PARIS — Who pays for Carla’s clothes?

That’s a question that has been raging ever since Dior-clad French First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy wowed the Brits last week on an official visit with her husband, French President Nicholas Sarkozy.

British papers have had a field day speculating about who paid for the first lady’s Dior coats, dresses, bags, shoes and evening gowns. The Sunday Times estimated the free advertising would likely boost Dior’s sales by $2 million and change opinions about John Galliano’s Ladies Who Lunch proposition for next fall, which met with mixed reviews.

Dior declined all comment.

However, Bruni-Sarkozy’s agent stressed her client chooses her own outfits and adheres to a strict wardrobe policy.

“She either borrows or buys,” said Veronique Rampazzo at Marilyn Agency in Paris. “And it’s all her personal budget. It’s not the state budget. The same goes for her hair and makeup.”

For example, at a recent state dinner for Israeli President Shimon Peres, Bruni-Sarkozy wore an Hermès gown by Jean Paul Gaultier she purchased herself at a Paris boutique.

For her London sojourn, Bruni-Sarkozy had also borrowed designs by Gaultier, Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent, which may eventually surface at other occasions or be returned, according to sources.

While fashion and jewelry houses pummel journalists with press releases detailing celebrity credits at even marginal events, French firms tread more delicately around their first ladies, only disclosing information with her explicit approval.

Still, there’s a long history of the country’s first ladies being given clothes by top fashion houses for their official duties, which raises none of the ethical objections it might in the U.S. or Britain. It is seen as part of the job.

And many first ladies didn’t hide their fashion choices. The late Claude Pompidou proudly broadcast the fact that she wore designs by Chanel, Pierre Cardin and Courrèges. Ditto for Bernadette Chirac, a front-row fixture during the Paris couture.

In any case, French newspapers and weeklies were dazzled by Bruni-Sarkozy’s fashion policy, calling her a model of discretion, beauty and elegance. “Strict elegance,” applauded Le Figaro, which, like other publications, drew parallels to Jackie Kennedy.

This story first appeared in the April 4, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

But while Paris Match went so far as to crown a scene-stealing Bruni-Sarkozy as “Queen of London,” Le Nouvel Observateur sniped that her look was “namby-pamby.”

But even designers who didn’t accrue any fashion credits last week heaped praise on the pop singer and former model.
“Her beauty and her intelligence made for a flawless display of elegance,” Gaultier said.

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