Monday, December 12, 2011

No Holds Barred

by Blair Sabol

Everyone warned me that he might throw me out within minutes of our visit. I didn't care. I wanted to actually meet THE costume jeweler icon Kenneth Jay Lane. After all he is the last man standing of an era that was so important and is now almost extinct. He has outlived everyone and (unlike Valentino or Scaasi) is still actually working.

Now that costume jewelry (renamed "fashion jewelry") has exploded with the current generation's various online sites and cheaper venues like Forever 21 and H&M, Lane is still THE man to copy. And COPY they do. He is more influential now then when he was king amongst "the swans" (Capote's gals as well) like Nan Kempner, Pat Buckley, Diana Vreeland, and Jackie O. He held them all in the palm of his pearls and cabochons. Now I hear his showroom is filled with the likes of The Olson twins, Rachel Zoe, and Scarlett Johansson. Hardly "swans" but certainly the current captivators.

Surprisingly everyone is still obsessed with his crystal encrusted cocktail rings, big pearl clustered earrings and elephant enameled bangles. When I met him I figured if he did decide to throw me out he wouldn't be the first. And at worst I could get a five minute viewing of his famous fabulously decorated apartment (see NYSD House).
Designer Kenneth Jane Lane at home with his Vatican red socks and cigarettes. That's his ashtray within 20 minutes of our meeting.
I had nothing to lose. But lo and behold ... we lasted for two hours. I was astonished at how optimistic and energetic he was. After all at his age (82) and situation in life he could well afford to be bitter, angry, bloated and bald. He was none of these. He was irresistibly funny, attractive as ever, and spot on in all his opinions. Why not? He's seen them come and he's seen them go and as the cliched Sondheim lyric says he's "still here." AND IS HE EVER!!! 

He met me in his typical casual wear of a dark blue blazer, polo shirt, slacks, loafers and a dashing pair of red socks. I am partial to men in red socks. He shared with me that he got them from a "Vatican boutique" where all the cardinals and the Pope frequent.

Leave it to Lane to get the right colored "blessed" socks from THE right holy place. So we started with his age;  "It's a joke to me that I am in my eighties. I still can't believe it. And it's true that 'aging is not for sissies' but I have no complaints. I now eat a lot less but I go to my doctor frequently and I'm fine."

I noticed that he smoked at least four cigarettes in our time together. "Well, smoking kills all the germs. It's my anti aging secret." Whatever.

Does he miss all the great gals and the scene of the '60s and '70s? "Sure, I miss my dear friends. But I am very here and now. I have to be. I have a wonderful life and I am still very much in the game."

What's the game?

"I travel. I still design and I do whatever I enjoy doing. There's no mystery in this enduring bit. It's simply about NOT DYING. So do things that inspire you and get your juices going. Whatever that may be."

Isn't he nostalgic for the good old days?

“I am not nostalgic. Nostalgia is all about yourself. You have to keep it off you. True, Babe and Estee were gorgeous but first they had character and were characters. There are no real 'characters' anymore."

We both agreed that we have entered into an "age of vulgarity" with the Bravo TV housewives and most low rent celebrities known only for rehab stints and scandals but not talent.

"I really try not to look at the ugly. And there is a lot of that. There's much to be said for that cliche of the power of positive thinking. Frankly I don't see as many people as I used to. And you learn that everyone and I mean EVERYONE has horrible horrible problems."

But don't get him wrong - he still loves a good splash of vulgarity. "I took Diana Vreeland to "Deep Throat" when it opened. We made an occasion out of it and were thoroughly amused. But nowadays? Who knows and who cares. It's all too much trash and that focus has ruined our culture."

Spoken from a man who has his own "named" room at The Metropolitan Museum and lives in such a magnificent casbah of collected fabrics and artifacts.

KJL's Kate Middleton wedding earrings for QVC.
He has been lucky with celebrities and continues to be. He ripped off the Kate Middleton wedding earrings for QVC and they sold out in minutes. Currently he is doing the same with some designs based on the Elizabeth Taylor Christie’s Auction. QVC shoppers ... start your engines.

I asked him why he never went the Target or H&M cheaper collection route and he quickly reminded me "My dear, I've already done that and have for 20 years at QVC. I was one of the first designers to rip himself off. I love it and I love all the online outlets as well. I support them all. But remember my cheaper line is made in China. My couture (still going gangbusters) is made here."

By the way: I personally have bought many KJL pieces from eBay, Jill's Boutique, Gilt, and Thomas Laine. I actually went to visit Eimear Thomas, founder of Thomas Laine at her tiny office around the corner from KJL. She met me at her elevator adorned in a KJL necklace, bracelet and ring. He is one of her biggest sellers and she (like all the vendors I asked) has the highest business and personal respect for him.

According to Thomas: "In the world of fakes, KJL is the real thing. He is a gem of a man."
Eimear Thomas of Thomas Laine modeling her KJL big sellers.
But back to the discussion of "then vs. now" according to KJL: "You need to understand that women had more to work with 40 years ago. They had hats and gloves and more details. And now there is simply less interest. And with cars ... who can manage getting in and out with all that stuff."

