Ronnie Cooke Newhouse could barely answer the question, she was laughing so hard. “No, you’re not talking to a future Mrs. Astor,” she said finally.
O.K., maybe the query was a bit inappropriate for Ms. Newhouse, a founding editor and fashion director of the original Details magazine in the 1980′s and former creative director for Barneys and advertising creative director for Calvin Klein. Recently, she opened her own creative consultancy in London with clients such as Comme des Garçons, Shiseido and Top Shop, a British chain of fashion-forward stores.
But New York needs new social leaders, and here Ms. Newhouse was taking tea at the Hotel Carlyle and talking about a fund-raising event for the organization called Career Transitions for Dancers which she and her husband are co-chairing on Oct. 25.
Since 1995, when she married Jonathan Newhouse, the chairman of Condé Nast International and cousin of S.I. (Si) Newhouse Jr., Ms. Newhouse has called family the very people who fired her after they bought Details and relaunched it as a men’s magazine in 1990. The couple lives in London where Mr. Newhouse is based, but they are taking a twirl on the New York society stage this month.
The event is dedicated to Mr. Newhouse’s late uncle, Theodore Newhouse, a longtime patron of Career Transitions for Dancers, which provides counseling services and educational scholarship funds for dancers whose careers have come to an end. The evening will begin at the Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse with a performance of a new piece choreographed by David Parsons and danced by Susan Jaffe and an award presentation honoring Gwen Verdon and Rolex Watch U.S.A. Afterward, there will be a dinner at the Essex House.
Ms. Newhouse cautioned against reading any significance-corporate changes for Jonathan Newhouse at the behest of cousin Si-into the couple’s frequent visits to New York lately. Although they keep a house in Greenwich Village-still unresolved in terms of decoration-it seems Oct. 25 is a one-night-only Gotham gig.
“We see ourselves based in England for some time now,” Ms. Newhouse said. “We’re doing this because Aunt Caroline,” Caroline Newhouse, widow of Theodore Newhouse, “asked us to. The more involved we’ve become with the event, the more important I think it is. Dancers in this country have a short career span. They’ve spent their lives dancing, and they haven’t been educated to do anything else. But then they are in their 30′s. What can they do? They don’t have the advantages athletes have when they retire. Dancers aren’t wearing names on their leotards.”
Ms. Newhouse poured more tea. She wore a Michael Kors turtleneck, a long, corduroy skirt by Katayone Adeli, and honey-colored tinted eyeglasses. Ms. Newhouse normally mixes and matches clothes by Comme des Garçons. “You can buy sweaters, pants, suits, because you can deconstruct it, and it looks great,” she said as her polar opposite-a pulled, blonde New York society women of a certain age-walked past the table.
“That mask,” Ms. Newhouse exclaimed in a whisper. “That’s the whole thing for these ladies, isn’t it? To get the mask. The padding. And more padding.”
Although associated almost exclusively with “downtown” cool and cutting edge chic- the stuff that fuels her ad campaigns-Ms. Newhouse is not allergic to uptown. “In fact, when Annie Flanders,” Details ‘ founding editor, “wanted to say something mean to me, she said, ‘You’re the only one on this magazine who can work uptown!’ I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.”
Ms. Newhouse grew up on Long Island and received her master of fine arts degree at the University of Illinois. During a brief first marriage she lived in Chicago. “But that whole starving artist, grad school thing didn’t fly,” she said. “I think Andy Warhol had imprinted my life already. Plus, during graduate school, my father was living in London. When I visited, I discovered I was very partial to Manolo Blahnik shoes,” Ms. Newhouse smiled.
In 1980, Ms. Newhouse moved into a loft on Front Street near the South Street Seaport. Among the new friends she met in New York was Ms. Flanders, who had been the style editor of The SoHo Weekly News . Ms. Flanders asked Ms. Newhouse to help her start Details in 1982. “I said, ‘Why me? What do I know about magazines?’” Ms. Newhouse recalled. “You know what you know. You are. You be,” she said Ms. Flanders responded.
To finance her life while working for Details , Ms. Newhouse also “did different things in advertising.” After Details , she went to work at Barneys. Her most memorable ad campaigns included witty Steven Meisel shoots with Linda Evangelista and, later, the pairing of illustrator Jean-Philippe Delhomme with writer Glenn O’Brien. “I figured, why not do for the adult fashion world what Disney did for children?” Remarkably, the illustrations even moved merchandise.
“I wished I’d been amazed,” Ms. Newhouse commented when asked what she likes in the current fall fashion ads. “Advertising is stuck in the 80′s. Most people just look and see who is doing well and copy that. Book the photographer. Book the model,” she shrugged. “The body language, the nuances in many of the ads seem indicative. The idea is not to empower women, but go backward-I hate seeing women, and men, looking dumber and worse than they do in real life.”
Fashion, or at least the possibilities of communicating ideas and emotions with fashion, does inspire Ms. Newhouse. “I’m especially struck by it this trip to New York: I haven’t seen New Yorkers so out of uniform in a long time. It hit me intensely. The idea that people are trying to express themselves with fashion. Internationally, young designers are beginning to get attention. The celebrity, front-row thing,” she said, is waning. “Even Nicole Kidman went to some Eyes Wide Shut event wearing some obscure trend designer from Australia. She’s a big barometer in that community.”
In early October, Ms. Newhouse attended some of the recent fashion shows in Paris where the news wasn’t so much on the runway as off-in the boardrooms boiling with fashion mergers and acquisitions. Who cares about hemlines when there’s a war between Prada and Gucci for Fendi? All the more reason, Ms Newhouse suggested, “for creative people to consider Warhol and Picasso as their pioneers.
“Great artists. Great businessmen. Nowadays, you cannot be one without the other.”
Billy’s List: Quiz time!
1. The va-va-va-voom, 19-year-old Brazilian model Gisèle Bündchen is the toast of the catwalk these days. What did Ms. Bündchen really want to be?
a. A plastic surgeon.
b. A professional volleyball player.
c. A schoolteacher.
2. What is Jacobson’s Organ?
a. Will Self’s droll new novel about a penis running for President.
b. Two tiny tubes inside the nose that supposedly are the triggers for arousal.
c. The trendy Belgian design collection inspired by the idea of Pat Benatar in Dresden.
3. What is Logo-a-Go-Go?
a. John Galliano’s nickname for the mania for logos in fashion.
b. A new trend page in W, edited by Joan-Michele Frank, great-granddaughter of French interior designer Jean-Michel Frank.
c. A new theme restaurant on the Rue Pierre Charron in Paris.
Answers: (1) b; (2) b; (3) a.