Polly Mellen Asks Why Women Are So Bourgeois These Days

“It’ll be a tough book. An honest book.” Here was legendary fashion editor Polly Mellen, sitting perched over Madison Avenue in her office at Allure magazine, revealing that, after significant convincing from her colleagues and friends, she has begun the process of assembling her unseen as well as published work for an exhibition or book, “or possibly both.” She wouldn’t say much more. Looking out her window, she exhaled a sort of silent whistle, “Summer’s going great. Everything’s going great. But I’m a little restless. I always am.”

Her office is pared down to black and gray basics. She wore a black and gray Helmut Lang sailor shirt slit at the sleeves, Comme des Garçons trousers, Prada satin slippers. She was sharing her thoughts about a few devilish new styles.

” Veneer ,” she said. “I love it. Scratch. Ohhh … gone. Gone. That’s O.K. Don’t scratch,” she said, pleading like a matinee screen star. “Don’t scratch anything else. I want to keep it. To last. Like a picture fading. It’s a moment …

“Soooo black,” she said, gazing into the tanker of coffee served by her assistant, Paul, to her visitor.

She had none. “Coffee or tea? Polly doesn’t really drink anything,” he’d explained earlier.

Ms. Mellen has a family speaking voice, inherited or at least instilled. A voice for ladies, World War II-era graduates of Miss Porter’s School, for instance, like Polly: pear-shaped vowels, capital letters, exclamation points.

“Henry Clarke. Henry Clarke! He, that lovely man,” she swooned, changing the topic to the late American photographer whose property will be auctioned June 20 in Monaco by Christie’s. Proceeds from the sale will benefit the Institut Pasteur, the research center in France.

Mr. Clarke and the Parisian antiques dealer Raymond Poteau lived at “L’Aumonière” in Roquebrune. Their house was filled with a mix of Italian and Provençal furniture and whimsical, decorative pieces. Prior to the sale, expected to attract the younger, trendier cognoscenti–interior decorator Muriel Brandolini, Vogue ‘s Hamish Bowles–interested in the decorative arts, Christie’s catalogue of the Clarke estate is itself one of the most coveted collectibles these days. Shells in wicker baskets, baroque sculptures of saints, Old Master drawings, celestial globes, the suggestion of a Guinness or Agnelli social beauty posed in satin and mink. Clarke’s style has been adopted as this summer’s look: all postminimalist refined Hollywood Regency splendor. Like diamonds on sunburn.

“Not really my style,” Polly Mellen said. “I’m much more eliminated. There’s a big nostalgia for nostalgia, isn’t there? So much nostalgia everywhere. Even for the 1960′s and 1970′s look,” said the woman who paired model Penelope Tree with photographer Richard Avedon. “I’m not a history major. So I’m not really …” She’s not into the past.

“It’s about moving on,” she sighed. Saw something. Twinkle to her eyes.

“Smells like the best car you’ve ever been in,” Polly Mellen declared, laughing.

Ms. Mellen had just spent a few days with several New York fashion designers who recently presented their pre-spring and holiday lines. The aforementioned scent of leather was detected by Ms. Mellen at Tommy Hilfiger’s resort presentation. Then she applauded John Bartlett’s collection and praised Ralph Lauren for remarks he made at the second annual Fairchild Apparel C.E.O. Summit, held at the Boulders resort in Phoenix, Ariz., the first week of June.

“I think department stores are depressing. I think it’s scary,” Ralph Lauren boldly told the retailers. “They’re in the business of numbers. They’re not in the business of passion. They’re not in the business of dreams.”

“Ralph, who never opens his sweet mouth!” exclaimed Polly Mellen, delighted. “Fashion is too bottom line. I’m sorry. Everyone underestimates the man and woman on the street in an incorrect way. A lot more can be said in fashion magazines, too. They’re just too bottom line. On every page you can just feel the advertising payoff.”

Polly Mellen decried the way some women are dressing these evenings. “Why are women so bourgeois suddenly? What are they afraid of?” she wondered. At the mention of one woman in particular, Ms. Mellen’s hand landed with the grace of a great blue heron on the tape recorder. She turned it off. Then mourned the newfound conservatism of a fashion-world friend.

Polly Mellen raves about Helmut Lang, Marc Jacobs, independent films, David Geffen, the magazine Dutch that’s published in Amsterdam, the Oscar Wilde craze in film and theater, and carefully considering what to do on the eve of the millennium. As for she and her husband of 33-plus years, Henry Mellen: “We’re not sitting around watching the ball drop. I think that would be very second class,” she said.

She was raised in West Hartford, Conn., and attended Miss Porter’s School in nearby Farmington, Conn. She was a nurse’s aide at an Army hospital in Virginia during World War II before love and fashion found her in New York City. Asked if she had any pet peeves, she answered: “Bad manners. Bad attitude. Bad sports. Crybabies.” These are “family rules,” she said.

As for her personal style of dressing, Polly Mellen said, “I’m hooked on two things: (1) Chinese everything. (2) The sailor. I’ve always been boy crazy and loved wearing men’s clothes, getting close to a man that way.”

As a sittings editor, Polly Mellen has worked on shoots with photographers such as Richard Avedon and Helmut Newton and, more recently, Mario Testino and Steven Klein, creating some of their most energetic and sexually charged pictures ever. “The photographs I love most show a woman caught off guard,” she said, “because that’s life.” Of course, some of her favorite work never made it into the magazines. “‘Too strong’ has been the phrase used throughout my working life,” she said.

Her best advice for people coming of age in the millennium: “Learn from your mistakes, then you’ll never fail. And walk like a winner. Your heart may be broken, but don’t show it when you leave your front door. Do your crying at home. You never know who is around the corner.”

Billy’s List: Quiz time!

1. “The Tragically Hip” is:

a. Malcolm McClaren’s coming autobiography.

b. A rock group performing at Wetlands July 21-24.

c. A new column by Wayne Koestenbaum in Details .

2. Who recently said about Marc Jacobs’ Mercer Street boutique: “I’ve dropped so much cash there–an obscene amount I’m actually ashamed of”?

a. Serena Altschul.

b. Sarah Jessica Parker.

c. Anna Wintour.

Answers: (1) b; (2) b.