Sitting in his white minimalist corner office in his company’s 30th floor headquarters on East 57th Street, Eric Villency, the president of Maurice Villency, a home-furnishings business started by his grandfather, looked like a man who had recently had a manicure. Mr. Villency, a former Abercrombie and Fitch model, was wearing a blue-striped dress shirt, gray slacks and shiny black loafers, all Prada.
Since he joined the company in 1999, Mr. Villency has been working at rebranding it, moving the image of Villency from an expensive but slightly tacky 70′s modernism to a classy, 21st-century luxe minimalism. The plan has meant spiffing up not just the furniture, but himself as well. Leaning back in his chair next to the wafer-thin conference table he designed, Mr. Villency smiled behind his nerd-chic dark-rimmed glasses and said, “I think every single person has a personal brand, and it represents who they are in their professional life. In my case, it’s amplified because of the business I’m in.”
Mr. Villency’s girlfriend, Olivia Chantecaille, knows all too well the pressures he faces. Though it might seem that Ms. Chantecaille’s forte is her regular appearances in the “flash” pages of Gotham and New York magazines, a fact that she wishes were better known is that she is also the creative director of her family’s high-end makeup line, Chantecaille, available at stores like Barneys and Bergdorf’s. She started the company with her mother, Sylvie Chantecaille, the creator of Prescriptives, another line of cosmetics owned by Estée Lauder.
Ms. Chantecaille was with her mother, sipping aromatic tea in a corner booth of the Mercer Hotel. She is pretty, and so slender as to seem fragile-but get Ms. Chantecaille talking about her company and her steely resolve becomes apparent. Like her boyfriend, she considers herself the public face of her family’s company. In her case, the responsibility may be even greater because Chantecaille doesn’t advertise, relying instead on word of mouth.
Ms. Chantecaille knows that she hasn’t made it to the level of the Lauder cosmetics dynasty yet, but she likes to think that she and Estée Lauder’s granddaughter, Aerin Lauder Zinterhoffer, the company’s vice president for advertising and a kingpin of the New York social circuit, could be in the same league: “I think people kind of think of us together, kind of like the makeup sisters.”
Ms. Chantecaille is not the only one who looks up to Ms. Zinterhoffer. Seeing the 33-year-old, placid-faced Mrs. Zinterhoffer gliding between the dinner tables at the Neue Gallerie benefit and posing for Bill Cunningham in an Ungaro gown-all the while becoming an instrumental part of her family’s cosmetics empire-seems to have flipped a switch in her fellow socialites’ heads.
Ms. Zinterhoffer may be the closest thing to the Brooke Astor of her generation. “If Aerin Lauder is on the benefit committee, I’ll be there, even if it’s like $500!” a perky blond socialite-in-training gushed at the recent INF Neuroscience Benefit at BLVD. “That’s how I know it’s legit, if Jane [Lauder] or Aerin are on the invitation.” Like Mrs. Astor, Ms. Zinterhoffer’s name is synonymous with upper-class elegance; she attracts the right kind of guests, those who would go to the New York Public Library spring benefit but could skip Paris Hilton’s birthday party. But the difference between Ms. Zinterhoffer and Mrs. Astor is that the latter didn’t have a product to hawk-and that divide says everything about how New York society has changed.
From Nadja Swarovski, heir to Swarovskicrystals,toElisabeth Kieselstein-Cord, whose father owns the jewelry company of the same name, to Charlotte Ronson, Ann Dexter-Jones’ daughter and a designer who started an accessories business with a line of bejeweled flip-flops, young Manhattanites with social ambitions know that their status will be lifted substantially should they succeed in having their name attached to a product. You can do this two ways: either by becoming a player in the family business, revitalizing it if necessary, or by starting a product line of your own.
To be an “It” Kid now means having, at the very least, a line of purses. (Even Paris Hilton has one.) Ideally, the business and the socialite benefit equally. “It creates such a buzz around the product itself-like this bag line that Nicky Hilton was a part of is this nonexistent bag line, but garners all this attention,” said Lily Rafii, the creator of Felix Ray, a handbag line. (Ms. Rafii said she purposely avoided using her own name in her product, instead naming Felix Ray after a Van Gogh painting. Still, she said, “people come up to us all the time and ask for Felix Ray. Especially at that Super Saturday out in the Hamptons-people would come up and say, ‘Is Felix here?’”) But if your name does not yet have cachet, Ms. Rafii pointed out, putting it on a product can also help you be labeled a socialite.
Never before has the phrase “You are your own salesman” resonated so loudly in New York society.
“When I go out, I represent-hopefully-what I do, in that I’m a person who works and takes my business seriously,” said Ms. Ronson. “I want to have a business that represents myself well. I design for myself what I would wear and what I would want to put out there and a certain brand,” she continued. “I know a lot of my friends have started companies already and are going into their own things. You see, everyone has their own style and product that they want to represent. If you have some kind of passion, you can just go for it rather than work for someone else.”
