“All Buttoned Up”

1990’s Gemma Kahng jacket with jeweled flower buttons

I always encourage women to hold onto as many of their favorite, great pieces (clothes, accessories) as possible; even if they are not deemed to be the height of chic, or “in” at that moment. I find it laughable when so called fashion experts extol their customers to dump anything they haven’t worn for 6 months. Fashion is cyclical, everything comes back eventually, and, when it’s great it’s always great. This was brought into focus just recently.

Gemma Kahng jacket circa 1991

Case in point: Gemma Kahng’s signature jackets from her first collections in the early 90’s. It was a time in fashion that was all about the power suit, and Gemma’s interpretations had a “chic sense of humor” in the words of Elle Magazine’s Joe Zee. They were marked by fitted shapes, unabashed military formality, defined shoulders, and gloriously over-the-top, jewelry-like buttons. Sold in the best stores, they were featured prominently on the pages and covers of all the major fashion magazines, including Harper’s Bazaar (I was her editor). FYI, this 90’s design wunderkind is making a major comeback with the help of Joe Zee. Click on to http://www.gemmakahng.com/ to see what she is up to.

My Gemma Kahng jacket with flower like buttons

Luckily, I had purchased and subsequently collected some of Gemma’s signature jackets. Even when the pendulum would swing back to pared down minimalism (a look which is always valid and which I embrace), I refused to part with these decorative pieces for many reasons. Whenever I wore one, I would get many compliments and just seeing them in my closet would put an instant smile on my face. And while they might not always be part of my daily uniform, special pieces like these are hard to find. And yes, they are always desirable.

Schiaparelli’s ornate jackets

Flash back to the beginning of May and the press preview for Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations (http://www.metmuseum.org/  ) . I took note of one entire section (‘Waist Up, Waist Down’) which featured several of Schiap’s iconic, embellished, evening jackets, many of which were decorated with pronounced buttons. They brought to mind my Gemma Kahng stash; I thought Aha! It was time to pull them out again!

Then I read Lynn Yaeger’s article in the August issue of Vogue, “Twinkle Twinkle”, during the course of which the writer discusses the trend towards jeweled buttons, a recent fixation of designers like Marc Jacobs, who used “buttons the size of brooches” on jackets and coats for his most recent fall 2012 Louis Vuitton collection. The article is illustrated by several pictures of highly decorative buttons from Louis Vuitton, Thakoon, Chanel, Moschino, Oscar de la Renta, and Louis Vuitton’s fall collections. I couldn’t contain my delight, nor was I in the least bit surprised to see a picture (taken from Vogue 1991), of the fabulous Yasmeen Ghauri, wearing Gemma Kahng’s pink and green jacket with over-sized and pink and gold flower-like buttons. It’s sitting in my closet and is the exemplary piece.

Jewel like buttons Louis Vuitton Fall 2012

Ms. Yaeger questioned whether or not they should be worn by women over a certain age (“Does the bedazzled button tarnish your youth?” she asked). Of course, Ms. Yaeger basically gave her readers good reason to embrace the trend. She described the embellished buttons as “playful costume jewelry, a punctuation mark to a classic silhouette”. She quoted Marc Jacobs, who observed, “The over-sized proportion and Biba-style flower motif (of his versions) kept them looking young and fresh”. Lynn noted that Karl Lagerfeld (a modern thinker if ever there was one), who had the task of rethinking Chanel’s signature jeweled buttons when he took over as the head designer decades ago, used diamante buttons to “cheer up” his gray flannel pieces for fall 2012 (“I love them on jeans and places where we don’t expect them. That keeps them going” he explained).

What are my thoughts on this matter? I think that jeweled buttons can be considered a very practical, built-in accessory. More importantly, women should stop being so obsessed with trying to look “younger” and focus on looking as good as possible and developing a signature and individual look that compliments them. I’m a firm believer than you can wear anything if you know how to wear it to its best effect. But perhaps the sentiment I agree with most, is when hip young British designer Erdem Moralioglu admitted to Ms. Yaeger that the charm in these fancy, jeweled buttons, lies in the “wrong-rightness of it”. Well said. When something is SO wrong, it can be SO deliciously right. It’s that whole, good taste/bad taste debate, or as Diana Vreeland once said, “Bad taste is better than no taste”. So, the next time you put on a jacket or coat with dowager like, over-the-top, embellished buttons, and your first thought is, “Uh uh” — maybe you should take a better look and say, “YES!”

By the way, I’m sure I don’t have to point out that you don’t need to go out and buy new clothes  featuring large decorated buttons; you can easily buy separate buttons and replace the boring and dull ones on your favorite jackets and coats (just be sure to hold on to the originals, just in case you change you mind). Some of my favorite places to search are M&J Trim, (http://www.mjtrim.com/  , 1008 Sixth Avenue, between 37th and 38th Streets, 1 800 9 MJTRIM), and the legendary Tender Buttons shop, 143 East 62nd Street, 212 758 7004, http://www.tenderbuttons-nyc.com/  . And naturally, you can always find distinctive, vintage buttons on EBay.



Ernest Schmatolla is publisher of Lookonline since 1994. It is the longest running fashion site on the Internet.

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