Rochas played Pygmalion to the cornflower-blue–eyed Hélène, molding her into his ideal muse. She was one of Paris’s celebrated beauties. “I was a jeune fille when I met Marcel. After that I was a femme,” she would later say. “La Belle Hélène,” as the beau monde called her, became the face of the house, modeling everything from her husband’s hats to his waist-cinching guêpière, a long-line girdle that gave its wearer an hourglass figure.
Following the premature death of her husband in 1955, Hélène Rochas took over as president and became one of France’s first female CEOs. Though she had never had any intention of becoming a femme d’affaires, she proved to have the better business brain of the two. She worked ten-hour days, and introduced hit new scents like Madame Rochas and Moustache for men, to increase profits tenfold over the course of a decade.
In 1970, Hélène cashed it all in to enjoy her hard-earned success. The fashion division had already been dormant many, many years.
Finally, in 1990, after briefly mulling a return to couture, the house hired the Irishman Peter O’Brien to design a luxury ready-to-wear line. Mostly, this was a method of drumming up publicity for perfume launches, not an end in itself. It wasn’t until 2002 that the moribund house realized it could benefit greatly from a youthful injection of cool. The Belgian wunderkind Olivier Theyskens, who had shot to fame dressing Madonna in a goth glam look for the 1998 Oscars, was the dark prince tapped to revive Rochas’s sleeping beauty.
Theyskens’s ultrafeminine designs were an immediate hit. He embraced the house’s signature black Chantilly lace, incorporating a variation of it in every collection. But it was Theyskens’s exquisite evening gowns that would put the nearly forgotten name of Rochas back on everyone’s lips—particularly in Hollywood, where the red-carpet crowd swooned for his romantic demicouture creations.
“The Rochas house identity is established—ladylike with a cool-girl edge,”Women’s Wear Daily proclaimed in 2006. That same year, however, the house’s parent company, Procter & Gamble closed the couture house. The fashion world was stunned. Theyskens was a prodigious talent, and he had just won the CFDA International award. But on the books, the price tags of his lavish confections—up to $35,000 at retail, unheard of for anything outside of true haute couture—just did not add up to profits.