Just 10 years ago, it was embarrassing to have a job if you were high society; now it’s embarrassing not to, and if a profession is out of the question, then running a business becomes a raison d’être. The youngsters on the scene today have seen what became of the third generation of DuPonts and Busches, who have fallen off the radar.
The idle young socialites who appeared in Jamie Johnson’s controversial documentary Born Rich represented the last whimpers of a dying breed. When model Cody Franchetti said he answers the question “What do you do?” with “I’m rich or I’m kept,” viewers cracked up. Mr. Franchetti and the kind of “kept” aristocrats who hide beyond the gates of garden parties may as well be from the Middle Ages. In fact, anyone who doesn’t have his or her own publicist seems old-fashioned.
Today, New York’s nightlife is market-driven. Often Barneys, Bergdorf’s, Bendel’s and even Barnes and Noble host cocktail parties for some product line or other. All along Madison Avenue, waiters carrying canapés walk past mannequins at cross-promotional book parties in retail stores. “Ten years ago, seeing Norman Mailer with Claus von Bulow walking around the cosmetics counter in Lord and Taylor was hilarious,” said a publicist, referring to a party that Mr. Von Bulow once threw in honor of the author at the New York department store. “Now it happens all the time.”
Born Rich producer Dirk Wittenborn, who is 52, said going out in New York used to be for the “experience.” “I wanted to have a certain life,” he said. “I wanted my life to be like a French movie. Today, kids want their lives to be like an awards ceremony. Young people were completely unaware of the power of youth and beauty back then, the way it affects other people-that was what was charming about youth in the old days. Now they’re schooled in its value, they know exactly how it fluctuates from day to day, and they market it.”
The belles of yesteryear didn’t work for the family company or hire their own publicists. Posing for photographer Slim Aarons was as public as they would be, unless they made it into Cholly Knickerbocker’s society pages. Nan Kempner, C.Z. Guest and Pat Buckley were in their prime at a time when commercial talk was oh-so-gauche-and their dinner-table topics haven’t changed with the times. “I never know who’s the head of what company,” said Nan Kempner from her Upper East Side apartment. “It doesn’t interest me what people do,” she added. The concept of going out to a product launch or store opening was foreign to her. “When we used to go out, it was always to see my friends and have a good time,” she said. “Studio 54 was the best, full of interesting people. Every day was New Year’s Eve. We would usually start at somebody’s house for dinner, then go on down to Studio and dance the night away.”
Author Gay Talese pointed out that nowadays, “we’re in this vigorous period where to be a worker is not class-defined. You have to be rich and do something. There are two von Furstenbergs in our society; there is the Princess von Furstenberg, and there is the designer. And who of the two is more revered in society? The designer-she’s rich and married to Barry Diller. The country now cares more about the people who work, and the rich have to work for self-worth.” Mr. Talese laughed and added, “There are not many people in what would pass for the Lotus Lounge of 20th-century America. You used to have the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson-what did she do?-and now you have Sarah Ferguson as the face of Weight Watchers.”
Photographer Patrick McMullan, who has been photographing this world since the glory days of Ms. Guest, said that now, “a person needs to stand out, and associating with a brand that is in the family became a natural way to have a win-win strategy.”
It has certainly been a win-win situation for Mr. Villency, who was named one of Gotham magazine’s 100 most eligible bachelors of 2002. “Everyone is very aware of what their public standing is, even among their social friends, and I think your job is important to everyone,” Mr. Villency said, smiling just enough to seem friendly but not cocky. He went to high school at Dalton and graduated from the University of Wisconsin before he started working for his father when he was 23. Now, at 28, Mr. Villency is at the helm of the ship. “I really want to establish this as the first premium lifestyle brand of home furnishings,” he said. To do that, he has revamped everything from the company’s logos and typography to its magazine ads. And as his company’s spokesman, he finds that the line between self-promotion and product promotion has become a little blurry.
“People associate me with my brand essentially because I’m a spokesperson and my last name is Villency,” he said. “Just like any other spokesperson, the head of the company is like a symbol of the company- like Anna Wintour and Vogue -so it’s a real natural association.” He continued, “I think that there’s been so many brands built on the faces of giants-Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani. Just like Tom Ford changed Gucci, and he’s not Gucci-he became the face of the brand just because he was such a powerful force. And that’s kind of what happened with me: People saw this change and naturally started associating me with it.”
