YVES, GIORGIO, JACKIE AND ME
A FASHIONABLE STROLL EMORY LANE WITH THE POWER PEOPLE.
Byline: Etta Froio
When I joined Women’s Wear Daily more years ago than I care to mention, it was strictly a no-frills operation. WWD was, as everyone said, the Bible of the Fashion Industry, a reputable, straightforward — dare I say, dull — business paper. No glamour, no bells and whistles, no designers anxious to wine and dine reporters, no front-row seats at shows, and no egos, thank you very much. Just leave them at the front door.
I recall, on one of my market trips, how I was ceremoniously announced when I arrived for an appointment. The showroom salesman opened the door to a back room and shouted to the designer, “The girl from the Women’s Wear is here.”
All that changed when John Fairchild returned from Paris, where he had been European director of Fairchild Publications, to take over the reins of WWD. It was as if a tornado hit 7 East 12th Street. In just a few weeks, he swept away every trace of the musty, stodgy newspaper we had known and set out to create a new era of style and status. What incredible times they were — and what a joyride John gave us. He was my mentor, my friend and my guide to one of the most exciting times of my life. What follows are a few of the memorable experiences of my career.
The Greatest Show on Earth
I’m surrounded by fashion junkies, who can spend hours discussing every nuance of a Yohji Yamamoto collection, who must have the newest, hottest whatever from Prada, Gucci or Ghesquiere and who would even scale Mount Everest in their Manolo Blahniks if Marc Jacobs were showing a collection at the top. Now, I love fashion — after all, it’s been my life for a few decades — but an obsessive fashionista I am not. Never have been, never will be.
Just once, however, I came close. It was April 6, 1976, in Paris at the presentation of Yves Saint Laurent’s fall collection. Saint Laurent was in his prime at that time, and his collection was always the most anticipated event of the season. But no one was prepared for the blockbuster he sent out that day — his famous Ballet Russe collection that WWD awarded five stars. It was a relentless parade of unparalleled beauty, elegance, drama, fantasy, color and creativity — a 200-model, nearly two-hour tour de force that left his audience both wildly jubilant and emotionally exhausted. Throughout the show, you could feel the electricity building, and at the end, the entire room was standing, cheering, even weeping, as their triumphant hero took his bow. Backstage, Saint Laurent himself was so overcome that he collapsed in the arms of a friend and said, “Now I’m ready for the hospital.”
It was a once-in-a-lifetime fashion moment I will always treasure.
Four years later, Yves Saint Laurent was still riding the crest and came to New York on one of his rare visits “just to breathe” and visit friends. I was asked to interview Saint Laurent, and must admit I approached the assignment with some apprehension. After all, he was a legend and the most important designer of the decade. In other interviews and stories, he had been described as tortured, shrewd, a loner, sly, shy, fit, fragile — and there was Pierre Berge’s much-repeated quote: “Yves was born with a nervous breakdown.” Which Saint Laurent would I see today?
Happily, on this visit, Yves was in a decidedly positive frame of mind, relaxed and rested after a month-long vacation in his beloved Marrakech, impeccably tailored in a brown plaid suit and utterly charming. He talked about his search for peace — in life, work, in everything; a newfound maturity at age 43; his current attraction to nature and the basics; a need for a “real communication” with people, and the changes he was seeking in himself and his fashion. Here, some YSL snippets from that interview.
“I am young in spirit. But I was too young, I was too young even three years ago. Now I have a man’s maturity. I think it’s wonderful to find oneself, and with that I have found peace. I have become a very serious man. And for me, it’s a great joy.”
“Now I understand everyone around my metier. I don’t want to fight. I am peaceful and more confident. But even with that confidence, when I work, I learn something each time. The more you work, the more you learn, the more you are in anguish.”
“I think there must be another way to approach fashion. Now the moment has come, and I am sure that I have found the way. I want something very simple, very modern, very sophisticated. Even though I do things with more fantasy, I’m more interested in a blazer, to continue it each year with a new cut, a new perfection.”
“How long it takes to do a collection depends on my mind and my life. It’s a very bad life sometimes, but the results are often better.”
“Everybody copies me, and sometimes I am disgusted by the copies. I am not being pretentious, but it is like they are taking something profound in me, like a thief. They capture the sense of Saint Laurent, but they don’t capture me. Then sometimes, I don’t care about the copies because I like people more and more now. I have no jealousy about the other designers. I’m just an old fox who knows a lot of things they don’t.”
On Tour With the Big Boys
Back in the early Eighties, when everyone was flush and the retail boom was in full swing, department and specialty stores would lavish big bucks on fall promotions that would often feature a top designer, black-tie dinners, big fashion shows, cocktail parties and in-store appearances.
Some of the biggest and splashiest were staged by I. Magnin, the upscale San Francisco emporium that sadly shuttered its doors in 1995. These were usually extravagant four-day affairs of nonstop partying with side trips to Napa Valley, orchestrated by Sonja Caproni, who was then the store’s vice president and fashion director. I was invited to cover several of the annual designer promotions for WWD, the first one in 1980 when Hubert de Givenchy was the honored guest.
