Kenneth Jay Lane at home, 2014.

Words by James Andrew
Photography by Oscar Correcher

The first time I met Kenneth Jay Lane was during a luncheon with some friends at the private, glamorous New York City club, Doubles. During the course of conversation, the venerable costume jewelry designer clearly became tickled, beaming with delight as one of our party—a rather elegant woman—recounted how she and a companion had once traveled to a tropical retreat, away from the worries of the world, only to be held up at gunpoint upon arrival. Their assailants unceremoniously demanded the ladies to hand over their possessions. One of the women produced a bag of jewels, or—as it turned out—what our happy robbers thought was jewelry. The glittery gems were in fact costume marvels from the Kenneth Jay Lane Collection. The story concluded with the thrilled robbers dashing off, seemingly impressive stones in hand, convinced they’d hit the jackpot. Recalling the brazen theft, this woman echoed Lane’s laughter, pointing out that their real jewels were still packed away in their luggage.

At the end of the luncheon, as people parted ways, I introduced myself to Lane as one of his neighbors, mentioning that I’d welcome an opportunity to visit him sometime in his legendary apartment. Alas, our schedules never quite aligned. So, when Scala Regia invited me to interview Lane, I jumped at the opportunity. As an interior designer myself, I was hugely eager to see Lane’s home, not only out of professional curiosity, but to discover what it might tell me about the man himself. Suffice it to say, I was not disappointed.

Lane’s story is the classically archetypal tale of a small-town boy made good, coming to the big city with nothing but pluck, and earning meteoric success for his efforts. From the fruits of that success, the king of costume jewelry was able to fashion a palatial backdrop for entertaining and enjoying the good life. He lives in a Renaissance revival-style Stanford White duplex with 16-foot ceilings near Murray Hill; it’s an opulent bohème environment with a touch of gentlemen’s club. A lover of Orientalist paintings, he has amassed an astounding museum-level collection (a grouping that will ultimately be housed in the Kenneth Jay Lane Gallery at the Met). His drawing room walls are upholstered in brown “herculon”—a velvet frequently used in automobiles; a modest material finished with rather an extravagant French cord, fringe and tassels—which he’s also used for his corner banquettes à la turque as well as for a pair of centered back-to-back sofas, a nod to Baron de Redé’s drawing room at the Hôtel Lambert. The room combines the quirky and the grand, peppered with personal mementos culled from across the world, comfortably seating forty people though it’s been known to accommodate as many as seventy guests in some of Lane’s more lavish fêtes. However, despite the scale, the interior still maintains a sense of luxury and richness, and it was from inside this welcoming room that Lane shared some of the key moments of a career that’s thrived for more than half a century.

Lane briefly studied architecture at the University of Michigan, before continuing his higher learning at the Rhode Island School of Design and neighboring Brown University. Upon graduation from RISD in 1954, he moved to New York City. A serious design student, he reportedly arrived, properly equipped, with a quiver of Savile Row suits and “raven-smooth hair”, and also, as close friend Diana Vreeland put it, “the straightest part in New York”. Not to mention, he had exceptional table manners to boot. These attributes, coupled with a great deal of personal charm, quickly gained the young dandy entrée to the upper echelons of New York society, where he found himself mingling with the most important international tastemakers of the day. It’s of little surprise, therefore, that he was promptly snapped up as a layout assistant by Vogue’s legendary art director, Alexander Liberman.

However, Lane soon found this to be a less than desirable position. “Rubber cement was my natural enemy”, Lane told me. Leaving Vogue, he began designing shoes for Dior, working in association with Roger Vivier, who was so impressed that he asked Lane to come study footwear alongside him in Paris. Armed with a corporate American Express card, Lane began a jet-setting lifestyle, dividing his time between the Big Apple and Paris. Back then, he explains, it was actually possible to appear to live lavishly for very little money, allowing him to relatively easily treat new friends—such as Gianni and Marella Agnelli—to dinner.

Shoes organically led to designing accessories and jewelry; collections needed to be coordinated—and Lane displayed a natural talent for this. Vreeland suggested that he applied for a position as a jewelry designer for the Hattie Carnegie Company, which by then had garnered a reputation as an American counterpart to Chanel.

Lane admits he “didn’t stay up nights working on a brilliant portfolio”. As such, Carnegie was not at all impressed and it was this rejection, Lane recalls, which motivated him to begin his own line; in 1962, he founded Kenneth Jay Lane, where upon he barreled forward, making up his rules as he went along, without worrying what might be commercially successful.

He could afford to think this way. Having kept company with some of the most stylish people the world over, Lane had no shortage of magnificent muses to inspire his work: the Duchess of Windsor, Babe Paley, Nan Kempner, Diana Vreeland, Sister Parish and the aforementioned Marella Agnelli among them, while he also cites the “the ghost of Fulco di Vedura” as a steady source of inspiration. “From the start”, Lane told me, his designs were “informed by style and not fashion”.

During my visit, Lane had many wonderful stories to share; stories about things like the incredible strand of rubies (purchased at the Gem Palace in Jaipur, which specialized in Moghul jewels) that were given to Marella Agnelli by her husband—everyone adored this necklace, and over the years, the socialite gradually gave away pieces of it to various admirers. Eventually, she had Lane copy the necklace so that she could give them as gifts. Sometime later, during a party hosted by the de la Rentas to honor her, several women arrived wearing Lane’s “Agnelli” necklace.

Lane was on hand, and when he went to congratulate her, Agnelli whispered into his ear: “naughty, naughty, naughty—so many women are wearing our necklace!” It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the design would become one of Lane’s best sellers, one that it’s still in production to this day. A similar story surrounds a party held for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, which found many of the guests donning Lane’s expert copy of Jackie O’s Bulgari necklace. “I am myself a fabulous fake”, Lane says, in one of his many playful, utterly self-aware, characteristically frank proclamations. Ironically, this also serves to lend the man—and his life’s work—such an undeniably deep and absolute authenticity.

scala regia magazine

Opening spread of the paper version.