Friday, May 30, 2008

San Francisco Couture Club Member: Denise Hale

Clockwise Top Left: Elegant in a red cape with her famous jewels; Hale in Ferre next to Dr. Alan Malouf, a good friend and fellow collector of 18th Century antiques, and Dodie Rosenkrans in Dior couture, attending the Vivien Westwood retrospective at the de Young Museum in San Francisco in 2007; With the designer James Galanos wearing Ralph Rucci Spring 2006; Hale in a Dior Couture gown by Ferre attending the opening of the San Francisco Symphony in 2000; The late designer Giofranco Ferre taking a bow a the end of a couture show for Dior; Denise Hale photographed in the 1960s.

There are few couture customers out there today who can claim refugee status, unless you happen to be Denise Hale.

Born in Belgrade, Serbia, Hale was raised mostly by her father’s parents. She was only 7 when the Gestapo began looting the city, and because she was very close to her grandfather, he entrusted her alone with the location of the family’s hidden gold.

Although the family made it through the Second World War, the Nazis were soon followed by the Russian occupation which brought on more hardships. Fleeing Sebria by rowboat, she was soon plucked from the Adriatic by a British minesweeper, whose captain took a shine to her. But instead of shipping her back home, he dropped her off at a refugee camp in Bari, Italy.

At 16 she landed a job in Rome as a model, where she quickly caught the eye of an older Italian mogul, “one of the richest men in Italy,” according to Hale. He would become her first husband, taking her around the world. But in 1958 she walked away from the marriage, financially independent and with a world-class collection of jewels. When she eventually did divorce him years later she had begun forging a new life for herself.

Landing in New York at the height of “the season”, Denise quickly assimilated into the upper echelons of New York society, and decided to stay on. It was there that she soon met her second husband, the director Vincente Minnelli. But the love of her life proved to be her third husband, Prentiss Cobb Hale, the San Francisco department store magnate, to whom she was married for 27 years. Hale jokes that her European friends “thought I was marrying down,” because he was “in-the-trade (retail).” The two went on to build an extraordinary life together in San Francisco.

Like her friend Dodie Rosenkrans, Hale has gained a reputation as a gracious and consummate hostess who enjoys meeting interesting people of different backgrounds. Whether mixing with twenty-somethings at a Google party, or having dinner with the British royals, she is always impeccably polite and at ease amongst any group. “I don’t care where you come from. I judge where you are. The life you come with.” Says Hale.

Domonick Dunne first met Hale one week after she married Mr. Minnelli in 1960. ''Young, beautiful, great jewels,'' he recalled. But he soon discovered that she also had a great knack for rattling the sometimes staid Hollywood social scene by giving parties that mixed the elegantly rich and the famously louche. ''There were a couple of the old guard hostesses who were a little put out with her,'' he said. ''But Denise really knew how to play the scene.''

For the last 10 years, she has been supporting a day care center, run by Catholic nuns in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, for poor women to leave their children while they work. She also paid for an operation for a young boy who needed surgery to restore his sight. She keeps a collection of drawings he sends to her.

But despite all her philanthropic work, Hale may best be remembered for her impeccable taste in both fashion and design. Her sumptuous residence in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights not only holds her stunning couture pieces, but an enviable collection of antique furnishings and fine art. According to Dr. Alan Malouf, a fellow collector and friend of Hale, “She has some of the finest examples of 18th century English and French antiques outside of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

Indeed walking through the grand living room of her mansion, with its green silk walls, provides a visual study in good taste. In one corner is a rare pair of signed Charles X gilded armchairs, which she waited 20 years to acquire. While the room itself is dominated by a magnificent 18th century French Aubusson carpet and an extensive collection of Chinese porcelain from the Kangxi period. Paintings lining the walls include a Redon (willed to the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C.), a Pisarro (one of two), and a Degas.

When it comes to Haute Couture, Hale has had the privilege of picking through the collections of some of the greatest houses. But for the last two decades she has worn the creations of two designers exclusively, Ralph Rucci and Gianfranco Ferre.

She was ultimately Ferre’s closest friend and biggest fan, and wore his creations to some of the most important events in her life for over a decade. Hale’s most spectacular Ferre moment occurred when he was designing haute couture at Christian Dior. Not only did he personally design the beautiful dress she wore to her 20th wedding anniversary party, but he gave it to her as a gift. The two also often vacationed together on the designer’s yacht or in Capri.

Their relationship demonstrates the close bond that can develop between a couturier and his clients. Even today after the designer’s death, Hale continues to wear many of the pieces she acquired from him over the years. Her closet, where she mixes her haute couture and ready-to-wear clothing, is relatively neat and tidy. She stores some items, like a heavy ivory satin Gianfranco Ferre ball skirt with lavish beading and embroidery, in a white net garment bag. Hale, whose tiny frame has changed little over the decades, can pull out just about anything from her closet and it will fit perfectly.

"If you have a great fitter, you only need to have two fittings," says Hale, who was fitted for her first haute couture gown at Dior when she was just 19. "I learned a long time ago from the great fitter at Dior that all your clothes, not just couture, must fit right. But a great fitter will know what to take in and exactly where on your body to make you look slimmer, or in my case, taller. The fitter at Dior knew exactly how much needed to be taken in between the bust and the hips - I don't look 5’-4” in a couture gown."

This may explain why Hale has moved on to Ralph Rucci as her designer of choice, for his exacting standards in fit and detailing seems to mesh perfectly with her own esthetic sensibilities.
© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS


Anonymous said...

Thank you for these beautiful words of this extraordinary lady. I wish her very beautiful moments forever.

Siniša Petrović

Anonymous said...

She's excellant lady. I wish I could meet her. Thank you for finest words about her.