Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacqueline de Ribes.

PARIS — La Comtesse Jacqueline de Ribes is still as willowy and arresting as 60 years ago when her future husband first laid eyes on “a magnificent gazelle” across a crowded room, Le Conte Edouard de Ribes related Wednesday night.

Those were among the tributes paid to the popular socialite, designer and philanthropist after French President Nicolas Sarkozy decorated her as a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor at the Elysée Palace.

This story first appeared in the April 9, 2010 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“She has the heart of a 14-year-old girl — a tender heart,” trilled Arielle Dombasle, one of 90 guests De Ribes hosted for a celebratory dinner in her sprawling 19th-century townhouse. “I’m wearing green because it’s the color of knighthood,” Dombasle said, twirling in her sinuous, one-shouldered John Galliano gown.

Bernadette Chirac, Reinaldo Herrera and countless counts, countesses and other nobles joined De Ribes for a casual, buffet-style dinner scattered across several art-stuffed, flower-filled salons. Laughter and applause erupted as De Ribes, in her musical voice, took a mic and recounted her transition from international fashion plate to fashion designer in the Eighties, unveiling her signature collection in that very townhouse before the likes of Valentino. “I was green with envy: You made it and I closed my atelier,” she teased the Roman couturier, alluding to his acclaimed documentary in declaring: “You are the Last Emperor.”

Still, proving the timelessness of her own, long-defunct collection, De Ribes donned a ruffle-necked blouse of her design to the party, pairing it with an embroidered Emanuel Ungaro vest and Giorgio Armani trousers. Earlier, for the ceremony, she donned a pantsuit by Armani, a feminine foil to the President’s pinstripes.

Meanwhile at the party, Valentino revealed plans to open a small fashion museum at his 17th-century Domaine de Wideville castle in the countryside near Paris. He said it would open in July, but was sheepish about details. “It’s a surprise,” he demurred, rushing to embrace Marisa Berenson, glittering in a black, sequined Donna Karan. It is understood the museum will function as a research lab for students, who can inspect the Valentino archive, from dresses to sketches.

But the night belonged to De Ribes. “She has such an incredible elegance and sophistication,” Berenson enthused about her friend’s fanciful taste and ebullient personality. “She is so Romanesque.”

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