Thursday, September 4, 2014

Let’s start at the very beginning

Prince and Mercer. 4:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Thursday, September 4, 2014. It was a warm and humid summer day yesterday in New York. But there was a light breeze here and there and a zip in the air as if the town’s back in town.

Let’s start at the very beginning. It was the annual FIT Museum’s Couture Council luncheon that also kicks off Fashion Week in New York. This is a very successful luncheon, started a number of years ago by the group of volunteers who formed the “Couture Council” with the objective of raising funds for what will be, is, becoming a major museum in this world. Its creators including Liz Peek who has just stepped down from chairing the Council have put it into the mainstream of New York social life.
Guests arriving and gathering in the lobby of the theatre before moving up to the second floor Promenade.
This was a big objective for what was practically unknown ten years ago. Dr. Joyce Brown, the President of the Fashion Institute of Technology told the guests yesterday that the school was started in 1944 by a small band of people who had a concept, a dream. The first year 100 students walked through their newly opened doors. Seventy years later,10,000 students walk through those doors. The FIT Museum celebrates the endeavors of their graduates. It’s a real success story for all of us.

So, they honor a major designer every year at this luncheon, if you didn’t already know. This year it was Carolina Herrera. I don’t have to tell you anything about the lady. Look at the photograph. Impeccable chic, fresh, even gleaming, yet non-intrusive, easy on the eye. And implying something more: thorough, confident, diligent, wise, and with a natural eye for beauty. I know the lady only in the way you may know your neighbor, familiar but not close. She’s very good company. You can tell her mind is going all the time, taking it all in. She misses nothing. Her elegance is in her bearing; the clothes, the costume are simply an expression of that.
The table setting with the first course awaiting. Doesn't exactly look scrumptious, but wait ...
This is a real 21st century fashion lunch in New York. Everyone puts forth their best. The “ladies who lunch” became outmoded but the allure remains even in the youngest members. It’s a fashion parade, and a pleasure, a harmless pleasure as well. Many were wearing Carolina (as they often refer to her and her product). No matter, everyone knew what Carolina expects of herself, so….

The crowd was very social, obviously, and the fashion media and their high honchos were at table. Oscar de la Renta, who was honored last year was there, as was Ralph Lauren and Mme. Wintour and the Conde Nastocrats who deem those star celebrities we’re always looking – if not thinking – about. It’s New York in the thick of it.  Fashion implies “society,” etc., but its creators, promoters, directors and backers are workers. Those “names” at those tables, they work. And if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be at those tables. That’s the great story of this luncheon and its objectives, and how and why so much of New York works the way it does.
Seth Myers and Renee Zellweger pose for someone's camera. Anna Carter and Annette de la Renta are being charmed by some guy -- I think he's the husband of Mrs. Carter. I took this photo of Mrs. de la Renta whose sense of style is meticulous, so thorough including that side she can't see — perfect.
These three ladies were about to take a selfie when I interrupted and said, lemme take it. And they were agreeable. I didn't get their names, but they know who they are ...
I was seated next to my hostess Eleanora Kennedy and next to a young woman named Sarah Sulzberger Perpich ( Ms. Perpich is a style consultant which in New York is the CEO version of a personal shopper. Ms. Perpich, from what I could gather, is like going to a personal enhancement class. She’s thorough (like the honoree). I don’t know that from personal experience, but she gave me the rundown, and you could gather just from looking at her she knows what she’s talking about. Good idea; many of us need just that. She loves it.
Every time I see this lady she's throwing her head back in a guffaw. Could be something I said? Or someone she's looking at? I'm never sure but I like her anyway. She's very smart, and actually that laugh implies fun, and there's fun there. And she's a woman of achievement, President of Hunter College. Although our hostess Eleanora looks slightly askance ... maybe?
I forgot to bring home the menu. The starter was a visual challenge. Lentils (I think), some kind of maybe pesto sauce garnish, a couple of roasted turnips (?), carrots… Not really. However, I knew what the drill was: healthy lunch for the ladies who….. So I figured how bad could it be, and dug in. Actually, it was quite good. I still don’t know what it was. I looked at the menu and my eyes glazed over. This was followed by a jazzy shrimp salad. Or was it lobster? Very good too.