Hubert always loved to do things in grand style, so he brought along an entourage of 11, including five of his Paris models, for a benefit fashion show-cum-dinner-dance at Sterling Vineyards in Napa, followed a few days later by a cocktail-fashion show at the store. I had flown from New York with Givenchy, and I will never forget the look of horror that briefly swept over his face as we were led from the plane to a huge white vintage Rolls-Royce. So California, but definitely not suited to monsieur’s meticulous, elegant style. The ever-gallant Hubert quickly recovered, however, and said to his welcoming committee, “Quelle chic.” Fortunately, more conventional limos transported him for the rest of the trip.
The next year, I. Magnin snagged Giorgio Armani for his very first U.S. store appearance, with stops in both San Francisco and Beverly Hills, where the store had just opened the newest and biggest Armani boutique. In the store’s eyes, nothing was too good for Giorgio, who happened to be its strongest-performing European designer. So Magnin re-created Armani’s Milan fall show — an elaborately staged affair with the collection shown in triplicate as models walked on specially built, Japanese-style pavilions. Pretty grand. And with grand results — a near sellout of the collection.
No question, the California Ladies loved his clothes, but they went wild for Armani himself. From the moment he arrived — looking handsome, tanned, buff and constantly flashing that billion-lira smile — they were like putty in his hands. They pursued him for autographs, fed him compliments, and one was spotted playing kneesies with him. Armani — more relaxed and flirtatious than I had ever seen him — relished it all. Gorgeous Giorgio had won the West.
San Francisco was hit with a double whammy in 1982 — Calvin Klein, who came for the annual I. Magnin promotion, and his archrival Ralph Lauren, who flew into town in his white Hawker Siddeley jet to help longtime buddy Wilkes Bashford launch a Polo shop. That meant a double dose of parties, but San Franciscans were — and are — a hearty lot when it comes to socializing and managed to give both designers equal time.
Magnin showcased Calvin’s new-age-of-elegance fall collection at a luncheon-fashion show titled “An Elegant Affair With Calvin Klein.” Arriving sans staff four days before the event, Klein worked hard — selecting and fitting models, rehearsing, picking the music, doing a string of interviews and TV shows — and played even harder, hitting all the in spots and enjoying enough feting and feasting to drive one into solitary confinement. One night, while dining at one of the restaurants-of-the-moment, Calvin and party were having such a rowdy time, they caught the attention of Tony Bennett, who was at a nearby table. So when the late, great decorator Billy Gaylord suggested everyone cap off the evening with a drink at his place, Bennett picked himself up and joined the crowd.
Meanwhile, Ralph Lauren was focused on the opening of the largest Polo shop, a 6,000-square-foot, trilevel store to house all the Lauren collections. It was estimated that Bashford had spent at least a cool million to build the shop and another $300,000 to launch it at a black-tie dinner, complete with a mega-fashion show staged by Broadway genius Michael Bennett.
It was a triumphant moment for Ralph, who said, “This whole project was truly done with love.” A few days later, Lauren was feted at a luncheon at Auberge du Soleil in Napa Valley. The very dapper Willie Brown, currently mayor of San Francisco and then speaker of the House, planned a special treat for Ralph that day. Knowing the designer was an auto buff and serious car collector, Brown offered him his Porsche convertible for the drive back to San Francisco. Ralph was obviously pleased and invited me along for the ride. Back in the city, while stopped at a traffic light, a man standing on the opposite corner shouted, “Hey, aren’t you Ralph Lauren?” Ralph waved his hand and beamed. A perfect ending to a perfect RL day.
I was a green reporter the first time I saw Jackie Kennedy face-to-face. The First Lady was launching a submarine — the USS Lafayette — in Groton, Conn., and I was assigned to cover the event, along with Tony Palmieri, our fabulous photographer who took so many photos of Jackie over the years that she always greeted him by name. Jackie arrived, accompanied by her mother, Janet Auchincloss, and Nicole Alphand, the wife of the French ambassador to the U.S. Jackie was absolutely radiant in a pale chartreuse Capucci coat, matching silk hat and Oleg Cassini’s white-and-black dotted silk dress. Suddenly, she broke away from her protective group to greet her admiring onlookers, shaking hands along the way. She headed straight for me. I was so awestruck, I froze, completely oblivious to her extended hand. Jackie just smiled broadly, and moved on.
Bill Blass called her “an absolute inspiration,” and Norman Norell thought she was “fresh…a great kid.” At 21, that great kid — Barbra Streisand — was also the hottest property in show business. She had wowed Broadway as Miss Marmelstein in “I Can Get It for You Wholesale” and was about to take on the role of Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl.”
Despite the success, when I interviewed her in the fall of 1963, Streisand was not yet the Diva she would later become. She and her husband, Elliot Gould, had just moved into a Central Park West duplex where Lorenz Hart once lived, and the only furniture in sight was a bed and a few chairs. “We could have had tea or something on the floor, but my maid couldn’t come today,” she said.
