Kenneth Jay Lane, R.I.P.

by Michael Gross Photographed by Patrick McMullan
Thursday, July 20, 2017

Kenneth Jay Lane, 85, the renowned faux jewelry designer, died in his lavish lower Park Avenue apartment on Wednesday night. No cause of death has yet been revealed. In his honor, AVENUE republishes here a 1995 profile of Lane by Editor-in-Chief Michael Gross:

When Kenneth Jay Lane drops names, watch out. Although he’s famous for his line of “fabulous fakes,” costume jewels made of rhinestone and paste, his friends and acquaintances are sterling and his punch lines are as bright and cutting as diamonds. Not long ago, Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor appeared at his office. “Don’t I have to get arrested to come before you?” Lane quipped.

Lane’s faux creations see the light of night more often than the real things do these days. Indeed, their only competition may be Lane himself. His greatest skill is his talent for shuttling between worlds haute and humble, trailing knowing quips in his signature wake of cigarette smoke. One of his greatest friends and customers was the late society swan Babe Paley, wife of the founder of CBS. But Lane has never dwelled in the past. Lately, he’s become a selling star on the proletarian shopping network, QVC.

Lane, 61, has been getting out and about ever since he got out of Detroit (which he pronounced Day-twa) about forty years ago. “It’s near a place called Motown,” he says in an accent that could be either here or there, but definitely isn’t Detroit.

Young Ken’s ambitions were too big for the Wolverine State. “I knew,” he says, “in 1937 when Edward VIII abdicated. I was really curious in 1951, when I was a freshman at the University of Michigan and I was not invited to the Bestegui Ball in Venice.” He was positive he was like Moses, “found by these very nice people I lived with in some sort of bullrushes by the Day-twa River,” he says.

As a callow college lad, Lane met the poet Frank O’Hara, who brought him to New York. He kept returning. “I was advanced for my age,” Lane allows. “I’d been to Paris and London. I had an English jacket, several Locke bowlers, Lobb shoes. I looked like Little Lord Fauntleroy gone bad.” Soon, he went into the shoe business, working for Roger Vivier at Delman. Then Diana Vreeland, fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar, took him under her wing. “It’s a funny world,” he says. “You know one person, you meet everybody, if the one person is the right person. It was a little bit like Alice going through the looking glass except I, somehow, could speak the same language as the Mad Hatter.”

Offered a post at Christian Dior Shoes in Paris in the late fifties, Lane wound up commuting to New York, all expenses paid by the fashion conglomerate that made them and employed him. He lived “modestly,” he says, with the contents of the sixteen trunks he’d brought from America “in an apartment at the top of the St. Regis Hotel.” He traveled often, and reported back to his bosses on matters of import like “what Daisy Fellowes was wearing at Cap Martin.”

Lane was a raconteur. He was charming. He loved to dance. Soon, he waltzed into a friend, Lady Kenmare’s Riveria villa, La Fiorentina. It had character. She was one. At the party where he’d first met her someone whispered in Lane’s ear that she’d killed her four husbands. In her New York apartment, he recalls “the furniture was held up with stacks of old Social Registers.” The next two years were “pure bliss…completely privileged,” he says. The names Guinness, Agnelli and Ranier drop softly, like chips at the Monte Carlo casino.

Returning to New York, he designed shoes a bit longer, then opened his jewelry line in 1963. It was established within a month. He was soon established, too, as one of society’s leading extra men. He’s had a reserved seat at the center of things ever since, from the opening of the Peppermint Lounge in 1962 to Truman Capote’s 1966 Black & White Ball for Kathryn Graham, where guests wore his necklaces as masks, to “too many nights” at Studio 54.

Somewhere between the first and the last, New York’s social verities were upended. Lane thinks the watershed moment came when society pillar William Woodward died in 1953 and his wife Elsie, “decided she wasn’t going to see any of those old biddies again and moved to the Waldorf Towers and started seeing who she liked, younger people, theater people, politicians, Adlai Stevenson, Ahmet Ertegun, Frank Sinatra, Bill Blass, myself.”

There were still private parties, but more often than not, they took place in Europe, or else they were commercial “freebies” like the time MCA mogul Jules Stein flew a planeload of friends from New York for the opening of his Universal Hotel. “The ladies were all asked to keep their real jewelry in the safe deposit box,” Lane recalls. “A hundred ladies lined up at 2 AM to get into their goddamn boxes.” Up and down the line, Lane went, getting right in the spirit of things. “If you were wearing Kenny Lane, you’d be in bed right now,” he announced.

The seventies were a wakeup call for the haute monde. A golden age had ended, but another had begun. “People started working harder,” Lane thinks. “These were not people who’d ever worked hard. Highly motivated people started to come into society. Society started to get motivated. They wanted to get to bed earlier and work the next day. A lot of the people who used to entertain lavishly stopped.” Suddenly it was the height of chic to be like Lane had always been. In the early sixties, after nights that, for others, ended at Arthur, Lane would “come back to my office, take off my black tie and write invoices,” he recalls.

Nowadays, Lane and his set (“the Eberstadts, the Erteguns, Chessy, Annette, Oscar…” he says) have come to define social New York. “It is not Mrs. Wharton’s society,” he warns. “There’s a certain intelligence which didn’t exist. It’s based on accomplishment and whether people really like each other. People are rather bored by small talk. Now, people aren’t invited unless they can hold their own at their table. I think it’s rather positive. The children of privilege today are expected to be educated and to work and a lot of them want to be. Look at little Carolina Herrera. A beauty! A biochemist!”


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