On the Runway: Lee Radziwill, the Original Influencer

On the Runway

Lee Radziwill, the Original Influencer

If you really want to know what that word means, forget the job description, look to the legacy.

What does it mean to have your greatest legacy be one of “taste?”

I have been thinking about this since the news of Lee Radziwill’s death arrived, along with the flood of photographs from all corners of social media featuring Ms. Radziwill throughout her life — in white corduroys and a blue boat-neck T-shirt, in bouffant chignon and tunics; in a pink shift with her sister, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, atop an elephant during a tour of India; in a white-and-silver beaded gown dancing with Truman Capote at his Black and White Ball; in a black patent python jacket — all of them used to pay homage to her extraordinary “taste.”

Been thinking about it since some of the obituaries and reminiscences almost seem to use the word as a backhanded compliment; a reference to a life that had more impact in style than substance (she wasn’t as famous as her sister, the former first lady; she was something of a professional dabbler).

But are the two really so unrelated? Ms. Radziwill also has been characterized as “the last princess of Camelot” and “the last swan,” the nickname Mr. Capote used for his socialite circle of friends. And though neither label is technically true (swans such as Gloria Vanderbilt are still very much alive, as are plenty of Kennedys), they reflect the seemingly widespread sense that with her death, an era has ended.

What was it? The time when “influence” implied soft power that emanated from a unique and alluring point of view on the world. When the term did not have a commercial or cynical cast, but had reach and resonance. Ms. Radziwill pretty much embodied the idea.

Her influence had nothing to do with payment or ambassadorships (save the years in the late 1980s and early 1990s when she did public relations for Giorgio Armani, although part of what drew them together was a shared aesthetic). It rather derived from her own innate sense of the world.

Her style, which combined minimalism with a certain interest in “the beauty of oddity or disruption or intelligence” according to Marc Jacobs (she did go on tour with the Rolling Stones and hang out with Andy Warhol), influenced not just what her sister wore, not just those enthralled by their myth but an entire generation of designers, for whom she was an object of fascination; not a muse so much as a mentor.

Ms. Radziwill, fourth from right, in the front row at Giambattista Valli’s fall 2013 couture show in Paris.CreditBertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images

Ms. Radziwill was at Michael Kors’s 30th anniversary in 2011 in Paris, often in the front row of Giambattista Valli. Tory Burch claimed her as inspiration for a fall 2018 collection and named a handbag after her. She was good friends with Mr. Jacobs (and through him, with Sofia Coppola) and Martin Grant. She shaped their sense of style, which in turn has filtered down to shape so much of our own.

“The thing was,” said Mr. Grant, the Paris-based Australian designer, “her sister Jackie was an icon to a generation but once you got past her, you realized Lee had a huge influence on Jackie, and a lot of her style was filtered down from Lee. But because Lee was less in the limelight she could be a little edgier and more interesting.” He met Ms. Radziwill more than 20 years ago, when she came in to commission a white leather jacket, and they went from client to friends pretty quickly.

“We had nothing in common,” he said. “There was a big age difference, our backgrounds were totally different, but we both liked a kind of pared-down, tailored line.”

She taught him, Mr. Grant said, “all about being uncluttered. I used to make more complicated clothing but after spending time with her my work became simpler, and less uptight.”

“She edited out the excess,” said André Leon Talley, the fashion consultant and Vogue contributor who first met Ms. Radziwill when he joined WWD in the 1970s in Paris. “She told me she’d never had an Hermès bag or silk scarf in her life. Everyone else carried them, so to her they were common. She was the first to wear Courrèges. She wore a silver beaded Mila Schön, this Italian couturier, to the Black and White Ball — she knew no one else would be in Mila Schön.”

It was Mr. Talley who introduced Ms. Radziwill to Mr. Jacobs and Mr. Grant — a reflection, said Mr. Jacobs, of her interest in things that were “current. She wanted to meet the new young designer at Louis Vuitton — even though when we first met I had very, very long hair and was unshaven and she said I scared her.”

She helped Mr. Jacobs decorate his house in Paris, told him where he should get his linens (D. Porthault) and silver (Puiforcat), and that his table service should not be monogrammed. “Oh no, darling, you never put your initials on anything, ever,” Mr. Jacobs remembered her saying — so he didn’t. She took him to what he called the best Art Deco gallery in Paris, and to the Opéra Garnier for the first time.

She was a fan of his cashmere and silk thermals because they reminded her of 1960s “poor boy” ribbed sweaters, and of his coats, because she liked the ’60s-style narrow shoulders and high armholes, which was the way he cut, and would order them in multiple colors with contrasting fur collars.

“With her, everything was studied, everything was considered, even the way she smoked a cigarette,” Mr. Jacobs said. “But she had a terrific sense of humor. Her delivery was so chic.”

To listen to him struggle to explain what that kind of influence meant is to understand how hard it is to achieve and how singular, really, a force it is. Its power lay in its determined and consistent originality, which could not be bought.

Now that influencer has become a job description, we might do well to remember.

Vanessa Friedman is The Times’s fashion director and chief fashion critic. She was previously the fashion editor of the Financial Times. @VVFriedman


Published at Mon, 18 Feb 2019 13:32:13 +0000