Information Purposes for all Kenneth J Lane Fans - An Article on Kenneth J Lane
I knew I'd have to chase Kenneth Jay Lane around the world. The Christie's catalogue that landed on my desk the other day, crammed with his vintage couture jewels, showed this master fashion jeweller as a handsome young hedonist, in harem pants, lounging among exotic animal skins and potted palms and smiling wickedly out at me. Inside its pages, nearly 200 pieces of outrageously fake costume jewellery tell the tale of the King of Faux, the flamboyant creator of some of the best-loved jewels of the 20th century. Sure enough, Lane was out of town, I was told by an assistant at his fusty showroom on New York's 37th Street; he was staying at Oscar de la Renta's house in the Dominican Republic. As one does. When I caught up with him he was supping Bloody Marys by the pool - the lounging and the wicked grin recognisable from that original 1960s photograph. Plus ca change. His jewels may be fake, but Lane is the real thing.
Now in his seventies, Lane is tall and imposing, with an oval- smooth face, still handsome, Hollywood-style, complete with cleft chin, and the hair, platinum-streaked but plentiful, swept across with the same precision that he was noted for in the 1960s, when he moved in an elite circle of fashion aristocrats - Fulco di Verdura, Diana Vreeland, Babe Paley, Jackie Kennedy - for whom style was not something that could be bought and sold, but a whole philosophy of life.
Now, capitalising on the vogue for vintage fashion jewellery that is once again sweeping New York, Christie's has put together a comprehensive collection of Ken Lane originals, some from Lane himself, others from private sources ("Some of it I don't even remember," says Lane), to be sold at the Rockefeller Center on 9 April. The sale accompanies one of Christies' "important" sales of fine jewellery. "My jewellery is unimportant," jokes Lane. "I only make unimportant jewellery."
Kenneth Jay Lane wears a quizzical yet amiable air. As he talks, you sense a restlessness, an eagerness to be off on the next journey. And, indeed, his insouciant, bon vivant life-style conceals a rare single-mindedness. In an industry littered with two-minute wonders, his has been a staggeringly long-lasting career.
He was born in Detroit, and, after an unexceptional middle-class childhood which he has rarely discussed, was educated at the University of Michigan and then at Rhode Island School of Design. But his life as we know it began in 1954, when he arrived in New York as a self-invented bright young thing, oozing with apparent glamour and sophistication. This was the era of El Morocco and Harry Winston diamonds, when American fashion designers were first emerging on to the international stage.
Lane flung himself into this world. After a restless spell in the art department of US Vogue, he took a job with Roger Vivier, designing shoes for Christian Dior, and living blissfully between Paris and New York. During this spell in "shoe biz", he was seduced by the gilt baubles and crystal gemstones that were used to trim shoes; and in 1962 he began, on a whim, to experiment with making his own "collection" of jewels.
The idea came to him while he was working on footwear with the couturier Arnold Scaasi. He suggested making buttons to match the shoes, then earrings to match the buttons. He bought cheap plastic bangles, smothered them with diamante and, as he says now: "Voila! I was a jeweller."
Lane had plenty of fashionable female friends on whom to try his jewels out, and initially he simply gave them away - to be worn, several at a time, with tongue-in-cheek opulence. Selling the idea commercially - taking his bag of jewels up and down Fifth Avenue - was harder. But then the New York Times noticed them being worn by socialites, and one or two New York stores ordered a few pieces, and then re-ordered. The rest is fashion history.
What made the jewels so unusual was the fact that costume jewellery at that time was, in Lane's words: "jewellery to give to the maid". It was industrial, predictable, bourgeois. But his jewellery was scintillating and lighthearted - and just right for the new breed of free-thinking, jetsetting 1960s socialites. His friends asked him to make what they wanted to wear at the time: ridiculously long earrings that brushed the shoulder, armfuls of barbaric bangles, glistening diamante belts. Using his shoe designs as inspirations, he covered bangles with cobra skin and leather, then studded them with crystals. "I had no fear," he says. "I was the fool that rushes in."In his "foolishness", he totally changed attitudes to costume jewellery, and to jewellery in general, creating - as Coco Chanel had done before him - a whole new fashion genre. He made costume jewellery desirable in the highest echelons of society. And within two years he had given up the day job to concentrate on jewellery.
From this time on, he drew inspiration from the entire history of jewellery: from ancient Egyptian and pre-Columbian through pre- Revolutionary French treasures, high-Victorian and Art Deco designs, to the best of his contemporaries in 1960s and 1970s fine jewellery design, including David Webb, Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and, more recently, the sought- after Parisian jewellers, JAR. "If I haven't copied you, then you're not worth copying," he jokes now.
By the mid-1970s, KJL copies - or "Kenny Jay Lanes", as they were affectionately known - had become the ultimate compliment for a jeweller. Even his "victims" agreed. Among the most popular of all KJL classics are his wide, enamelled cuff bangles, encrusted with jewelled Maltese crosses, originally created by Verdura for Coco Chanel, then reincarnated by Lane and, famously, worn by his mentor, the late Diana Vreeland (editor of US Vogue), who loved to mix real and faux. Today, Ward Landrigan of Verdura, New York, feels that Ken Lane kept the Verdura legend alive after Fulco di Verdura died in 1978, before the name was bought and revived by Landrigan in the mid- 1980s. Meanwhile, on occasion, the tables have been turned: in 1980, Ivana Trump's 8in long "Kenny Lane" crystal scattered eardrops were remade as the real thing by her friend, the "King of Diamonds", Laurence Graff.
