Lunch with Designer and Author Jeffrey Banks

I have been looking forward to this week’s lunch ever since Jeffrey Banks invited me some weeks ago. I’ve chatted with him a few times when I’d seen him lunching at Michael’s with one of our many mutual friends, and we’ve gotten to ‘know’ each other on Facebook. But I’d never had the opportunity to sit down at length with the urbane and dapper designer who has had a very successful second career as an author – until today.

I was eager to talk to him about so many topics. We covered it all, from his six books to his charming collection of tartan home furnishings for HSN to his recollections of working with his mentor Ralph Lauren.

We started with his latest masterpieces: the book, Norell: Master of American Fashion and the exhibition, Norell: Dean of American Fashion which both debuted earlier this year. Jeffrey wrote the book with Doria de La Chapelle and co-curated the exhibition with Patricia Mears. “When I do a book, I always want it to be an event,” he told me.

“Knowing how museums work, I didn’t think there was a chance in hell they’d do another show,” said Jeffrey. “There had been one [about Norell] in the nineties with pieces from one woman’s wardrobe, and I remembered that I didn’t think it was that great, so I asked them if they’d consider revisiting [Norell]. It was Valerie Steele’s first show, and she didn’t think it was all that great either.”

Much to Jeffrey’s great surprise they gave him “carte blanche” deferring to his exhaustive knowledge of designers and design history. He discovered a bridal designer named Kenneth Pool had a collection of over one hundred vintage pieces from Norell, many of which made it into the exhibition. “I started with 250 pieces and was told [by Mears] that might be too much. One of the first things you learn as a designer is how to edit.” In the end, Jeffrey selected 100 beautiful garments for the exhibition.

For the uninitiated, Norman Norell is one of the most celebrated fashion designers of the mid-twentieth century and is best remembered for his sleek, sophisticated and timeless approach to American glamour. I saw the exhibition in April just before it closed with my 13-year-old daughter, Madeline, who marveled at the idea that although the garments we were looking at had been made decades ago, they could have easily be worn today. “I want that green coat, Mommy!” she told me as she took her iPhone around and photographed her favorite items.

Jeffrey smiled when I told him about our visit. “Exactly,” he said. “Although [the cost of] a wool jersey dress was between $300 and $500 — stratospheric in 1960 — a woman could amortize its cost over ten years and it would still look great.” He marveled at the discovery of six to twelve-inch hems on garments. “Norell thought women should be able to shorten or lengthen hemlines at will over time. These clothes were made over fifty years ago. As a designer, this wowed me.”

As much as Jeffrey was awed by Norell’s timeless and enduring appeal and unique artistry, I was equally taken by Jeffrey’s desire to see the designer, who passed away in 1972, get his due. The exhibition was the direct result of Jeffrey’s latest book, which he began writing two years ago.

“I was shocked that no one else had done a book and I became obsessed,” he told me. “I had to do this.” Jeffrey had been collecting images of Norell’s work for almost 20 years. “I wanted to do this while the people who knew him were still here. I told Bill Cunningham about it and while I was writing it, but before I could talk to him, Bill died.”

Jeffrey’s memories of Norell that he shared with me were evocative of a very different time in New York. In October 1972, when he was working for Ralph Lauren, as his second assistant, he implored the designer to get tickets to a retrospective on the designer at the Met. “He asked me, ‘Who is this Norell guy?’” Jeffrey must have been convincing. “He listened to me, and we went. In the end, [the auditorium] went black and there were these lights like glittering stars.

Then 60 girls in his sequined mermaid gowns came out. Then the president of Parson’s came out and said Mr. Norell had had a stroke the night before,” said Jeffrey still moved by the memory. “He didn’t get to see any of that show, and he didn’t come out of the hospital again. He died ten days later.”

I’d known about Jeffrey’s connection to Ralph Lauren, but hadn’t realized it started when he was so young. Jeffrey first met Ralph when he was 16 and working at Britches, a menswear store in Georgetown when the designer came down from New York for a personal appearance at the store. “I’d had perfect attendance [in high school] up until that point, but I told my mother I was going to be absent and she was going to write me a note. And she did.”

Young Jeffrey made quite an impression. “He told me he might have a job for me [in New York] when I graduated [high school].” A year later, after convincing his mother, Eleanor, who wanted to accompany him to the interview, to wait for him at Bonwit Teller, Jeffrey met with Ralph (and wound up chatting with Bobby Short who was at the designer’s offices for a tuxedo fitting) and thus started his career in fashion in New York.

I assumed that Jeffrey’s impeccably tailored blazer was a Ralph Lauren design, but it turns out there was another fascinating story behind its origins. “It’s Brooks Brothers,” he said reaching for his iPhone. Jeffrey had selected an advertising image of the same jacket and repp-striped tie from Brooks Brothers’ archives for the cover of his book, Preppy: Cultivating Ivy Style which was published in 2011 by Rizzoli. “It was from the 1940s, and they remade the jacket and the tie [to coincide with the book launch]. It sold out.” When he showed me the cover, I remember loving it when I saw it on the main floor of Brooks Brothers’ Madison Avenue store.

His other books, especially his first with Rizzoli, Tartan: Romancing the Plaid, which came out in 2007, all have fascinating stories and deep personal connections behind them. Having seen Jeffrey’s adorable plaid home and pet accessories on HSN, I wanted to know where his obsession started. And, it turns out, so did he.

