Jane Schaffhausen’s Parisian childhood was far from typical. Gertrude Stein came to her christening. Jane’s father, writer Bravig Imbs (Confessions of Another Young Man), arrived home at the end of the day with authors such as Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin. And as a youngster Jane was modeling children’s frocks for haute couture designers Lucien Lelong and Elsa Schiaparelli. Although she was only 10 when she moved to New York with her family, living on the Rue du Dôme left its mark. Today Schaffhausen runs a booming $15 million-a-year dress business called, understandably, Belle France.
Jane Fonda, Ann-Margret and Liv Ullmann all wear Schaffhausen’s romantic designs. Pat Nixon popped into Bloomingdale’s and picked out a two-piece cream-and-lilac outfit for daughter Julie Eisenhower. At her 1980 wedding to dancer Don Correia, Sandy Duncan wore a high-collared crepe de Chine Belle France in a pink-and-off-white flowered print. Now five months pregnant with her first child, Duncan slips into Belle France maternity wear. “I love the dresses because they are feminine, comfortable and versatile,” explains Duncan. “I can put on a Belle France in the morning and wear it to a cocktail party that night.”
Schaffhausen is proud of her impact on Seventh Avenue. “We woke up the dress business,” she boasts. Concurs Bloomingdale’s vice-president, Kal Ruttenstein: “In her quiet way Jane has become a major influence, and she gets stronger all the time.” The numbers back up Schaffhausen. Every month Belle France ships 25,000 dresses, retailing from $100 to $180 in nearly 2,500 stores across the country, including Lord & Taylor, Saks and Macy’s.
At least four times a year Schaffhausen heads back to Europe to buy fabric and visit friends. Of her unusual childhood on the Right Bank, she says: “It was fabulous. I was always the kid in this group of rather eccentric adults.” Before Jane was born, her father consulted Gertrude Stein about what to name a girl. He had wanted to call his daughter Ingeborg. “For heaven’s sake,” Gertrude objected, “not Ingeborg. She would turn out to be blond and extravagant with a name like that. Why not an English name? It would go very well with Imbs.”
Jane remembers Stein (then near 60) as “scary. I didn’t like her too much. She was a rather large, gray presence.” Schaffhausen has fonder memories of Stein’s sidekick, Alice B. Toklas, and Alice’s “wonderful” cookies—not, she is quick to point out, the ones spiked with hashish. Her favorite memory of Henry Miller goes back to an afternoon at the family’s country home. Her mother was out when Miller arrived hungry. Jane offered him the only food in the house, dog biscuits. “Henry not only accepted them,” she recalls, “he ate them.”
Schaffhausen’s passion for clothes dates back to those days. “Since I was 7,” she says, “I have known what I wanted to wear.” (Her closets, for example, are now crammed with 100 pairs of shocking pink, green, blue and lilac shoes.) She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar in 1951 and the following year married lawyer Ted Watters and settled in Birmingham, Mich. There she opened a boutique called the Village Store, but its Success only fueled her restlessness. “I hated the Midwest with a passion,” she remembers. “I was successful with the business, but I was totally isolated.” By 1961 Jane and her family had moved back to Manhattan, and three years later her marriage collapsed. In 1974 she switched from retailing to designing. Bloomingdale’s snapped up her first line, and Belle France was launched.
These days Jane, whose second, 10-year marriage to Swiss watch heir Eric Schaffhausen ended in 1976, lives alone in an East Side duplex. Among her treasures is the silver mug Gertrude gave her at her christening, as well as photographs of her late parents when they were young and beautiful and living in Paris. “People always look at my success and say, ‘Oh, what a wonderful life.’ But it hasn’t been that easy,” Jane says. “I took the high road—and it was uphill all the way.”