France’s Model First Lady

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Say what you will about her checkered past, her quickie marriage to Nicolas Sarkozy, and those nude photos that keep turning up at the most embarrassing moments. Carla Bruni is still the best thing to happen to France’s fashion industry in years. From the moment she stepped off the plane clad in head-to-toe Dior, France’s new First Lady has been a walking advertisement for Parisian style during a state visit to Britain this week.

Her trim gray Dior coat-dress with matching pillbox hat drew immediate comparisons to Jackie Kennedy and wowed even the jaded Fleet Street crowd. “Perfect!” gushed the tabloid Mirror. “Chic,” intoned The Times. The outfit was one of four Dior creations that Bruni wore on March 26, a day that included lunch at Windsor Castle, a speech by Sarkozy to Parliament, and a state dinner at Buckingham Palace.

Diplomacy may have played a role in the wardrobe selections, since Dior’s star designer, John Galliano, is British. What’s more, Dior’s owner, Bernard Arnault of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, is a longtime friend of Sarkozy’s. But Bruni doesn’t seem to be playing couture favorites: her state-visit wardrobe also includes a gown by designer Jean-Paul Gaultier of Hermès.

It helped, of course, that Bruni is a former model who looks drop-dead gorgeous in just about anything. And, well, it probably didn’t hurt that, as The Daily Telegraph put it, Prince Charles’ wife Camilla Parker-Bowles “dressed in what appeared to be an aged cleaning lady’s old brown coat, and topped with a hat that looked like a beret upon which a dead pheasant had crash-landed.” Ouch.

French fashion houses have never had such a stylish ambassador in the Elysée Palace. The former Madame Sarkozy, Cécilia, was also an ex-model and a bigtime clothes shopper. But she seemed to favor Italian fashion over French: She wore Prada at Sarkozy’s swearing-in last year, and her recent remarriage in New York City was announced by the house of Versace, which dressed her and her new husband, Richard Attias, for the occasion.

Former First Lady Bernadette Chirac was a fan of Chanel and always impeccably clad. But she was already a matronly 62 when her husband became President in 1995. Bruni is only 40. The nude photos and the past liaisons with Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton may not be conventional trappings for a President’s wife – but they create a frisson that could help French fashion in its quest to remain young and hip.

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