AS FRANCE’S first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy styled herself on Jackie Onassis, acted in a Woody Allen film and had a folk-music career.
She upstaged every woman at the G8 and looked chic in maternity leggings. How do you follow a multi-talented supermodel? After Francois Hollande’s inauguration today, Valerie Trierweiler plans to blaze a new trail. “I want to represent the image of France, do the necessary smiling, be well-dressed, but it shouldn’t stop there,” she told The Times last week. Women in politics are subject to scrutiny. With Christine Lagarde in Washington a year and Rachida Datí installed in Brussels, Francois Hollande’s female ministers won’t compare unglamorously to their predecessors. Valerie might, but the new première dame’s made a shrewd, if unintentional, style move by establishing herself as Carla’s opposite.
Like disillusioned voters, the fashion set loves a dramatic change. It is as keen on Valerie as on flares after five years of skinny jeans. US Vogue says she has Lauren Bacall’s “sly elegance.” Karl Lagerfeld called her a “handsome woman,” summing up her Katherine Hepburn waves, perfectly-arched brows and strong, slightly masculine energy. Designer Bouchra Jarrar was first to say he wants to dress her. “As for her style, she makes me think of a heroine in a Claude Chabrol movie,” Jarrar told Women’s Wear Daily. “She has an air of [French New Wave actress] Marie-France Pisier, which pleases me a lot and could inspire me.” Valerie’s not an aspiring muse. “I dress in prêt-a-porter (off-the-rail). Lately it has been Georges Rech and Apostrophe, which are quality brands that I have been wearing on television,” she said. “I have never worn dresses by grands couturiers.”
If Valerie gets a first lady makeover, it will be gradual and on her terms. As she told French Elle, “for over 20 years [as a political journalist at Paris Match] I was an observer, and now I find myself in the position of being observed. We don’t change our way of life, or our personality, overnight.” She may need to adapt her taste to celebrate the country’s most beautiful tradition. “In her new role, she will need to wear haute couture,” says Mireille Guiliano, former CEO of LVMH brand Clicquot (as in Veuve) and author of French Women Don’t Get Fat. “Her time as first lady [compared with Carla’s] will be like day and night. She is not a former model and will have more important challenges than her fashion profile, but she is an intelligent professional woman who will pick what she likes and not limit herself to one or two designers.”
The new first lady’s style is a practical take on French classic. She wears black, white and nude clothes and minimal jewellery. Her low, stiletto heels are feminine but unrestrictive. She carries unstructured, practical shoulder bags by Paris brand, Gérard Darel, and matches them to skinny belts. None of her bags retail for more than €400 and she doesn’t have many: she was photographed with the same brown ‘36 Heures’ tote throughout autumn and winter 2011. For spring, she lightened up with micro-patterns like polka dots and tiny flowers. She wears little make-up and hasn’t succumbed to Botox, opting, instead, for that pampered, natural look French women do so well. The brunette is fond of a glossy blow-dry and her nails and complexion are those of a salon regular.
Valerie also knows what not to wear. While presenting 2012 Campaign Portraits on French network Direct 8, she was dazzling but appropriate on camera. “She dresses her age. On television, she always looks naturally impeccable and elegant,” says Guiliano.
On the campaign trail she favoured trench-coats, oversized scarves, wrap tops and low-waist, and wide-legged trousers. Her suits are feminine-tailored to flatter her hourglass frame (she claims it’s not true that French women stay magically thin, telling The Times she gained 5kg while campaigning). Her clothes suit her shape and her busy lifestyle and look modern, but not too trendy. She is representative of a French woman who is ‘bien dans sa peau’ (comfortable in her skin).
As a politically-engaged partner, she has much in common with Hilary Clinton or Cherie Blair, but her campaign wardrobe indicates she’s unlikely to make their fashion faux pas.
Nor will she need a stylist to whip her wardrobe into shape. Her natural styling skills put her in a fantastic position to support budding French fashion talent. “I fancy she will do what Michelle Obama does ... giving more designers a chance,” Giuliano says.
Support for designers could offset some of the upset in the fashion world over two of Hollande’s more contentious campaign suggestions: a 75% tax rate on salaries above €1m and taxes on luxury goods. According to Elle.com, executives at LVMH and other French luxury groups are understood to have discussed moving their bases of operations cross-channel should these ideas become law (bringing Marc Jacobs et al closer to their Irish faithful).
Valerie’s style has had a positive impact on Hollande. The then-partner of Segolene Royal cut a blander, more corpulent figure when he began an affair with Trierweiler in 2006.
It was a case of cherchez la femme when, three years before embarking on his campaign, he slimmed down and began sporting designer glasses and well-tailored suits.
To set the record straight, Valerie is rumoured to have emailed the editor-in-chief of a French radio show that reported Holland dyed his hair. Women’s Wear Daily gave him a B this week for his style (he lost marks for his forehead, “bigger than Tyra Banks’s ... a shorter haircut would be more flattering,” and other slight faux pas.)
Valerie’s path reads like a chick-lit plot: the political journalist becomes the paramour of the opposition leader’s husband, and then supports him all the way to the top.
Her style doesn’t quite reflect what you’d expect of a novel’s French heroine.
Maybe the Gallic press doesn’t appreciate Carla’s Dior and Rachida Datí’s YSL, but fashion lovers are always impressed. Surely, these are Les vrais Francaises: as couture-confident and chic as glossy magazine ads depict?
Perhaps Valerie’s pared-down style better represents where French women are at right now: the same strong, implacable elegance with less extravagant packaging.
“I suspect she will keep applying the ‘less is more’ rule when it comes to fashion and will be a representative of the classic, simple and elegant French,” says Giuliano. “She will be an inspiration for many.”