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Clothes Minded: The Style of Betsy Bloomingdale

Betsy Bloomingdale, a woman with 11 closets and a world of style, is the subject of a new exhibit.

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LOS ANGELES — For over 30 years, Betsy Bloomingdale had a routine. Every June, the Los Angeles social figure would accompany her husband Alfred, heir to the department store fortune and Diners Club chairman, on his business trips to Paris where she took in the couture shows while he worked. They’d check into the Plaza Athénée and then Betsy would pop over to the ateliers on Avenue Montaigne. Later, she’d meet pals like Nan Kempner and Lynn Wyatt for lunch.

“Have you been to Balmain?” they’d ask each other. “Have you seen Chanel?” Then everyone would disperse, returning to showrooms to place orders with their assigned vendeuse. Bloomingdale always limited herself to two day looks and two evening, but never with beading — too expensive. Once she was back in Beverly Hills, the lithe fashion plate would go over her croquis (sketches of her custom garment) and eagerly await the perfectly put-together suits and elegant evening gowns she’d purchased. Back then, you see, the couture was all very civilized.

Nowadays, it’s all about flash, paparazzi, spectacle. Charlize Theron vamping for the cameras at Dior, models walking out of a giant perfume bottle at Chanel. “It’s different,” says Bloomingdale, dressed head-to-toe in Oscar de la Renta. “The designers used to come down [to the atelier] and do your fittings. You really got a lot of attention. And now the prices are beyond. You have to be Russian or Middle Eastern.”

She stopped attending the Paris shows several years ago, and is now at the stage where she’s giving away couture, not acquiring it. Sixty pieces from her collection will be on display at Los Angeles’ Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising as part of the exhibit “High Style: Betsy Bloomingdale and the Haute Couture,” opening Wednesday.

“A lot of people have given to the Met, like Nan,” says Bloomingdale, who is a founding donor of FIDM. “But Los Angeles is my home. Local girl done good.”

The daughter of a Beverly Hills doctor, Bloomingdale (née Betty Newling) grew up “a clotheshorse,” she says, “but I didn’t know very much about the couture.” Seventy or 80 years later — Bloomingdale is somewhere between 78 and 85, depending on what you read, since “age is something I never discuss” — it’s safe to say she’s learned quite a bit.

Curators Kevin Jones and Christina Johnson dedicated three years to scouring Bloomingdale’s meticulously organized closets (there are 11), unearthing pieces that span 34 years. “There are not a lot of people who are native to Los Angeles who have also lived the international couture,” says Jones. “She’s given us such a rich archive.”

Within the collection are a mid-Sixties wool tweed suit with sheared beaver by James Galanos, a mint green silk-satin dress by Hubert de Givenchy from 1967, a yellow silk gazar halter dress by Marc Bohan for Dior from 1972, and a black feather and silk creation by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel from 1985. To Bloomingdale, revisiting these clothes is like seeing old friends. “I had such a good time in that dress,” she says, looking fondly at a floral silk and linen gown by Bohan for Dior from 1963. She had Roger Vivier pumps made to match.

“She’s really a fashion icon,” says Galanos, or “Jimmy” to Bloomingdale. “She still has a great figure. She’s tall and willowy. She knows what’s stylish and what suits her.”

“She’s the pioneer, the first one [in Los Angeles] who wore couture,” says longtime friend and San Francisco philanthropist Denise Hale. “On her it was perfect.”

Betsy Bloomingdale with Valentino, 2009.

Photo By Courtesy of FIDM

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What sets Bloomingdale apart from her stylish peers, says Carolina Herrera, is her acute sense of what to wear on any occasion. “She knows when to dress up and when to dress down,” says the designer. “I think very few women know how to do that.”

It’s little wonder, then, that Bloomingdale often landed on the International Best Dressed List and is now in the Hall of Fame. Not that that was ever her own personal goal, she says. “My husband was always so pleased about that [being on the list].”

Alfred, who died in 1982, is partly responsible for his wife buying couture in the first place. During one of his work trips — when he was trying to sell the Europeans on using credit cards — Alfred met with fashion executives like Jacques Rouet, then chairman of Dior, and Ginette Spanier, directrice of Balmain. Both told the businessman that his better half had only once choice. “Ginette said, ‘Your wife must dress in the couture,’” Bloomingdale recalls. “And Alfred said, ‘So she’ll dress in the couture.’ My first dress was Balmain.”

Her husband would even tag along on her shopping trips. “Alfred would go into the dressing room when she’d try on clothes,” recalls Lynn Wyatt. “He was very proud of Betsy when she would come out just looking wonderfully dazzling.”

The couple lived a very high-profile life, jetting to New York, Washington, D.C., and the south of France for glittering parties hosted by luminaries in the fashion, business and political worlds. Ronald and Nancy Reagan were close confidantes, and the Bloomingdales attended several events at the White House during the Reagan era and its Eastern and Western White Houses. “Betts has always had her own style, and she always looks fabulous,” says the former First Lady. (Both women were loyal clients of Galanos, but he says they rarely fought over the same dress since they have distinctly different styles due to their height. At over 5 feet 7 inches, Bloomingdale is nearly six inches taller.)