I wondered what woman he currently admires for her style? It took some time for him to think. "Well ... I guess Tory Birch. She seems to have done it all quite well. She has a few great houses and pulls herself nicely together."

This from a man who has recently spoken at more memorial services for more notorious society beauties. "You know I've never been into all that many single women. Many widows I loved but actually I admire whores who married rich."

KJL still wearing his Vatican red socks while relaxing in his showroom.
I questioned him on why everyone dresses so badly of late. "We used to get dressed up to go dancing at night. It was wonderful. From The Peppermint Lounge, to Arthur, to Le Jardin to Studio 54. It was a big influence. We all worked hard and loved to create our visuals for this. Even the nude waiters on roller skates looked great. And there were different classes all mixed up and so many different looks. Nowadays they all look the same and I think they want to and therefore no one is very interesting. Even the drugs nowadays are boring."

Currently he loves to do some traveling to Nassau, Dominican Republic or Newport. "I love Newport cause it has a certain kind of gentle wind and never gets too cold. And Palm Beach is for business only."

He admires all the people who work for him and everybody at his showroom seems to have been with him forever. In his home he has his "darling Isabelle who's been with me for 25 years and does it ALL with a smile on her face. SHE is IT!"

Does anybody design with him or for him? "It is all me. No one else. I get my influence from the back of my mind. I have so much inspiration to pull from." Recently he just finished designing a cross for The Pope himself.

"You see the Pope can't wear any of his high holy crosses into his bedroom or even in the loo. He has to leave them in a vault outside his private chambers. So I designed a cross for him to wear in his bed or ... wherever he wants in his personal space."

It is gloriously colorful and no doubt will turn His Holiness into a blessed KJL fan. At the end of our meeting as he walked me to his front door I remarked how I had heard he was such "an adorable brat".

He laughed. "Nothing bothers me anymore. Say what they will it's no skin off my back. I have three feathers left as it is." He graciously invited me to his showroom the next day to "play and enjoy." I was thrilled.
KJL showroom front door.
His 37th street showroom is dangerous. You have to come focused and knowledgeable. There are rooms and walls lined with designs way beyond just "blinged" out baubles, bangles and beads. (Then again he is now considered to be "The father of vintage bling").

As his handsome and terrific long term "right hand" manager Chris Sheppard explains, "It's a bad scene in here for anyone with a compulsive shopping problem. You can end up breaking the bank and not even feel it."

I have to say between Sheppard and Lane's other showroom "sherpas" Vicki Grapsas and the wonderful Yvette Lewis, that KJL surrounds himself with the best team players I have met.
KJL manager Yvette Lewis simultaneously hiding from camera and looking for baubles. Yvette Lewis showing the famous tight lever backs of the crystal KJL drops.
Vicki Grapsas making up an order. Chris Sheppard, "right hand guy" (manager) to KJL for close to 20 years, organizing a viewing tray.
I bought crystal earrings out of Yvette's ears, necklaces off Vicki's neck and did some damage in the overwhelming pearl secretion. I forgot to "gird my loins.” I became my own Christmas tree.

While I was there there were some elegant older European ladies busy buying Lane's famous chandelier "diamond" earrings and necklaces.

"Kenny, what do you think of this for the ball." They eagerly asked him and he advised them beautifully. Then I added my own two cents with "And you can always wear them to the supermarket in your jeans."
KJL gathering a set for a visiting customer from Houston. KJL showing his recent cross collection.
KJL proudly displaying his cross for "the Holy Father" to wear in his Vatican bed. The Pope must have loved it.
I am not sure they understood that but they smiled politely and bought four of everything. It was "Kenny's approval" that they came for and got. He is still the last word in the taste (and "paste") department. I told him that I loved his designs because after a couple of years of getting cheap knock-offs I realized that none of his EVER disintegrated or turned green.

He responded with a dead stare and a metaphoric "My dear, I will never go green on you and I haven't fallen apart yet."

Eventually I found myself backstage at his showroom center with all these hundreds of drawers of beads and crystals and his dedicated crew all stringing and pasting. Vicki admitted that "Mr. Lane knows the contents of almost all of these drawers and comes in here and gets lost in his own designing process. We just merely assist."
One of the many gem-lined walls at KJL showroom.
More KJL bracelets in showroom ...
When all was said and done and tallied KJL met me at the showroom exit to say goodbye. He didn't check my choices. He didn't have to. It was all still "The best of the best." I shared with him how I had been recently robbed of all my jewelry (including my favorite vintage KJL pieces) and how devastated it left me.

"Look, my dear. You are nobody till you've been robbed. Remember it is just 'stuff'. Nothing more. Life goes on. Adjust and put one damn foot in front of another."

Suddenly I understood what all those famous women saw in him; the greatest confidante/stylist and a most honest friend. He has the eye, the wit and the biggest heart ... all in one package. Instantly I wanted him to adopt me. But I will have to wait till next time when he might toss me out on my ass. And what an honor THAT would be.
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