Mr. Villency said it has become “progressively more difficult” to separate his social persona from his professional one. But it’s far from a hardship. “It’s just part of the hand I’ve been dealt. I’ve been incredibly lucky. My philosophy is-I guess the same way that lifestyle branding, like Armani with a simple black logo in their ad, is not a hard sell, it’s ‘Here’s what we are, here’s our logo, here’s what we stand for, and you make the decision’-I think I’m very much the same in my own personal life: Here’s who I am, here’s how I dress, here’s what the furniture looks like, here’s what the company’s doing, and you make the decision.”
He met Ms. Chantecaille a year ago at a dinner party. It was a conversation about their respective family businesses that sparked the romance. As she sat at the Mercer Hotel, Ms. Chantecaille demurely recalled the moment. “We had both left the office at 9:30, and we were like, ‘You have a family business? I do, too!’” Since then, their businesses have thrived.
When Ms. Chantecaille goes out at night, she said, she doesn’t consciously think about her brand, “but it comes up all the time. The most exciting part is when you go out and someone opens their bag and are like, ‘Look, I have your products in here!’ And that’s fun. And it’s not people I know-maybe I’ve just met them or something-but when you see someone’s face light up, and the smile on their face, and they’re like, ‘Thank you sooo much’-that’s when it’s really fun.”
Ms. Chantecaille and her mother were leaving for Milan the next week for a whirlwind trip, stopping in Paris and London to meet with the press before heading back home. Ms. Chantecaille caught her mother’s eye. “I think family businesses are a wonderful thing, especially in America now, because I think children are really losing touch with their parents,” she said, pushing her Jackie O. sunglasses back on her head. “They’re not for everybody, obviously, but I encourage them a lot. Everyone has their own thing, so I don’t think in a family business you have to sort of feel like you’re living in the shadow of a parent. You don’t feel like you have to follow in somebody’s footsteps. Look at Sofia Coppola. She’s a brilliant example.”
Her mother concurred. “I don’t trust anyone with colors, and I trust Olivia with colors. She has a very logical mind.”
Besides being in charge of the creative side of the company, Ms. Chantecaille oversees publicity and marketing as well. “I don’t think of it as work,” she said. “When it’s your company, it’s very different. It’s like having a child. You will sacrifice anything for that child.” She said the city was the perfect environment for her business. “New York is a city that challenges people and tests them to reach their potential. It’s like a trainer. It’s like if you go to a gym without a trainer, it’s like whatever, whatever-a couple reps of this, 20 minutes at the Stairmaster reading a magazine or something. But if you’re with a trainer, there’s no way you can read anything. You feel amazing afterward because you were pushed. And you were like, ‘I could do it, and I feel great about myself, because I didn’t know I could do it.’”
Sometimes the “trainer” that is New York pushes her too far. “The energy here is amazing, but that’s why we like to go out to East Hampton,” she said, “because you need a breather from time to time. But then we’re so happy to come back here.” Ms. Chantecaille enthused about the New York skyline, “the amazing people” and how “you can meet the right person and come up with an amazing idea-something you never knew you’d come up with.”
One idea that has helped Ms. Chantecaille and Mr. Villency is having publicists for their companies promote the couple as a unit. Their names have been popping up everywhere from Page Six to the Palm Beach Post .
It may work, but some people find the new pre-eminence of publicists in society off-putting, to say the least. “The idea of hiring publicists in order to get a lifestyle is frightening,” said Mr. Wittenborn. “That’s what godparents or grannies used to do. They want to get in the mix, and get in the mix with an advantage-a product they can lend their fabulous selves to.”
“P.R. has become so huge,” Lilly Rafii said. “Everybody has a P.R. person. I know of people who don’t even have a product to sell who have a P.R. person-which is kind of pathetic.”
“The concept of advertising was always really cheesy,” said Mandie Erickson, the director of Seventh House P.R. and the daughter of Karen Erickson, who started the fashion P.R. firm Showroom Seven and created Erickson Beamon jewelry. “It was one step away of being a used-car salesman. Yet in the last 10 years, it no longer has that feeling. Everyone’s trying to market something, launch something. I think even publicists have turned into socialites in their own right.”
Benefits, of course, are an important part of the new marketing-driven nightlife, and socialites are expected to do more than sit and look pretty at the table. As Ms. Chantecaille put it, “I think from a brand perspective, we try to support causes that we personally feel strongly about, and associate ourselves with charities that support the brand as well, that are truly personal to us.” The Central Park Conservancy is one of her charities. “Being from Manhattan, and our brand being very naturally based, I believe strongly in the park, because the park is an important part of the city.”
As young Manhattanites like Mr Villency and Ms. Chantecaille march forward into this brave new branded society, going out has become almost indistinguishable from working. Socialites know that promoting their brands is not just good business-it’s a means to social survival. One thing is certain: If you want to even be considered for a committee these days, lounging on lawn chairs in Southampton isn’t going to cut it. Now, you pick out a publicist and some purse designs and plan a party at Polo!