High society hails an American in Paris: The super-thin and super-wealthy turned out to support Oscar de la Renta. Marion Hume reports

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The Independent Online
OSCAR DE LA RENTA, the first American to take part in the Paris Haute Couture since Wallis Simpson's favourite, Mainbocher, made his debut for Balmain yesterday. He showed his collection to a gathering of appreciative society dames - predominantly Americans - including the super-thin, super-wealthy wives - Nan Kempner (oil rich), Mica Ertegun (music-rich), Judy Taubman (department store rich) and Susan Gutfreund (Wall Street rich). Also attending, under the French flag, were de la Renta fans Marie-Helene de Rothschild (wife of Baron Guy) and Helene David-Weill (wife of one of the richest investment bankers in France).

The Paris-based society darlings Ines de la Fressange and Paloma Picasso, both known by their maiden names and for what they, rather than their husbands, do, came to look.

De la Renta, who is Dominican-born and Paris-trained, has a highly successful eponymous ready-to-wear business, said to gross in excess of dollars 450m ( pounds 302m) a year, based in New York. In this couture collection for the House of Balmain, he offered crisp trench coats, slender day suits and millefeuille chiffon layered cocktail dresses, all predominantly in black, white and navy. These were judged 'tres jolie madame' - exactly in the spirit of the late Pierre Balmain.

Unlike the German Karl Lagerfeld, who reinvents Chanel every season, and the Italian Gianfranco Ferre at Dior, de la Renta could not rely on reworking an archive and reissuing established symbols to spell out Balmain's style. Balmain, who opened his couture salon in the wake of the war and who dressed Katharine Hepburn for The Millionairess and Jennifer Jones for Tender is the Night, did not have any easily distinguishable signature buttons or braids.

So instead, de la Renta went headlong for a Parisian theme - to the tunes of accordion music and I Love Paris in the Springtime. The result was prim, spruce, and Right Bank, neither innovative nor directional but certainly appealing to 'the ladies of a certain age', as the French call them, who were always the core clients of the House of Balmain.

Jerry Zipkin, who is dubbed the social moth for the manner in which he flits around the New York ladies, thought the collection 'Oscar's very best'. He predicts that many American couture clients will switch allegiance to a French house headed by their compatriot.

But Yves Saint Laurent need not worry too much. The YSL camp and de la Renta camp have a lengthy, intricate history of rivalry, based primarily on allegations that Oscar, sometimes dubbed the American Saint Laurent, is inspired rather too precisely by Yves. That the two now share money men - the perfume side of de la Renta's business is owned by Elf Sanofi, which last week acquired Saint Laurent lock stock and bugle bead - probably has not helped matters.

Saint Laurent proved this week, beyond doubt, that he remains the king of couture and the arrival of de la Renta will be viewed at the YSL headquarters as no more than an insignificant insurrection.

However, Yves will certainly have to strike one name from his client book; the shy social swan Annette de la Renta (rich in her own right as heiress to the Engelhard Minerals fortune), the wife of Oscar. She has shopped there for years.

(Photographs omitted)

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