In January, before decking out the models at his Chanel couture show in white paper headdresses, Karl Lagerfeld observed to the BBC that “bling is over.” Mr. Lagerfeld had obviously not visited Henri Bendel recently, where bling is not over; if anything, it is all over.
Not the rhinestone name necklaces of yore, but: gigantic stretchy flower bracelets in ’70s-inspired hues of coral, mustard, white and green ($128 each); an imposing necklace made out of six blue crystal chandelier earrings ($318); several gothy rhinestone crystal cuff bracelets ($478 each), and a selection of bulbous Technicolor glass cocktail rings by Legge & Braine.
“It’s so fun,” said Bendel’s vice president and fashion director, Ann Watson, of the costume jewelry that the store has made its signature. “It just makes getting through this recession bearable.”
As luxury brands contract and a general mood of misery presides over the European collections, costume jewelry is providing a little jangling, contrapuntal fuck-you to the tolling bell of economic doom.
Ms. Watson said her store has doubled the category in the past two years and currently sells the wares of over 100 designers; she estimated that 65 percent of prospective Bendel vendors at the store’s biannual designer “open sees” are now costume jewelry designers.
None of these baubles are trying to pass for precious stones. The rhinestones and crystal are too big for that; the pearls come in too many colors. In fact, the whole tableau at Bendel had a bit of cartoonish unreality—the multi-thousand-dollar sparkling necklaces laid out on tables, not behind glass, just begging to be tried on. They convey a feeling of playtime in the closet of a glamorous New York granny.
But the new costume jewelry is nothing like the sedate Wilma-like fake pearls worn by the proudly gray-haired former First Grandmother, Barbara Bush. Bold accessorizer Michelle Obama attended a June fashion industry fund-raiser hosted by Anna Wintour draped in a massive red, white and blue statement necklace by costume jeweler Tom Binns. (Ms. Watson only regretted that her store had sold out of the piece before Ms. Obama wore it.) Everyone from Paris Hilton to Park Avenue socialites are regularly spotted in Kenneth Jay Lane’s latest creations. And actresses Leighton Meester and Kate Hudson have worn pieces from the Palm Beach vintage costume jewelry line House of Lavande.
Lavande founder Tracy Smith said her favorite pieces hail from the 1950s. “They’re definitely the more statement collar necklaces that are more glamorous,” she said. “People got so dressed.”
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But while there may be an element of nostalgia to piling on costume jewelry, it also is a natural outgrowth of the high-low mania of recent years, during which we became comfortable matching Christian Louboutin pumps with an H&M minidress.
“Women aren’t spending a lot of money on expensive clothes these days, so it’s easier to update something by putting jewelry with it,” said the legendary Mr. Lane, who has been churning out colorful fake baubles since 1962 (he could not confirm the rumor that several are entombed with Princess Diana). They were worn by Veruschka on the cover of Vogue as early as 1965 and were later beloved of Upper East Side socialite Nan Kempner.
It ain’t all cheap.
Justin Giunta, rising-star designer of the line Subversive Jewelry, uses everything from leather to chains to wood to vintage pearls in his complicated, layered creations, which he calls “couture” jewelry. (His pieces sell from several hundred to about two thousand dollars at Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman.)