YOU CAN TELL a piece of Kenneth Jay Lane jewellery, not only by its style, but by its weightiness in the hand, its substance and volume, its sense of colour and, most of all, by the confidence and dynamism of the sculptural modelling. The metalwork is especially brilliant, and textured; the enamels are ultra-glossy; and the stones, many made by Swarovski in Austria, others specially ordered from Germany, all have a depth and richness just like the real thing.
But the extraordinary, enduring success of Kenneth Jay Lane - and the prices his fakes command - may owe less to the quality of his workmanship than to the depth of his personal understanding of historical jewels, and of the women who wore them. "Kenny Lane has all the exuberance of a fine jeweller, using total fashion pieces in a tremendously rich way," say Suzy Menkes, fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune. "But he also had the advantage of taking lunch, dinner and afternoon tea with his clients, and understanding their way of life. This makes him much more like a real jeweller."
All those weekend house parties, the great balls in Venice and Paris, evenings on the Riviera, the dinners at Blenheim and Kensington Palace (he's friendly with Princess Margaret), the trips to India, Egypt and Turkey. Lane had the opportunity to see fabulous collections, to see great jewels being worn; and he plucked his cultural references freely and shamelessly from wherever he was and whoever he was with.
In her introduction to the Christie's catalogue, the fashion designer Mary McFadden, a friend of Lane's, writes: "I have seen him mentally photograph any jewel that takes his fancy at a party. Magically, it appears for sale in his showroom." Thus one of Jackie Kennedy Onassis's necklaces, given to her by Aristotle Onassis in 1968, in Maharajah style, with gobstopper cabochon gemstones, was incorporated into the Ken Lane range and became a bestseller. A jewelled belt in the collection of the Duchess of Buccleuch was turned by Lane into the must-have 1960s fashion accessory. In the 1970s, seeing a Victorian snake bracelet on the wrist of his great friend Marella Agnelli (the Fiat heiress), Lane hunted down an antique ivory example, and took it to a meat stringer to conjure up an imitation with plastic and string, the first of a series of wildly successful animal bracelets. He designed a range of rich "Renaissance" treasures inspired by jewels in both the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Hofburg in Vienna. And he adored Cartier's Big Cat jewels, designed by Jeanne Toussaint and beloved of the Duchess of Windsor, who was to become a devoted Lane fan. "I cover the whole gamut of ages and styles," says Lane. "I've plundered every civilisation you can think of and some more you can't. I love them all."
THE LIST of Lane's most celebrated devotees reads like a roll- call of jet-setters gone by: the Duchess of Windsor, Audrey Hepburn, Pamela Harriman, Gloria Guinness, Princess Margaret, Elizabeth Taylor - and a string of First Ladies including not only Jackie Kennedy Onassis but Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton (who wore Lane's Art Deco style dress clips) and Barbara Bush (whose three-strand Ken Lane pearls are now in Washington's Smithsonian Institute). There is, perhaps, a dated feel to such names. But today fashion is indulging in another Kenneth Jay Lane moment; glamour is good again, and, riding the crest of the 1980s revival, costume jewellery is back in a big way - fun, flamboyant and fabulously expressive. Lane himself, it turns out, hasn't dated at all. In fact, as a master of reinvention, he has in recent years enjoyed a second career selling his jewellery on the shopping channel, QVC, to record-breaking audiences who can't get enough of his anecdotes and bon mots about the rich and famous. "I've sold US DOllars 1m worth of jewels in one hour, and we regularly sell US Dollars 300,000 to US Dollars 400,000," he confides.
Even during the 1990s, grunge-inspired years of non- ornamentation, Lane maintained a loyal clientele. "Women who've never stopped wearing my earrings, who've always loved the glamorous look, who started wearing jewellery after they were married and never stopped... My jewellery is for women who have confidence, who have fun dressing up; not the trophy wife who wants a trophy diamond so she can run off with the trophy boyfriend."
The jewels in the Christie's catalogue, estimated at prices ranging from US Dollars 200 to US Dollars 4,000, run through the entire saga of the Kenneth Jay Lane creations, themes and inspirations: there are the classic pearls; the benignly beautiful serpent bangles in vibrant enamels; the bulbous, cross-shaped David Webb- inspired clusters; the dazzling belts; the Cuban tree snail shells encrusted with crystal gems; and the Chinese, Egyptian, Aztec and Indian flavoured jewels.
Eighteenth-century courtly jewels dripping with faux rose diamonds sit alongside Lane's fabulous simulated rock crystal bangles and his monumental dangling earrings. Then there is the opulent orientalism and graphic glamour of Art Deco; the phenomenally successful Headlights necklaces of impossibly large crystal stone; and, from the 1970s, the Van Cleef & Arpels Elizabeth Taylor-style necklaces, loaded with tiger's eye or turquoise, with their massive palmette shaped clusters.
In short, everything for the collector, and, as Mary McFadden puts it in her introduction, everything to turn a woman magically into Cinderella for the night. Kenny Jay Lanes make a woman feel young, explains their creator. "My jewels are the easiest way for a lady to get rid of a headache," he tells me. "They are a diversion. They make you happy. That's what jewels are for."
A few days later, Kenneth Jay Lane has moved on from Oscar de la Renta's place; nor is he back in New York. "Mr Lane is out of town right now," an assistant at the showroom says. Of course he is. n
Vintage Couture by Kenneth Jay Lane" will be auctioned from 2pm on 9 April at Christie's, Rockefeller Center, 20 Rockefeller Plaza, New York (tel: 00 1 212 636 2000 or see www.christies.com).