Jacqueline de Ribes is a busy vicomtes.
Having turned a passion for clothes into a business three years ago, the French aristocrat can usually be found in her flat shoes, trousers and clipped, working-girl fingernails, toiling in her Paris atelier, or perhaps hopping on a flight to New York, her most important U.S. city in terms of sales.
The tall (5-foot-10), leggy De Ribes, whose regal bearing has been captured by some of the world's great photographers, including Richard Avedon, says she has sacrificed sport, social life and family time to dedicate herself to her work and see her business thrive.
"In Paris," she says, "I just work. Totally--with a big T."
The exception was Friday night. De Ribes, swathed in one of her slim, dramatic velvet gowns--which she had folded and stuffed into one of her flat suitcases--was in Beverly Hills (her fourth-best U.S. city for sales), to attend one of the charity balls that were once so much a part of her very social pre-career life and which otherwise have vanished from her calendar now.
But, of course, this was one party she couldn't turn down. Selected as the honoree of the Rodeo Drive Committee's International Gala, De Ribes said the occasion "makes me very happy when I think of the others who have been honored, such as Galanos, whom I admire very much, and my dearest friend, Diana Vreeland." (Other previous honorees were merchants Dr. Aldo Gucci and Cyril Magnin.)
The Rodeo Drive Committee chose De Ribes because she represents "basically style, class, elegance," committee chairman Donald Tronstein explained. "In the fashion world, she is comparable to what Rodeo Drive represents throughout the world."
The Rodeo Drive that Tronstein describes wasn't always what it is now. You might say the life and times of the street have undergone changes similarly dramatic to the life and times of De Ribes.
Once, just another shopping street (with a bridal path down the middle in the '20s), it was where the locals bought books and went for casual family dinners. Now it's a real-estate gold mine, where Greyhound buses deposit tourists who raid the 130-odd retail shops packed along its four city blocks.
Ten years ago, the average monthly rent on a 2,000-square-foot-boutique was $2,000. Today, new leases are based on rates between $9 to $12 per square foot per month, upping monthly rentals to $20,000 for the same space. It's the street where the legend of Garbo lives, where Sylvester Stallone strolls and where Judith Krantz derives inspiration.
It's also where Tronstein estimates about half of the merchants are European. Committee members like to call it "the finest international shopping street in the world."
That clarifies why the choice of De Ribes pleased so many shopkeepers, who like to keep the accent on the European. While some people said they would have preferred a more established designer, or an American, the majority of retailers and property owners see the French noble woman as representing the quintessence of Rodeo Drive.
"You see, they're honoring life style," De Ribes explains herself. "I think I have the image of a lady who always fought for quality, for beauty, for the rigor of elegance. They wouldn't have honored me before, but they are honoring me as a fashion designer on top of the rest."
As a woman of discerning taste, De Ribes also offers her own critique of Rodeo Drive. "It's cozy and grand at the same time," she says, from her suite in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, also the site of the ball.
"It's both. You can walk in flat shoes and slacks and still see the best of the world. That's what makes it unique. In Paris, you would have to be wearing high heels on the Faubourg St. Honore --there's something more stuffy, more city about it. There's no equivalent to Rodeo Drive."
And even though she admits to never actually having bought anything there ("I wish I had time to shop"), she does say that shopping on Rodeo Drive is "marvelous. Every foot is a temptation."
De Ribes is also a big admirer of the L.A. style. "Because of your divine climate, you are very casual in the daytime, and I notice that people look healthy. They have lovely pink cheeks, a little tan and this lovely sort of at-ease chic for daytime. It's probably the sun, the beach, the sports, I don't know, but it's really something you notice. And it's something we Europeans have to learn from Americans, this sort of divine allure."
De Ribes' clients here are "very varie --I have the young generation and the elegant , " she says, including Betsy Bloomingdale, Fran Stark, Joan Collins and Cher. De Ribes says Cher saw one of her dresses on a cable television show, and even though the dress was a few seasons old, insisted on having that dress.