There were brief speeches. Thankfully. Carolina Herrera was introduced by Yaz Hernandez who is the new chair of the Couture Council. Yaz confided that she’s admired Carolina all her life. Carolina then came to the podium and very briefly and seriously and graciously thanked the Couture Council for the honor. And then she left the podium to a thundering (for a luncheon on the Promenade David Koch Theatre at Lincoln Center) ovation. And that was it. Lunch was over. And it was only 1:30. What a good idea.
The luncheon's honoree, the impeccably chic Carolina Herrera thanking the Council and the guests for the honor. I put my new zoom lens on the designer's earrings -- emeralds on a delicate vine of diamonds and gold.
I took a lot of photos although there were many photographers present and on tomorrow’s Party Pictures we’ll give you a wide and thorough (in the spirit of Carolina Herrera) view of the guests. Oh, and they raised more than $900,000 for the Museum and its programs for young people coming up.

Today we are also running the second part of my own personal voyage through the world of fashion way back when. If you didn’t see yesterday’s piece, I suggest you go back and read that first. The entire piece was written for my New York Social Diary in Quest Magazine this month for their fashion issue.
Jackie as a working woman.
By the mid-1970s, the American economy was in bad shape, the cities were suffering from lack of tax revenues, the War in Viet Nam was finally ending although the Nixon Watergate scandal was giving America a dose of reality; rock and roll was here to stay, Jackie Onassis was now a working women (editor), pants were here to stay, jeans even moreso.

Hippies were gone but the single pierced ear, the ponytails, the avoiding any kind of formality in dress except occasionally, were here to stay. And so they have. Today we see men in their forties and even older, dressed unself-consciously in belly-over-the-belt droopy drawers Bermuda shorts and a tee shirt incapable of covering the belly-over-the-belt. We also are seeing a return to a little more formality, a suit or jacket.

Which brings us to Ralph Lauren. To the rescue. I used to buy the clothes I needed at Brooks Brothers where the look was classic, not-very-interesting-but-presentable and lasting. A good pair of tassel loafers at Brooks were expensive in 1967 ($45!) but if you took care of them — and I did — you’d still have them today. And I do.  That same pair today at Brooks Brothers is more than $350. It’s called inflation no matter what the financial news tells you.
There's no shoe like an old shoe. Brooks Brothers, 1967, pricey but worth it: $45.
All through that aforementioned period of the '60s, there was this guy Ralph Lauren who started out in the necktie business. I first heard about him when my wife told me that there were some very nice neckties at Bloomingdale’s by this guy Ralph Lauren. They were a little more expensive than Brooks Brothers: they were $5. They were also a little wider than the conventional Brooks tie, and they came in solid color silks — navy, British racing green, grey, brown.

I went to have a look as I was working in the brokerage business and wore a tie to the office everyday. They were all great. I bought the green one. It was cool. A couple years later or thereabouts, Ralph Lauren went into the menswear business under the name Chaps. Suits, pants, etc. Very goodlooking and stylish. Brooks Brothers in the New World, giving everything a little (understated) panache. That was the beginning. Everyone knows what happened to this American designer who has maintained the classics and embraced the lifestyle differences for his customer.  He turned a necktie into a billion dollar empire.
Ralph Lauren in 1971.
The changing fashions of the '60s reflected the changing world and the emphasis on changing our lives. In 1971, my wife and I, and another couple who were close friends (and remain so) rented a large house for the summer in southern Connecticut. One day, while driving around the country side, we discovered a shopping area called Scotts Corners in nearby Pound Ridge, New York. A quaint little village with many old houses, there was one red barn on the side of the road that someone had turned into a clothing store. The sight of it gave me an idea that was as whimsical at the moment as it seems in retrospect: why not have a store?

