Stepping Out

updated 02/04/2002 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/04/2002 01:00AM

If there is an adult equivalent of the "cool table," that fixture of most American high school cafeterias, it is the front row of an haute couture show. So it was no surprise to find Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna occupying the choice seats at Donatella Versace's showing of her spring collection, held Jan. 19 at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris. The young woman beside them, however, was an eye-popping newcomer to the First-Row Club: Chelsea Clinton, who turns 22 on Feb. 27, looking sleek in a Versace pantsuit and ironed tresses. As models sashayed by in Versace's circus-inspired collection, Clinton—in between whispers to Paltrow and Madonna—exclaimed, "Wow!"

Mostly it was the former First Daughter who sparked that reaction. "I didn't recognize her for at least 10 minutes," says E! Fashion File producer Madeleine Czigler. The makeover was a gift from Versace, who met Chelsea and her parents, ex-President Bill Clinton and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, at a Washington, D.C., event several years ago. "Donatella," says her spokesman, "wanted Chelsea to feel great." And, adds the spokesman, "Chelsea was very happy with the work they did."

Famously lampooned on Saturday Night Live for her adolescent frizzy hair and braces, Clinton—a Stanford University grad now studying international relations at Oxford University in England—has in recent years developed a polished, if conservative, look. Yet there was nothing reserved about the cleavage-baring Versace gown she chose for the show's afterparty at hot spot La Cantine du Faubourg, where Clinton chatted with her date, fellow American Oxford student Ian Klaus. The pair are keeping mum on whether they're more than just pals, but Clinton's Paris debut hinted at a newfound confidence. "Chelsea seemed to be very enthusiastic about the whole experience," says one attendee. "She had a blast."

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