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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.”