By Michelle Tauber
Updated April 23, 2001 12:00 PM

Pauline Trigère doesn’t sketch; she snips. Wielding her scissors like dressmaking Zorro, the famed couturiere slashes through fabric—while it is still swathed around flesh-and-blood models—with breathtaking speed. It is not a design technique for the faint of heart, as a group of students at New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology learned last year. “As soon as I started cutting on the model,” recalls the French-born Trigère, “they all screamed.”

But at age 92, Trigère (pronounced Tree-jair) has long been accustomed to inducing gasps, though mostly for her impeccably cut clothes. A self-made style authority who never received any formal training, she fashioned a six-decade career out of designs that deftly blended elegance with practicality. A favorite of such style icons as Bette Davis and the Duchess of Windsor, she was among the first to use common fabrics like cotton and wool in evening wear in the 1940s, and in the ’60s introduced the jumpsuit as a fashion staple.

Like their creator, Trigère’s designs have remarkable staying power—so much so that gowns she crafted in the 1940s and ’50s are still being worn on the red carpet by the likes of actresses Winona Ryder and Julianna Margulies. “We don’t have too many poets in this business,” declares Stan Herman, president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, “but she is one of the poet designers. She has that flair.”

She also still has the daring to show it off. “This woman is in her 90s, and she’ll walk into a room in a sleeveless jumpsuit cut down to her waist, and the whole room will stop and turn around,” observes Jimmy Newcomer, a professor of fashion design at FIT and a friend of Trigère’s. “She is incredibly chic.”

At an age when most folks would have long since retired, the tireless Trigère is now revving up a new project: a line of accessories designed for style-savvy women in their later years. The line—which she developed for Gold Violin, an online-catalog company that markets upscale products to seniors—features an ostrich-leather pill case ($125), a Bukhara weave bag designed to hang from walkers ($95) and a red cane with a brass top ($95). “If you’re dressed up,” notes Trigère, who doesn’t need walking aids, “why should you have an ordinary black cane?”

Since joining Gold Violin in 2000, Trigère is “constantly coming to us with ideas,” notes Connie Hallquist, the company’s CEO. Thus far, those ideas have been big hits, with last year’s sales exceeding $100,000. “People were excited to see she was back in the market,” says Hallquist.

Not that Trigère would have been expected to stay away for long. Although she officially shuttered her fashion label in 1993 amid industry-wide consolidations, she continued selling her scarves, jewelry and signature scent, Liquid Chic, mainly via word of mouth. “My mother,” says her son Jean-Pierre, 69, “can’t stop.”

Indeed, Trigère has been on the go for most of her life. The daughter of Russian Jewish emigrés Alexandre, a tailor, and Cecile, a dressmaker, Trigère grew up in Paris dreaming of a career using scalpels, not scissors. “I wanted to become a surgeon, but my father said no,” she recalls in her thick-as-potage Gallic accent. “He said he didn’t want me playing with cadavers.”

Instead, at age 19, Trigère married Lazar Radley, a Russian-born tailor. The couple soon had two sons, Jean-Pierre, now a computer consultant in Manhattan, and Philippe, now 66 and an attorney also in Manhattan.

In 1937, with Hitler’s armies advancing ever closer, Trigère—along with her husband, sons, mother and brother Robert (her father had died shortly before)—fled France for the? U.S. A double-decker bus ride down fashionable Fifth Avenue proved magical. “I fell in love with New York,” she recalls. English lessons later came via the silver screen. “We used to go to the movies,” she recalls. “We’d stay for the first show and understand nothing. The second time, you’d start to understand.”

While Trigère was laying down roots in New York, her marriage was losing ground, and in 1941 she and Radley separated. (The pair eventually divorced.) From then on, Trigère reared her sons alone, a responsibility that would become a career-making catalyst. “I had two children to raise,” she says, “and I needed money.”

She found work as an assistant to Manhattan designer Hattie Carnegie for $65 a week. By 1942, Trigère had decided to rent space in Carnegie’s shop and make her own frocks. “I knew nothing,” she says. But after her first collection of 11 wool-crepe evening dresses scored notice from several key department-store buyers, the Trigère label was off and running. “It was a whole different concept of what evening wear was,” says FIT’s Newcomer. “You didn’t need satin, lace and taffeta.” Adding to Trigère’s appeal, he says, was her exceptional craftsmanship: “She was a mistress of fine tailoring.”

By 1946, the Trigère collection was raking in annual sales of $1 million, and in 1949 she won the first of three prestigious American Fashion Critics’ Cory Awards. (In 1993 she was honored with a lifetime achievement award.) Additional breakthroughs followed: In 1961 Trigère shocked Seventh Avenue by hiring Beverly Valdes, the first African-American runway model to work a major show. The choice led several clients to leave Trigère’s showroom on the spot. Nonetheless, she says matter-of-factly, hiring Valdes was a no-brainer: “I needed a model; she came in.”

Later Trigère would unveil her signature jumpsuits, which joined her already-popular reversible capes and coats. All of her designs reflected the innovative marriage of wearability and style. “What she gave to America,” says Newcomer, “was a French couture sense of elegance with [a relaxed] American slant.”

And because Trigère never licensed her name to other designers, her creations are prized finds on the resale market, worth as much as $3,200 each.

Today, Trigère continues to maintain a fiercely individual sense of style. She gleefully admits that she has barely bought a stitch of clothing since she closed her line in 1993, preferring instead to wear only her own designs. And in her two-bedroom Park Avenue apartment, which she purchased in the early ’50s, a lavish “red room” pays homage to the designer’s favorite shade. “When you’re feeling blue,” she is fond of saying, “think red.”

Her independent streak is reflected in her personal life too. Since 1952 Trigère has maintained a relationship with Julio Werthein, 82, an Argentinian banker and ambassador for UNESCO. Although the pair considered marriage, Trigère was not willing to give up her New York residence for him. “He’s a very nice man but lives very much in Argentina,” she says.

These days, when she is not designing for Gold Violin, Trigère keeps busy with frequent social lunches and volunteer work for the Meals on Wheels charity. She also spends several days a week at her 18th-century country home in New York’s Westchester County. Nicknamed La Tortue (the Turtle en francais) in honor of Trigère’s favorite animal, the house is a frequent dinner-party site (“I do a fabulous tuna fish,” she notes) for friends like actress-socialite Kitty Carlisle Hart and romance novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford. “I think she’s a miracle,” says Bradford. “She is 92 going on 25.”

A former yoga devotee, Trigère continues to stay active via tango dancing and workouts with a personal trainer. Even as she approaches the century mark, she shows no sign of breaking speed. “Everyone is always saying relax, retire,” notes this grande dame of American fashion. “Ah,” she says with a sigh, “I don’t know how.”

Michelle Tauber

Olivia Abel in New York City