The death at 84 of Hélène Rochas, the celebrated Parisian beauty who helped to turn the house of Rochas into a perfume powerhouse, signals the end of an era.
“Hélène Rochas has left us,” said Frédéric Mitterrand, France’s minister of culture and communication, in an official statement. “She who was immortalized in 1975 by Andy Warhol as the icon of elegance and luxury has gone quietly. With her vanished the last muse of the great couturiers and artistic circles from after the war, vanished a past universe of splendor and sumptuous Parisian parties frequented by Françoise Sagan, Yves Saint Laurent, Jacques Becker…vanished the muse and wife of Marcel Rochas, the famous designer from the Thirties to the Fifties, founder of the illustrious house Rochas.”
She is survived by her son, François, and daughter, Sophie.
Renowned for her classically beautiful face with cornflower blue eyes and a long neck and celebrated for her impeccable style — for which every fashion publication heaped on the encomiums — she was a leader in Paris society for decades, and also a highly successful businesswoman. “One of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen,” said John Fairchild, chairman emeritus of Fairchild Publications, who knew her for decades. “Beautiful but chic. She was instinctively beautiful.”
But Rochas preferred to downplay her role as an executive. In interview after interview, she said that she wasn’t really a believer in women’s liberation. “Women,” she told WWD in 1972, “should have a fragile air even if they’re not.”
Regardless of her delicate appearance, however, Rochas was clearly a strong, resourceful person. She became the third wife of couturier Marcel Rochas only a few months after she met him as an 18-year-old during the Nazi Occupation in Paris on the last Metro of the evening. Her mother was France’s first woman dentist and her father was a World War I hero. Hélène was studying acting and classical dance, and, as she told WWD in 1972, Marcel said to her that she “walked like a duck, like all dancers.” He told her that her head was pretty enough to model his hats, but that she wasn’t sufficiently chic for the dresses, because that quality was reserved for women over 30. “But I went on from the hats to the dresses to the guepieres, and I wound up marrying him,” she said.
“It changed my life,” she said of their relationship, which had a Pygmalion quality. He chose her clothes, helped her develop impeccable grooming and style, and insisted that she wear her hair long. When he closed his own atelier in 1953, he took her to Chanel, Christian Dior and Balenciaga for her clothes. His house’s classic chypre fragrance, Femme, launched in 1943, was inspired by her.
“I was a sort of ambassadress and brought a feminine image to the perfume,” she noted. “My husband loved everything that was feminine. Once he saw a Mae West movie where she wore a black lace dress. He was so impressed that he decorated the bottles for Femme perfume with lace, and gave them a round voluptuous shape.”
The bottle for Mme. Rochas, which she launched in 1960, was slimmer but still very feminine, she noted, because women’s shapes had changed.
“I’ve been used to thinking about what I put on, because my husband was so demanding,” she told W magazine in 1977. “I love dresses, fashion.” One of her few acts of rebellion after his early death in 1955 was to cut her hair short.
But she was a fast learner, and she was definitely inspired by his business savvy. When her husband died, Hélène Rochas was asked to become president of the company. She turned it into France’s sixth largest perfumer in 1964, then sold it to the French chemical company Roussel-Uclaf for the equivalent of $40 million — an enormous amount of money in those days — which was split between Rochas and her two children. In 1970, just before the deal was finalized, she noted in WWD, “When we closed our couture house on the Avenue Matignon, Rochas became one of the few perfume houses that was not connected with couture. There is Guerlain, but they have 140 years behind them….We have less than 30. I wanted to replace the couture with the idea of elegance.
“But the image of the elegant woman has changed….Now elegant women are often the last to be in fashion. It’s the girl in the street…the young, who decide fashion today and they’re becoming very sophisticated. I notice it with perfume. Lots of girls are now using Femme, which is a heavier perfume, instead of Mme. Rochas. I think it goes with the 1930s look and the Midi length. They seem to take much more interest in their appearance, in their makeup and in their perfume. And they can afford to buy all these things now.”
When asked about her own fashion philosophy by W in 1977, she said, “I have no rules. It’s not that thought out.” Then, with a touch of disingenuousness, she went on to detail all sorts of the elements from her recipe for style. “You need less rather than more to be elegant now,” she said. “In the day, practical things…the exotic is for summer and evening.” At the time, she wore mostly Yves Saint Laurent couture and ready-to-wear. She said in the same story that she bought three or four Saint Laurent couture outfits a season, and 10 or 12 boutique outfits.
In 1981, she told W, “A dinner for six has to be for very close friends. I have a dinner party like this at least two or three times a month, and very often the guests are people I know so well I can ring them up at the last minute.” Among those guests might have been Andre Oliver, a top executive at Pierre Cardin; the celebrated architect Emile Aillaud and his wife, Charlotte, sister of Juliette Gréco; Countess Christiana Brandolini, sister of Gianni Agnelli, and her husband, Count Brando Brandolini, or Rolf Lieberman, former director of the Paris Opera. For a cold winter night, she might serve eggs en cocotte with truffles, followed by a sauté of lamb with baby vegetables, salad and cheese and sorbet.
In 1977, she described her professional routine: “I enjoy working and I like to organize things. My office is very different from my home. I’ve just had it redone and it looks like something out of James Bond. There are buttons and gadgets all over the room. I don’t have a view on the Rue François Premier, so I had the window covered in green felt. I never know what it is like outside or what time it is. Sometimes I get carried away with my work and at 9 o’clock I realize everyone’s gone home and I’m the only one left.”
In 1980, she returned to the firm as a “brand ambassadress,” and she also told People magazine that her career had damaged her relationship with her daughter. “We fight terribly,” she said. “I was not a good mother.”
Rochas was married to her second husband, theater producer Andre Bernheim, from 1958 to 1965. Not long thereafter, she began a live-in relationship with boutique owner and man-about-town Kim d’Estainville, considered one of the handsomest men in Paris, which continued until the early Eighties. They divided their time between her Art Deco hôtel particulier in the 7th arondissement, widely regarded as one of the best in the city; her stunning yacht, which was moored in the South of France, and her New York apartment. In 1965, she gave one of the last of the great Paris balls, with a “My Fair Lady” theme, at the Belle Epoque La Grande Cascade restaurant in the Bois de Boulogne. It was attended by tout le monde, among them Jacqueline de Ribes, “My Fair Lady” designer Cecil Beaton, Elsa Martinelli and Marquis Raymundo de Larrain, and Rochas wore an aigrette and a white dress designed by Andre Levasseur and made by Guy Laroche.
After a certain point, though, a friend noted, she tired of the international jet set and preferred to spend time with a more intellectual group, who included the likes of critically lauded French novelist Patrick Modiano. She also spent long stretches in Tunisia with banker Jean-Pierre Marcie-Riviere and his wife.
Hélène Rochas had designed clothing for the Rochas label after her return to the house in 1980. Olivier Theyskens became creative director of the firm in 2002, showing his first collection in March of 2003 and winning the CFDA international award in 2006; she served as a consultant and muse during that time.
In the Sixties, Rochas collected antique silver slippers, while, in the Seventies, buying Art Deco pieces was a major pastime. What kept her young for so long? “Love, of course. What you feel inside,” Rochas told W in 1984. “You need to project your personality and maintain a curiosity about life and men, and remain open to everything.”