It would mean moving out of the city and starting a new life: a popular idea at that time among my generation. I showed my wife the store in this quiet, almost pastoral area and the idea appealed to her also. Mind you, we really had no idea what we’d do although popular commercial retail (ad)venture in those days were “head shops” — stores which catered to the hippie-ish crowd where the merchandise was jeans, tee-shirts, corduroys and drug paraphernalia such as pipes and bongs, etc. We were too conventional and conservative for the paraphernalia supplies but decided to go with the clothing.

Shortly after deciding to embark on this new venture, we visited a real estate broker in Pound Ridge. She seemed impressed with us and our idea and told us that there was “a little red barn” down by the side of the road on the way to New Canaan that would be available in a couple of months. Eureka! That was the barn that had inspired this entrepreneurial thought. We made a deposit.

The barn had been built in 1839, as a basket factory by a Mr. Selleck who made baskets for the Fulton Fish market in Manhattan. Right across the road was a white frame one and a half story house also built around the same time, and currently occupied by Mr. Selleck’s granddaughter who was then in her 60s. She met us and approved. The rent was $200 a month — two rooms, each heated by a gas stove.

An advertisement for Whipsnade's in the local paper, illustration by Bob Schulenberg.
We had no idea how to start a business or where to get the merchandise, but one of the secretaries in my office had a boyfriend who had done the same thing in the Bronx, and he served as our advisor. By the end of the year, we were open for business. We called it Whipsnade’s. “Head shops” in those days all had “clever” names and this one was so clever that when mentioned, the common response was: “whip-what?” Whipsnade’s. W. C. Fields had a famous film called “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break” in which he played a character called Larson E. Whipsnade. Slightly obscure but clever.

The move changed our lives. We moved out of the city – which was less than an hour down the Merritt Parkway --  and rented a small house in the area. Once or twice a week we’d go into the city to buy merchandise and look for new things to add to our inventory. We bought an old display case from some store going out of business, and with a friend I built racks to hold the merchandise, and created a display window out of a second entry door.

We knew nothing about the business but soon we were learning. The area, which was between New Canaan, North Stamford and Bedford, New York was a high rent residential area that attracted a great variety of New York oriented people including bankers, lawyers, corporate executives, theatrical personalities, producers and artists. So it was surprising when women would stop by to have a look and remark that THREE DOLLARS for a tee shirt was a bit much, and throw it back down on the counter.

The business limped along for the first year. In retrospect, it is easy to see that not knowing what we were doing in the first place was a major deterrent from our succeeding. By the second year, although we loved our new neighborhood for living and had begun to make friends, fashion was not fulfilling our dreams (or whims). It was also not helping our marriage of eight years. Impatience and eeking out a tiny living selling expensive three dollar tee-shirts added pressure everywhere.
My house in North Stamford in early Spring of 1976 where the buds had just begun to appear. Photo by Beth Rudin (later DeWoody).
The following year saw the end of our marriage. With little to share in the breakup, my wife left the business — which by then was practically “no” business. I had grown very used to the new life outside an office — no neckties, suits, etc, just jeans and jackets — and so I decided I’d keep the lease on the little red barn, figuring I could at least come up with the two hundred bucks monthly, and even sleep in the place if that was all I had. Youth needs no security.

Late in 1973, we divorced. One Sunday I was having brunch with the couple we’d originally shared a summer house with. The husband was an executive in the fashion business, running a major division of a larger garment manufacturer. Over brunch, he asked about my business, and when I told him of its sorry state, he said, “Why don’t you sell off-price designer sportswear ... It’s doing very well these days.”

I had no idea what “off-price designer sportswear” was. And so he told me: women’s clothing at a discount.

It didn’t take much to convince me that it was worth a chance. My friend then helped me to choose and arrange to buy my first shipment of “off-price designer sportswear.” The merchandise was unknown to me but not unfamiliar as I knew many women whose wardrobes exemplified it. I then hired a local woman who had had a clothing shop in the area to be my sales staff.

