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.”
Vuitton Goes for Glitter
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.)
“When you start buying these things as a designer, you realize the raw materials are never in comparison to what they’re priced at,” said Mr. Giunta, who was nominated for a CFDA award in 2008, has designed a capsule line for Target, and argues that the traditional categories of jewelry—fine, costume, junk—are infinitely collapsible. The name Subversive aims to challenge the premise that jewelry is merely “a distribution system of so-called precious materials.” He prefers to value design, basing his pricing on the artistic credo: “You can never judge a painting based on how much the paints cost.”
To some style watchers, costume jewelry—or statement jewelry, or couture jewelry, or whatever you call the pounds of chains and metal being trotted all over town by fashionable women—is less a recession phenomenon than a welcome liberation from constantly changing seasonal clothing silhouettes, allowing a woman some small measure of individuality with her skinny jeans, riding boots and wrap sweater.
Mr. Giunta prefers to think of it as the human spirit seeking creative reprieve from fashion’s long slavery to Calvin Klein–esque clean lines.
“The idea of Zen minimalism is dead,” he said. “We need so many things to function in our daily lives that to carry on that idea in fashion with a disregard for all the extras is kind of a dying battle. Sure, you can have yoga, but it’s just one part of your day, it’s not your whole mentality.”
Mr. Lane agreed. “I didn’t like minimalism,” he said. “I said on QVC once in those days, ‘How can we have minimalism? Girls can’t eat, they can’t smoke, they have to have safe sex and minimalism all at the same time?’ Where is the fun? Jewelry should be fun. That’s really the idea of jewelry, not only for fashion and a look—it’s an amusement for women.”
Even the stuffiest European houses seem to agree: For spring 2009, Prada, Louis Vuitton and Balenciaga boldly over-accessorized their collections with colorful faux gemstones and plastics. Ms. Watson called it “the new It bag.”
“When I was young, women wore hats,” said Mr. Lane, who is 78. “They wore gloves, they wore combs with little flowers in their hair, all that sort of thing, and they enjoyed doing it. I’m not talking about only the most fashionable women, you know—secretaries, et cetera! Today, it’s all sort of pared down, and really the most amusing accessory they can put on is jewelry. And shoes. Women love shoes, as you know.”
But could it be, mercifully, that jewelry is at last replacing shoes as the accessory du jour? As the introduction to Mr. Lane’s 1996 book, Faking It, puts it: “Faux jewelry is like wearing glass slippers. A woman can feel like she’s going to the ball, even if she’s not.”
And for those who actually get to go to the ball?
“She is our royalty; she’s who everyone is looking to right now for hope,” said Loree Rodkin, who designed Ms. Obama’s inaugural jewelry. Despite containing actual bling (87 carats’ worth, including diamond chandelier earrings, a signet ring, and 13 white gold and diamond bangles), it was of costume proportions. (Chicago boutique owner Ikram Goldman had requested something “dramatic.”)
“We’re in a tricky time now,” continued Ms. Rodkin, whose celebrity clientele includes Madonna, Rihanna and Daphne Guinness, who has been known to wear one of her bestselling “bondage rings” on every finger. “You want to see glamour, you want to see pretty, sparkly things on people because it gives the illusion that everything’s O.K. I think it goes as far back as the Depression. The musical, the Busby Berkeley theatrics were what everyone was going to see. The opulent, heavily costumed look was an escapism for the country.”
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