But Streisand was not so nonchalant when the subject of fashion came up. An admitted thrift-shop junkie and vintage shoe addict, she easily rattled off designer names, had a keen knowledge of fabrics and said that the fashions of the late Twenties to mid-Thirties were her favorites.
“Those limp old velvets and lames from the Twenties are the greatest,” she enthused. “I recently did a show at Lake Tahoe and wore an old cut-velvet gown. Liberace flipped.”
Her love of vintage clothes began out of necessity. “When I first started in show business,” said Streisand, “I couldn’t afford clothes, so I went to thrift shops. Now I have the greatest collection of old clothes that I paid $3.50 to $7.50 for. So what if somebody else wore them? I don’t care. Probably if they could afford those clothes, they were clean.”
The Ladies Who Lunched
They had it all: beauty, style, wealth, status, magnificent homes, yachts, planes, helicopters, dogs, horses, couture clothes, precious jewels — and just about everything else their little hearts desired. They were renowned hostesses, world travelers and the backbone of Old-Guard Society. Women such as Babe Paley, C.Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness, Jayne Wrightsman, Jane Engelhard, Jacqueline de Ribes, the Duchess of Windsor. WWD chronicled their every move, especially in the Sixties and Seventies, when the elite members of the Ladies Who Lunch Club filled our Eye pages ad infinitum.
Privilege and power dominated their lives. And I saw it in action on the day I interviewed the very elegant Gloria Guinness in the late Sixties at Gemini, her winter home just a few miles south of Palm Beach. When she picked me up at the airport, Guinness looked sensational wearing what she called her “working clothes” — Castillo’s navy wool pants, pink-and-white checked shirt, navy pullover. In a flash, we were in her Buick Riviera speeding well beyond the limit down A1A. As for the policeman who was laying in wait by the side of the road for traffic offenders, Guinness simply ignored him. “He knows me, he’s my friend,” she said offhandedly.
That day, she talked at length about her distaste for what the Sixties brought to our lives — ugliness and vulgarity, hippies, drugs, publicity focused on failure and sin rather than beauty and accomplishments, and the demise of truly chic clothes.
“I’m not a snob or blase,” said Guinness. “I’m just as excited about beauty today as I was 10 years ago. But there is so little today that is beautiful. Even the Venus de Milo is too fat.”
Which brings us to the Duchess of Windsor, who clearly shared more than a few of Gloria Guinness’s ideas. A needlepoint pillow resting on one of the beige satin sofas in her Waldorf Towers suite said it all: “You can’t be too rich or too thin.” The Duchess was the living example of that bon mot. She and the Duke of Windsor made many trips to New York in the Sixties and early Seventies, until the Duke’s death in 1972. Those visits were filled with a perpetual round of luncheons and dinners, as the top New York hostesses competed to entertain the couple in royal fashion.
June Weir, who was then WWD’s fashion editor, and I interviewed the Duchess on one of those visits. She was impeccable, as always, this day in a blue-and-white wool plaid Givenchy suit, simply and beautifully accessorized, every hair in place and her magnificent posture lending an aura of dignity. The world-famous hostess chatted about a wide range of topics — from the inevitable social scene to her preferred reading material: detective stories. But she became absolutely nostalgic when the conversation turned to China.
“Some of the happiest times of my life were spent there,” she said. “It was back in the Twenties, and everything was at a rickshaw pace. I loved Peking the best, a beautiful city of temples surrounded by a lovely countryside. We used to ride out to the western hills for the weekend and set up camp. We’d take along our houseboys and they would make up our beds in these beautiful ruined temples. Now, when people come back from the Orient, they say, ‘Just forget all that.’
“Oh, well, nothing stays the same. And I guess that’s how it should be.”
One of the Duchess’s great friends and equally renowned hostesses was the coolly elegant C.Z. Guest, who knew how to make a dramatic entrance. That’s exactly what she did one spring day in 1967 when WWD came to call. As we drove past flowering trees, up a winding road that led to Templeton, her favorite house on Long Island, we spotted the blond beauty. Across the rolling fields came C.Z. riding one of her many horses, followed by her many dogs — a black Labrador retriever, a beige mastiff, a golden retriever, a beige saluki and an Italian greyhound. She was wearing beige jodhpurs, a blue turtleneck and a charcoal cashmere pullover, and she was clearly in her element.
Hers was a charmed life, filled with family, horses, dogs, gardens, a palatial estate, summers in Saratoga, winters in Palm Beach, charity balls, chic parties and plenty of globe-trotting. Still, she insisted, “I think life should be as simple and uncomplicated as possible. I’m busy all the time. I’m up early, take care of the children, run the house, ride every morning, go into the city, work in the garden. I couldn’t get half as much done if I were complicated. I’m lucky as hell.”
Actually, I feel that lucky, too, to have been there, done that.