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Magazines: Si Elle Lit Elle Lit Elle

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“My, you look chic, Jeanne,” said Mme. Georges Pompidou, wife of France’s Prime Minister, to the milkmaid at the Pompidous’ country place. Jeanne was indeed a fetching sight: gold sandals, gay striped frock in the latest mode, gleaming pearl fingertips. “Merci, madame,” replied Jeanne. Then she explained how a farmer’s daughter so far from Paris could keep up so surely with style changes: “I read Elle.”

Mme. Pompidou also reads Elle. So does Mme. Charles de Gaulle. So do 800,000 other French women every week. The numbers justify a popular saying: “Si elle lit elle lit Elle (If she reads, she reads Elle).” And so, of course, do all the arbiters, pace setters and proprietors of Parisian haute couture, the people whose very names spell female elegance around the world: Chanel, Givenchy, St. Laurent, Balenciaga, Dior, Courrèges. None of them stand higher in the world of high fashion than Hélène Gordon Lazareff, 56, the tiny, self-assured, golden-haired editor of Elle.

Triumphant Catalogue. Elle does not so much reflect fashion as decree it. That sudden hemline plunge that Dior called the New Look did not descend from the salons to the boulevards until Hélène had endorsed it in the pages of her magazine. The parfum house of Chanel, which folded its fashion line in 1940, returned to eminence in 1956 via the same route. “Coco would eventually have launched herself,” says Mme. Lazareff modestly, “but we first explained why it wasn’t obvious how chic she is.” “Everything that goes into the magazine,” says Helene Lazareff, “I must like myself. I would rather go astray doing something too far out than to be too conservative. I don’t worry about what the couture thinks. I’ve given the couture much more than I’ve taken.”

In a recent issue, Elle catalogued a host of Elle-inspired fashion notes that the trade had pirated: Dior’s heavy knit stockings, for example, Nina Ricci’s elegant T shirt, everybody’s insouciant high boots. When Elle’s ten-woman fashion crew find nothing worthy in the boutiques, they return with suggested Lazareff designs. Couturiers are usually happy to execute them at once, knowing that with Elle’s imprimatur they are sure to sell.

Like French Bread. As the extension of one woman’s confident taste, Elle lias enlarged its influence steadily since 1945, when Helene Lazareff published the first issue, on paper so coarse and yellow that it reminded her of French bread. Experience on Harper’s Bazaar and the women’s section of the New York Times while she was a World War II refugee had encouraged her to think she could do as well, if not better, at home in France. Her husband Pierre, editor of Paris’ daily France-Soir, indulged the venture by giving it two cramped offices in France-Soir headquarters on the Rue Réaumur. Today Elle occupies all the fifth floor, parts of the fourth and third.

From birth, Elle exhibited a driving urge to counsel the French woman in every facet of her life. That first winter was a cold one, and Elle advised its readers to fight the chill in slacks, a suggestion so sensible that it promptly set a postwar style. As the magazine grew, its interests expanded: vacation planning, advice on romance, cooking and sewing instruction, even history in the form of a series of famous accouchements. Its contents made Elle as attractive to factory girls—21% of its readership—as to manufacturers’ wives.

Like a Chanel Gown. Editor Lazareff runs her magazine with the graceful enthusiasm of a woman who wears command like a Chanel gown. Visitors to Elle’s offices—among them delegations regularly sent over by the French Foreign Ministry’s section on cultural affairs—frequently remark that all the girls seem to be in uniform. And in a way they are. If Madame shows up one morning in a navy suit, next day navy suits will bloom all over the staff.

But by then, Hélène Lazareff is likely to have demonstrated some new enthusiasm. France’s host of other fashion magazines, some 50 in all, can only emulate. They can scarcely compete with an influence so pervasive it can turn a shepherdess into a mannequin.

“It’s almost criminal the way your magazine is breaking down traditions,” complained an elegant woman from Languedoc to an editor from Elle. “You can no longer tell the difference between my maid, my neighbor and myself.”

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