“Everything [written] was always about finding ‘your clan.’ I talked to theologians, architects, and psychiatrists to get a read on why people are obsessed,” he said. The verdict: the familial and familiar aspect of the plaids appeal to people especially in “chaotic times.” Said Jeffrey: “Bill Cunningham had a piece in the Times on tartan hats and scarves, and Tiffany had done tartan windows after 9-11. I knew then I had to do a book.”

Speaking of obsessions, I asked Jeffrey to weigh in on mine – the British royal family.  “Meghan is terrific,” he told me. “When she first appeared with Prince Harry at the Invictus Games in jeans and a white shirt with her fresh-scrubbed face. Who wouldn’t fall in love with her?”

“She’s such a boon for the royal family. You can tell by the way the British public has embraced her. If you go to Great Britain, you’ll see that it’s such a melting pot. As a mixed-race woman, she represents the face of the people who live in Britain.”

And what does he hope her wedding dress will look like? “I hope it will reflect her style and be a little more body conscious [than other royal wedding dresses]. I hope it’s not over the top, though.”

I told Jeffrey that I was surprised Meghan had chosen that elaborate Ralph & Russo gown with its eye-popping price tag [$75,000] for her official engagement portrait. “I love it,” he said. “It was an unusual choice, but I feel like when it comes to royals, the price shouldn’t be a concern. She was making her statement with that dress.” I’ll say.

As we sipped our coffee, I had to ask Jeffrey for his take on the Met Gala. He told me he last went attended the event in 1996, the same year Princess Diana accompanied by her friend and former Harper’s Bazaar editor Liz Tilberis to the event. The late princess famously wore a navy silk slip dress from John Galliano’s debut couture collection as the Creative Director of Dior.

The company was being honored that year. “And we all stole the napkins that were embroidered with lily of the valley, the company’s signature,” said Jeffrey, laughing at the memory.

It’s been all downhill since then for the event, said Jeffrey who recalled getting a panicked phone call from his friend Terron Schaefer, who was then vice president of marketing at Saks Fifth Avenue, in the days leading up to the gala some years ago. “He told me he’d convinced Saks to buy a table, but Anna Wintour wasn’t letting [Saks’ president] Steve Sadove bring his wife. I told him to call Vogue and tell them that the store would pull all their advertising. That’s how she got to go.”

He continued, “Not only do you have to be invited [to buy a table] but Anna Wintour tells you who you can invite and which celebrities you should invite. I know it’s supposed to raise $12 million for the Costume Institute, but I can’t believe a lot of it doesn’t get funneled to the rest of the Met. It’s become more about the celebrities than the fashion or the designers. It’s a three-ring circus. I don’t miss it.”

And once again, as he’d done several times during our two-hour lunch, he was able to transport me back to a far more exciting time in the city. “When I was a student at Parson’s I bought a ticket to the after-party. It was $150 or $200, and you saw Nan Kempner, Diana Vreeland, and Jackie Kennedy. It was like the US Open; you got to see all the people you dreamed about seeing,” he said. “They would be coming out of the dinner as we were going into the after-party and you got to see the exhibition.  It was magical.”

Michaels through a window

Seen & Heard Around the Room

Hudson News’ James Cohen holding court on Table One … Andrew Stein on Two …Herb Allen on Three … The Today show’s Kathie Lee Gifford and contributor Jill Martin on Four. KLG and I arrived at the front door very same moment this afternoon. She, a vision in black and white, stepped out of her car and sailed in looking flawless. I came loaded down with two bags — the tell-tale sign of a commuter — and wearing my Nikes. Yes, I know, my life is so glamorous.

And there’s more…

Tom Florio and, so we’re told, his father on Table Six …Sharon Bush (mother of Lauren Bush Lauren) and Anne Hearst took over Six for the second seating … New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia at his regular perch on Table Eight … Friends and fellow scribes Roger Friedman and Jill Brooke on Nine … Tina Brown and Jolie Hunt on Eleven … Simon & Schuster’s Alice Mayhew on Fourteen… Long time no see! Adam Platzner, who was lunching on Fifteen, stopped by my table to tell me he’s co-founded a “new media” company, Zig Media, and former Vanity Fair EIC Graydon Carter is one of his investors. Sounds intriguing. Stay tuned!

And finally

PR priestess Susan Blond on Sixteen … LAK PR CEO Lisa Linden and colleague Hannah Arnold on Seventeen … Marc Rosenthal and Marshall Cohen on Eighteen … Joel Silverman and Patricia Duff on Twenty … Peter Price on Twenty-one … Attorney Bob Barnett, who was kind enough to stop by my table to say hello, on Twenty-three … Tom Goodman on Twenty-five … Kira Semler and Vi Huse toasting today’s lovely spring weather with a champagne lunch at the bar. Cheers!

I won’t be lunching at Michael’s next week because I’ll be getting ready for the royal wedding and all the attendant hoopla that comes with it. I’ll be covering every minute for Best Life and MSN. Instead of serving up a lunch report next Wednesday, I’ll have an exclusive editorial on the whole shebang instead.

See you back at Michael’s in two weeks!

Diane Clehane

Diane Clehane is a leading authority on celebrity and royalty who has written for Vanity Fair, People, and many other national outlets. She is a New York Times best-selling author of five books, including Diana: The Secrets of Her Style and Imagining Diana. She appears regularly on CNN.

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