Full disclosure: I have a thing for older men.
Get your mind out of the gutter! I have a thing for talking to older men.
During college I would always visit my government professors during their office hours to discuss a recent lecture or assignment. But I would secretly hope that our conversation would meander on to other topics; topics they knew a lot about…and that I wanted to know a lot about. One English professor, who became a dear friend, Charlie Bassett, was frequently described as a cranky old man, but I saw someone who was fully engaged in his life and who had the perspective and the stories to prove it. And I wanted to hear all of them.
I felt the same way during my fascinating afternoon with famed jewelry designer Kenneth Jay Lane (if you missed my first installment on Lane you can read it here). As he charges into his eighth decade, behind him is a thoroughly lived life, filled with creative endeavors, travel and famous and fabulous friends. He’s also had a front row seat (in pretty amazing company) to many of the events and that shaped the last half century of fashion and New York life. He is a living, breathing fashion history book and I was riveted by every word that came out of his mouth.
Lane was welcoming and generous with his time. We sat down to begin our discussion and he ordered us Chinese take-out. Yes, Chinese! And it was the very best Chinese food I have ever eaten. We were joined for lunch by Freddie, who has been with Lane for fifty years. Freddie started out as his driver, and is now head of production. It was obvious that loyalty is one of Lane’s many virtues. He addressed many of the people who work for him as “Darling,” (which I loved) and interrupted our interview to greet and chat with the mailman. If I had expected him to be slightly curmudgeonly, it quickly became obvious that I had been wrong.
Our winding conversation covered diverse topics including his childhood, career, friends and legacy (which I thought, as an octogenarian, would be on his mind. He quickly corrected me). We spoke about his first trip to New York as a teen. He was a self-described “precocious” 15 year-old and had read up on The City, and had planned what he and his mother would do, see and eat (thanks to her subscription to Gourmet). He saw “Street Car Named Desire” starring a young Marlon Brando. What a way to be introduced to New York! Later, after attending the Rhode Island School of Design he moved to New York, but spent a great deal of time in Paris while designing shoes for Dior.
Lane began his company in the early 1960’s because the legendary editor Diana Vreeland encouraged him to give jewelry a try. He did not sketch designs, he played with materials and stones with his hands. He became great friends with Oscar de la Renta because they both worked in the Elizabeth Arden building on 5th Avenue and used to check out each other’s tailoring in the elevator. “We dressed much more formally back then,” he explained. They were both up-and-comers, and they forged a friendship that has lasted over fifty years. It was exciting to hear him talk about his friends, just the way I would describe mine, but his were…and are…fashion luminaries.
He has also had many friends who were part of New York society, back in a time when there were actual society pages. Times have indeed changed. “I don’t know anyone on Page Six anymore,” he told me, in reference to the notorious New York Post gossip page. Reality stars are now center stage. We mused about how there was a certain sense of modesty exhibited in those days that does not exist today. Members of Manhattan’s elite employed PR representatives “to keep their names out of the paper,” he observed. “Not to get them on the front page,” as they do today.
When did the expression “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” develop? Certainly not in Lane’s hey-day (I would use the term “prime,” but I’m not convinced that it’s not still ahead of him). The formality of dress and the fact that people tried not to attract a certain type of attention are just two small ways in which the world has changed before his eyes.
He said he has no real regrets. Everything he’s done has helped deliver him to this point in his life: he is still having fun creating beautiful things which women all over the world love and are still buying. His longevity itself is amazing, especially in an industry that measures careers in “seasons.”
He also told me that he doesn’t spend much time thinking about his legacy, or immortality. He has better things to do (although when we spoke about immortality, he said that if he were a Greek god he would be Bacchus, the god of wine. As if I needed another reason to love him!). But he is slowly giving away his vast collection of art to the MET, something he describes as “quite fun.” The pieces that he has collected and treasured over the years will be treasured by generations to come in the Kenneth Jay Lane Gallery.
“I’ve been very lucky in my life,” he said. “I have met amazing people, had amazing friends.” It just so happens that those friends where some of the most fashionable people of their time. He admitted that it’s sad that many of those dear friends have passed away, but he spoke with love about his many godchildren and the fact that he has been able to “select” his family, a close-knit group of friends. Kenneth Jay Lane seems comfortable with all that he as experienced and accomplished, but he’s still pushing to create beautiful pieces for a new generation of fans who can’t wait to see what he does next.
Our conversation was truly a unique experience. I have never interviewed someone whom I am such a fan of before. And to my delight, this interview morphed into more of a conversation, so I could imagine what it may be like to be friends with this fascinating figure. Our conversation was so fun, yet so surreal, that I am not sure I can do it justice in this post, but it’s amazing to me that little old blog has brought me face to face (literally) with this fashion icon. If I accomplish nothing else with it, The Great Wide Open has already given me so much more than I had ever dreamed it would. But I will follow the sage advice Lane offered (of course it was advice meant for young designers who experience sudden success, not bloggers, but it’s great advice for anyone): I will not rest on my laurels. Like Lane, I will continue to follow my passion, push to create more, experience more, write and entertain you more.
But seriously, how do I top this?
I cannot begin to thank Mr. Lane enough for taking the time to meet with me, not to mention the delicious Chinese food. I would also like to thank Vicki Grapsas and the entire KJL team for having me. I was not compensated in any way for this post.