Hélène Arpels: A Chic Parisian lands in New York
If there was ever a template for what chic is, it was Hélène Arpels who left a lasting impression on both sides of the Atlantic. Born Hélène Ostrowska to Russian parents in Monte Carlo, she grew into a statuesque beauty with fine features, and became part of a group of sought after aristocratic Russian models who posed for the likes Madame Grès, Mainbocher and Coco Chanel. Intimately familiar with Paris’ storied couture salons, she looked as expensive as the clothes she modeled. To couture clients, her grace and elegance conjured up images of a Russian court that no longer existed.
In the heady atmosphere of 1930s Paris, a young Hélène would attract the attention of Louis Arpels, a scion of the venerated jewelry house and the youngest of the Arpels brothers. Blessed with good looks, impeccable taste and a sense of humor, Louis used his position to propel Van Cleef & Arpels into the 20th century, by courting a new generation of Jazz Age royals and socialites that formed part of his circle of friends. It was a period that saw several major commissions, such as the creation of the coronation set for Princess Fawzia of Egypt. In Hélène he found the perfect muse to model the jeweler’s creations at society events and the couple married shortly after meeting in 1933.
Always the shrewd businessman, Louis crossed the Atlantic with his wife at the end of WWII to establish a branch of Van Cleef & Arpels in New York. Embraced by American society as the quintessence of Parisian elegance, Hélène was voted into the world’s 10 Best-Dressed List in 1949, a position she would hold for over ten years. Whether strolling down Fifth Avenue or the Champs-Élysées, she often turned heads in deceptively streamlined yet chic couture that served as the perfect backdrop for Van Cleef & Arpels’ creations that included cuffs sprinkled with rubies in the jeweler’s signature invisible settings as well as diamond studded minaudières.
In the late 1940s, long before other society fixtures such as Jacqueline de Ribes, Carolina Herrera and Carolyne Roehm, Hélène parlayed her reputation for chic into a successful design business. Opening a boutique at 665 Madison Avenue, she began designing chic versions of Arabian silk caftans in lush hues embellished with silver and gold embroidery, which became the standard for luxurious resort-wear amongst New York’s high society. A decade later she would cement her reputation as a coveted shoe designer, so much so that the New York Times mentioned her in the same breath as a considerably younger Manolo Blahnik just launching his career.
Often cited amongst the best shoe designers in the world, she catered to a discriminating group of women in search of exquisitely made footwear that reflected current trends while still being timeless. “I'm not a designer, but I know exactly what I want to create. I go to Italy twice a year, sometimes staying three to four months, working at the shoe factory that I own near Bologna. Women come to me for shoes that are classic, and will last for years and still remain in fashion,” noted Hélène, whose hushed salon on Madison Avenue was an elegant time capsule.
Within a setting decorated with gilded Louis XVI chairs, a thick pile carpet and a grand crystal chandelier, regular clients would seek out her signature loafers made from the softest buttery leather with just a sliver of a heel, or her coveted low-heeled satin court pump, which could be dyed in any color upon request. For Hélène, who came to epitomize the Van clef & Arpels woman, her elegant boutique also served as a showcase for her more accessible line of costume jewels that included necklaces in hand-cut crystal mounted in gold-plated settings as well as cuffs studded with pale citrine stones. This seductive combination of shoes and jewelry came naturally to Hélène, who during her heyday as the epitome of modern elegance, was known to attach diamonds to her shoes, once remarking “After all, diamonds go with everything.”
If there was ever a template for what chic is, it was Hélène Arpels who left a lasting impression on both sides of the Atlantic.
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