Bloomingdale also saw several of her favorite designers socially, including Galanos, Bohan, Givenchy and Adolfo. She remembers running into Karl Lagerfeld one afternoon in Beverly Hills: “I stopped and said, ‘Oh, Mr. Lagerfeld.’ And he said, ‘Mrs. Bloomingdale. Betsy. You never change.’ Well, I was going down the alley to go into Valentino, but with that I thought, I have to go to Chanel. This guy has made my day.”

That’s not to say she didn’t adore Valentino, too. When she heard of his retirement in 2008, she faxed him a letter: “I’m not going to be able to get dressed anymore!”

“Those clothes will be in my closet for ages because they’re well made,” she says. “But I never bought the couture with Valentino, I bought the ready-to-wear. To me, it was so great. I’d be there with some of my friends who were getting couture, and I’d think, well, I can get two for the price of that one.”

Valentino considers Bloomingdale an ideal customer. “I think she is the last of the great women of style,” he says. “Women we do not see around much anymore, women who change dress three times a day. All this seems so old and démodé, but in Betsy there is such a joy in wearing nice clothes, such a sense of humor in having fun with fashion.”

She may have been having fun, but Bloomingdale also knew enough to take her collection seriously. She was considering lending her clothes to a museum as early as 1972, telling WWD at the time, “Some of them are classics, historical, and I think they should be saved to be appreciated by others.”

To that effect, she kept everything exquisitely organized. Curators Jones and Johnson found most of her gowns packed delicately in tissue and accompanied with hangtags detailing where she wore each piece, what accessories matched, and how best to get in and out of the dress. One tag for a red one-shouldered Dior gown from 1985 reads: “State dinner, Washington, D.C./Metropolitan Museum NYC/Don’t zip or hook inner zipper. Zip a little way, snap bow on first, do outer zipper, dia[mond] pin to hold closed.”

“There were some ladies who had ladies’ maids,” Bloomingdale says, defending the method to her madness. “This lady was her own ladies’ maid.”

Bloomingdale rarely tripped up when it came to sartorial choices. Except, she says, the time she attended the birthday party for the Earl of Spencer, the father of the Princess of Wales, at his estate Althorp in the English countryside after Alfred had died. Anticipating the chilly London climate, she ordered a dress from Dior and a matching coat. “A big expense I’ll never do again,” she says. “They took the coat off the minute you arrived at this lovely place and hung it up there until I went home. I thought, what a waste. Terrible. So now we don’t waste like that. Everything has to have a reason and a purpose.”

The last couture piece Bloomingdale bought was in 1996, a black silk crepe and chiffon evening dress by Gianfranco Ferré for Dior. She had a hard time relating to the brand once it was taken over by John Galliano, whom she remembers meeting when he was designing for Givenchy. “I saw this guy standing there and he had all red toenails. I realized who he was and I said, ‘I’m Mrs. Bloomingdale and you’re Mr. Galliano.’ And he said, ‘Yes, there’s a rack of clothes over there.’ Well, I kept looking at his feet because I had never really seen a man with big, painted toenails, and he turned out to be even wilder later on.”

But if this makes Bloomingdale sound like a stick in the mud who can’t adjust with the times, it shouldn’t. It’s just the extravagant French couture coming down the runway these days no longer suits her lifestyle. Dinners with British royalty have been replaced by dinners with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. “I get invited to [son] Robert’s house all the time,” she says. During one recent visit, a misplaced hand towel bugged her, but she knew better than to start butting in. “I said, ‘I’m not going to touch that,’ because you don’t want the mother-in-law to come and fix up the house,” she says. “You know, you enjoy your kids, and if you’re not too much trouble, they’ll enjoy you.”

Bloomingdale is especially close with her granddaughters, Berry, Jane and Hayley. These days, she calls them, not a vendeuse, when she needs something new to wear.

“It started with birthdays and Christmas,” says Berry. “We would give her either something that she had seen us wearing that we knew that she liked, or we would pick out something from younger designers that we thought we’d introduce her to.” Diane von Furstenberg, Tory Burch and Theory have become favorites. “The pieces she wears the most often are Marc by Marc Jacobs,” Berry says. “Isn’t that funny?”

“I think she really enjoys knowing about the newer and upcoming designers,” says Jane, Berry’s sister. “She goes to Bergdorf Goodman and she spends some time on the lower floors, but then she’ll come up to 5F and look at Catherine Malandrino, that sort of thing. Before there was the couture, and that’s all you bought. There’s been a massive change, and she’s been able to adapt.”

Hayley, 24 and cousin to Berry and Jane, is always impressed when she meets her grandmother for lunch. “She knows that people don’t always wear some kind of women’s lunch outfit that they used to wear. She wears jeans and a cute top, because I’m wearing jeans and a cute top. Or maybe I’m wearing it because she’s wearing it, I don’t know. But she definitely gets it.”

Betsy says, “I thought my children and grandchildren might be embarrassed if mother arrived, like I did the other night, in my blue jeans and my Diane von Furstenberg. But they were cute about it….I love wearing my Diane.”

It’s a long way from the couture salons on Avenue Montaigne to von Furstenberg’s Melrose Place boutique. Then again, “It’s a different world,” as Bloomingdale says. “You have to go with the flow. That’s the way it is.”