Because it was another new venture and required a greater outlay of investment, I decided to keep the “head shop” merchandise in one room, and put the “new” merchandise in another. After it was shipped and set up, I put a big handmade sign in the window announcing our new inventory.

Within days, the ladies from New Canaan and Bedford and North Stamford were stopping by. The lady who thought three bucks for a tee shirt was an outrageous price was thrilled to see sweater sets (by Kasper) which normally retailed for $319.95 were only  $239 and she bought three sets! I was a amazed at that sale which alone exceeded a month’s gross in the former “head shop.”

Soon it was out with the old and in with the new: both rooms were filled with Kasper, Halston, Blass, de la Renta, Don Simonelli, Liz Claiborne, Anne Klein, all, the latest designs for that season and at discounts of 30% to 40%, and we were off to the races.

I recount these details because in putting them down, I realized that fashion is what led to my career as a writer.  Within less than a year in the new business, I had three saleswomen working for me in this little shop, and besides the weekly trips to Seventh Avenue to buy, I was doing very well, and beginning to spend more time with what I had been doing since was a teenager — which was writing.
Dorothy Paley, by Horst, circa 1937, age 31. Emerald scarf designed by Fulco Verdura for Dorothy Paley, 1941.
Jane Engelhard. Mrs. William Rhinelander Stewart, regarded by many as the most beautiful woman in New York.
Millicent Rogers.
Thelma Chrysler Foy. Babe Paley.
Mrs. Harrison Williams, later Countess Mona von Bismarck. The Duchess of Windsor in Paris, in Chanel.
CZ Guest in Palm Beach. Betsy Bloomingdale in Holmby Hills.
Jacqueline de Ribes and Gloria Guinness in Paris.
Betty Catroux, the Muse of YSL in her natal costume. And platform shoes.
A couple of years later, in my spare time, at the urging of a writer friend, I wrote a film script, which another friend of mine passed on to a movie executive in Los Angeles. One night in 1977, I got a call from the movie executive who had just read the script. “You are so talented!” she enthused, adding, “You should be out here writing scripts!”

That single phone call was all this boy needed. By the time I hung up, I knew this was what I had to do. (The executive never bought that script, incidentally.) Whipsnade’s by then had become very prosperous. I could see that if I could focus on the business, it had enormous potential. Off-price retailing was more than a fad. However, as much as I appreciated its success, it was never where my heart or interest was. I knew that if I became very successful at it, (made a lot of money), I’d never be a “writer,” that being a professional. Money makes our lives comfortable in a way that can be difficult, even impossible to reject. But I’d been a “writer” since boyhood when I stopped playing with toys and started putting those “stories” down on paper. It was my refuge and where I preferred to live whenever I could, and so I had to go.

In the fall of 1978, I packed up my belongings and with my dogs and my cats (five at the time), I moved to Los Angeles, the City of Angels to a new life, a new struggle and a new career — my only career. Not to mention a new style of dress and living.
Princess Diana. Nancy Reagan.
Anne Bass with Richard Feigen. Mercedes Bass with Sid Bass.
Annette de la Renta. Nan Kempner.
Today, the fashion of the West, specifically Southern California, is worldwide and seen as totally American. Its roots are not only in the great changes that we witnessed in the 1960s and 1970s, but now also in all the decades of the 20th century that came before. By the 1990s Southern California lifestyle and folkways (the result of the entertainment industry) has led the way in American fashion through media, specifically with the phenomenon of the Hilton sisters, Paris and Nicky, and ultimately with the Kardashians who took the Hilton’s marketing mantra and ran with it and are still running. Running to where, you might ask. We’ll have to wait and see.

So in 1978, I sold Whipsnade’s to one of the women who had been running the store for me, and I packed up and moved to Los Angeles to start a new life and a new career.
Clockwise from top left: Lee Radziwill; Lynn Wyatt; Tina Turner; Faye Wattleton; and Susan Fales-Hill.

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