NEW YORK — Indelible as her film career was, Lauren Bacall, who died Tuesday at age 89, also left a lasting impression on the fashion industry. On Wednesday, a bevy of designers sized up her influence through the years on their work and on American style in general.
“Lauren Bacall was a true American beauty. She was beautiful, bold, talented, funny, adventurous and loyal,” Diane von Furstenberg said Wednesday. “For me she represented the best of American style! I was lucky to know her and call her a friend. I will miss her voice, her laughter, her heart.”
This story first appeared in the August 14, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Isaac Mizrahi, whose first encounter with the screen siren occurred when he was a 19-year-old working at Perry Ellis, said, “There was not a false bone in her body. She had a very deep sense of integrity on every level. She embodied a certain level of taste for women that was just smart. And she did that by being true to herself and being honest, which is what they teach you in design school and on fashion shoots.”
With her very New York way of looking at fashion, which called for “this kind of skepticism,” she made a case to rebel against anything loud or vulgar, Mizrahi said. “I don’t know that I could find another New Yorker, or American for that matter, who has that,” he said. “I never saw her with an entourage. There was never too much makeup. The hair was never too high. You only notice her in the dress.”
Bacall actually got her start in the Garment District. As a high schooler in 1941, she took to modeling for the long-since-shuttered David Crystal and Sam Friedlander collections, as well as famed composer Stephen Sondheim’s late father Herbert Sondheim, who owned a dress company. At a 1996 book party for Bernard-Henri Lévy, Stephen Sondheim told WWD on spotting Bacall, “Here comes one of my father’s models.”
“I was a terrible model,” Bacall protested to Sondheim. “I was terrified and bony.”
That didn’t keep Diana Vreeland from giving Bacall her seal of approval at Harper’s Bazaar and photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe from photographing her. In 1942, she was green-lighted for a magazine shoot and the result was a stark full-page image in March 1943 of a solemn-looking Bacall standing, with her hands in her pockets, in front of what appears to be an American Red Cross blood donor bank — caught the eye of Slim Keith, who was married to Howard Hawks at the time. Before long, Bacall had relocated to Hollywood, dropped her given name of “Betty” and added a second “l” to her surname to try to avoid any mispronunciations.
As her film career and box office might rose, thanks in part to marrying Humphrey Bogart, she maintained major star status without ever giving too much away about her personal life, or barely anything to be more precise. During the party Diane von Furstenberg threw for Bacall’s book “By Myself and Then Some” in 2005, Bacall told WWD, “I can’t answer any questions. It’s a party and I’m too excited.”
Exuberant as she was at that event, Bacall — unlike many of today’s paparazzi-seeking starlets — never wore out her welcome on the red carpet or on Seventh Avenue. While she avoided being in lock step with any one designer, the honorary Academy Award winner would make the occasional cameo appearance — for example, popping up beside Bianca Jagger at Yves Saint Laurent’s 1974 fashion show at The Pierre hotel. While Norman Norell and Jean Louis were go-to designers early on, she wore many others over the years, including Ferragamo, Adolfo, Halston, Armani Privé and Eksandar.
In the Fifties and Sixties, Bacall was a familiar face with the Ferragamo family as one of its more loyal clients, along with Audrey Hepburn, Ava Gardner and Anna Magnani. Massimo Ferragamo, chairman of Ferragamo USA, said Wednesday, “For my father Salvatore, Lauren Bacall was one of the most elegant and ladylike actresses he ever had the pleasure of making custom shoes for. She was a very special woman and a true example of grace and class. She will be greatly missed.”
In one of her more successful films “Designing Women,” Bacall played a fashion designer inspired by Helen Rose, whose designs she often wore. In her biography, Bacall said she took the part to avoid facing Bogart’s eventually terminal illness. The actress beat out Grace Kelly for the role and later wrote, “She got the prince, I got the part.”
Decades after helping to define the Golden Age of Hollywood with her side-parted wavy long bob and bold red lipstick, Bacall landed on People magazine’s Most Beautiful People list in 1997 at the age of 72. Vanity Fair ranked her on its International Best-Dressed List in 2000 and three years later the Council of Fashion Designers of America honored her iconic style. Former CFDA president Stan Herman said Bacall was “a unanimous choice. There are very few women who look the way she did.
“When I called her to tell her the news, she was very surprised,” Herman said. “She also wanted to know if there was money involved. I’m not sure if she was kidding or not.”
While on-screen, Bacall favored traffic-stopping styles like a fitted bodice Falkenstein off-the-shoulder taffeta cocktail dress and an Athena sharkskin suit with scallop details and a fur-trimmed stole, she opted for an all-black pants and jacket combo for the CFDA Awards. Her consistently pulled-together yet devil-may-care fashion sense continued to cast an influence on such designers as Donna Karan, Michael Kors and Tommy Hilfiger. Striking as she was on-screen and on-stage, Bacall’s stylist-free wardrobe was noticeably unrehearsed.
Adolfo Sardina recalled Wednesday how he had recognized the actress immediately when she wandered into his West 56th Street hat boutique for the first time one afternoon in 1960. “She came to my place and said, ‘Oh, I like the way you do what you do. Would you make me some berets?’” he said. “She really had a great style. The way you saw her in the movies was really the exact same look that she was in person. Later in life, when we all got old, she still had that same chic.”
After the designer expanded into ready-to-wear and moved into a 57th Street store “when life became more exciting,” Bacall continued to buy his clothes through the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. “I really truly was a great admirer of Miss Bacall’s. She was marvelous,” Sardina said.
Karan said Wednesday, “Lauren Bacall was a true icon. She was a woman of style and strength, one that inspired us all, especially those of us in the fashion world. She seduced us with her deep voice, her glamour and amazing sophistication. We will remember her always.”
A native New Yorker, the actress never lost sight of her straight-shooting ways. At a candlelit Gucci-sponsored dinner during the 1999 Venice Biennale, Bacall told WWD, “I don’t even know Tom Ford, but I intend to become his best friend tonight.”
London-based designer Eskandar Nabavi experienced that razor-sharp wit in working with her as a private client. At the opening of his New York store, Bacall was bowled over by the bountiful Beluga caviar “She said, ‘Oh, fabulous — this is like the old days,’” the designer said.
When Bacall was disappointed to learn she couldn’t shop during the party, he suggested she return to see him. “She looked at me with those eyes and said, ‘Will there be caviar?’” he said with a laugh. And much to her delight he did: a half-kilo tin, which she assured Nabavi she would share with her son, Sam Robards, when he was in town.
When browsing with Nabavi, she would walk around and look at everything, but always wanted pants, especially loose-fitting, flowy ones. Cashmere sweaters, suede shirts and heavyweight silk pieces were often on her checklist. And once her order was in place, Bacall liked to chat over tea. “She would talk about herself some, but not very much. She would talk about her dog, Miss Sophie, who had to travel on the seat beside her on American Airlines or she wouldn’t go on the trip. She would talk about how everything had become so expensive in the world. She would talk about anything really,” Nabavi said.