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He favored the double-breasted blazer, the spread collar and the Windsor knot, but Douglas Fairbanks Jr.’s sartorial signature was a simple red carnation. And this colorful boutonniere appeared in abundance earlier this month when the late actor’s estate—including everything from John Lobb shoes in their original boxes to a Stovel & Mason pinstripe suit—went up for auction at Doyle New York.
This story first appeared in the September 26, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“No one can remember the last time a collection of this importance was offered,” says Louis LeB. Webre, a senior vice president at the auction house. “The items are from the heyday of bespoke and were obviously ordered by someone with great sophistication. He was much more than a dandy; he was a gentleman’s style icon.”
Just consider the wardrobe. Fairbanks’ singular flair is evident in an array of accessories such as two-toned shoes, hand-carved canes and a pair of gold and reverse-painted crystal cuff links bearing the initials D.F. Jr. “Nothing is flat,” Webre notes. “It’s all very classic, but it’s not boring.”
The same could be said about Fairbanks himself. Born in New York and raised largely in Europe, the actor began his career as a silent-screen swashbuckler and went on to star in Hollywood hits such as The Prisoner of Zenda and Gunga Din. The first of his three wives was Joan Crawford. During World War II, Fairbanks became a U.S. Navy officer and helped form the Beach Jumpers undercover tactical force. He later participated in Operation Dragoon, an amphibious assault on Southern France, for which he received several medals, including the Navy’s Legion of Merit and the French Croix de Guerre.
After the war, he returned to Hollywood, and in 1991 married Vera Lee Shelton, a former merchandiser for the QVC Network. Fairbanks died in 2000, but the clothes stayed in closets for the next decade. (“People mourn in different ways,” Webre explains, “and Mrs. Fairbanks now reached the point where she was ready to divest herself of his things.”)
Although his style remained unmistakably English, there was also a casual American side to Fairbanks’ wardrobe, exemplified by a navy canvas jacket from John Weitz and plaid Jantzen swim trunks.
But the pieces at auction attracting the most interest—such as the Huntsman & Sons tweed sport coats and the Henry Maxwell boots— were made in England. The same goes for Fairbanks’ exquisitely tailored suits—each displayed with a red carnation on the lapel, of course.