated 12/16/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/16/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

Madame la Vicomtesse is at home this afternoon. Like a china doll, she perches on the silk divan in the upstairs salon of her 19th-century Paris town house. Polished English antiques, scattered Persian rugs and walls padded in pale blue silk are all part of the hothouse atmosphere that swirls around her elegant, haughty figure. Only the most exquisite of backdrops will do, of course, for one of Paris' legendary beauties, the Vicomtesse Jacqueline de Ribes.

But it is not as a long-standing member of the jet set that de Ribes, celebrated for her dazzling style, serves her guest tea in a tissue-thin cup. The Vicomtesse, whose looks have been compared to those of Nefertiti, is ever so gracious as she receives a member of the fourth estate in her private quarters to chat up her blossoming career in, of all déclassé things, the rag trade. "I want to be known as Jacqueline de Ribes, not as the Vicomtesse," she says in the British accent she learned at her nanny's knee. No one, surely, can blame the daughter of the Comte de Beaumont, the granddaughter of the Comtesse de Rivaud, for wishing to circulate title-free in the working world. But certain habits die hard, and at home de Ribes is still called Madame la Vicomtesse by her seven servants.

Although de Ribes, who is in her mid-50s, has not yet reached the exalted airspace of such international design stars as Yves Saint Laurent and James Galanos, the American master of haute couture, she is definitely holding her own. She is not yet selling on a grand scale in France, but she is doing very nicely in Italy, Britain, West Germany and Switzerland. And across the Atlantic, where her sophisticated line ($1,000 to $8,000) is sold in major department stores coast to coast, de Ribes is enjoying a succès fou.

De Ribes is not the first lady of means to peel off her evening gloves and join fashion's working class. In fact, designing socialites are all the rage. Diane Von Furstenberg, although not actually to the von born, is one of Seventh Avenue's most successful personalities. Gloria Vanderbilt, the queen of society designers, has made a boodle putting her aristocratic stamp on nearly everything from jeans (she puts the logo of a swan on the rump) to sheets, eyeglasses, wallpaper and, of all things, a tofu-based frozen dessert. And although she insists it had nothing to do with her own designing decision, de Ribes could not have failed to notice the dazzling track record of her friend Carolina Herrera, 46. Like de Ribes, a member of the best-dressed Hall of Fame, the Venezuelan-born beauty has successfully established herself in the U.S. with her fancy evening gowns, recognizable for their splashy sleeves.

De Ribes is holding up well under such peer pressure. She has just received the glitzy Rodeo Drive Award (past winners include Diana Vreeland and Aldo Gucci), and she is snagging a number of celeb clients, including Cher, Nancy Reagan and Joan Collins, who wore a sexy de Ribes at her recent marriage to Peter Holm. But everyone is not wearing de Ribes. Horsewoman C.Z. Guest, herself producing a line of cashmeres for Adolfo, is on kiss-kiss terms with both de Ribes and Herrera, but patronizes only the latter. "De Ribes clothes are frightfully glamorous, like her," C.Z. comments. "But I don't particularly like them for myself."

Warmly encouraged by Italian designer Valentino, de Ribes took the plunge two years ago. Her pal Saint Laurent was less enthusiastic. "He told me I was crazy," de Ribes says. Nonetheless he sent over his electricians and sound men for her first show, which was staged at her house, and tongues wagged that Saint Laurent had even helped with the designs, an accusation de Ribes emphatically denies. "When I started my business everyone thought I was doing it for a lark or that Saint Laurent or who knows was doing it for me," she has said. "But I wouldn't be doing this at all if I weren't in it 100 percent."

Fashion in one guise or another has always been part of her life. As a child she sneaked into her grandmother's fittings when the dressmaker came to call. As a willowy (5'9") teenager she cut her first ball gown on the floor of her mother's sitting room. "I was very sensitive," de Ribes says. "I liked everything that touched fantasy and beauty. I dreamed of being a ballerina, but Mother said I was too big, too long." In spite of her elegant surroundings, de Ribes, who was brought up by governesses in her family's home in Paris, was lonely. "It was bumpy," she says. "My childhood lacked affection and ambience." She has described her mother as "a sort of star I could never see, never reach, never talk to." During the Nazi occupation of France, Jacqueline was sent to live for several years in a convent outside Paris.

Jacqueline's life changed radically when she was 17. At a luncheon party in St. Jean de Luz, she found herself seated next to a young man who had arrived from a tennis match wearing shorts, purple sneakers and red socks. He was the 24-year-old Vicomte Edouard de Ribes. Jacqueline and de Ribes, a banker, were married the following year. (They have two children, Elisabeth, 36, and Jean, 31.)

While a young married woman, de Ribes never acted on her ambition to become a designer. "The theory in great families was why work if you don't have to," she says. "Being a public figure was reserved for movie stars." Her beauty and sense of style catapulted her into the limelight anyway. All through the '60s and 70s, de Ribes avidly cultivated the image of a cool international clotheshorse. She was shot by the world's top photographers and clothed by France's great couturiers. Saint Laurent once gushed, "She is the pearl in the king of Poland's ear, the Queen of Sheba's tallow-drop emerald, Diane de Poitiers' crescent tiara, the Ring of the Nibelungen. She is a castle in Bavaria, a tall, black swan, a royal blue orchid." Yves, in short, kind of liked her.

De Ribes also earned a reputation as a lioness in the fitting room. She never hesitated to change a sleeve, add feathers or otherwise monkey around with a dress she fancied. Chanel, who was not under her spell, would never let anyone change a button; as a result, de Ribes never wore Chanel. Jacqueline once appeared as a madwoman at a fancy soiree and another time sported a feathered headdress with a teardrop jewel pasted to her chin. "I was dressing myself," she says, "because I was frustrated about not dressing others." She also did charity work: She raised money for UNICEF and for several years sponsored the Ballet de Cuevas in Paris. But neither the spectacular appearances nor the good deeds made her happy. "I asked myself," de Ribes says, " 'What am I doing? I'm playing and lacking courage.' "

Now she has stopped playing. She puts in 12-hour days, designing her fall collection and developing a line of furs. She has not had a real vacation in three years and has little time for relaxed weekends with her husband and children at their château near Paris. Next month she will be winging to the States where she will push her goods in Palm Beach like any other Seventh Avenue merchant. But she has certainly not given up her regal sense of self. Her idea of the common touch is to wear Calvin Klein jeans at home, and if the candles in the candelabra aren't all the same height, the servants get a stern lecture. Similarly, her clothes are in the grand mannér and not for everybody. "I'm designing for a woman with my sense of elegance," de Ribes says, "someone who is astonishing without creating astonishment. I want to dress the anti-tarty, sexy woman." Spoken like a true vicomtesse.

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