“What a relief to write, at last, that a fashion collection is frankly, definitely and completely hideous.”
Bold words of power. The author: Eugenia Sheppard, society/fashion columnist with clout, career spanning decades (1950’s through her death in the early 80s), famous for guillotining Yves St. Laurent’s 1971 fashion show “Liberation.”
First there was Paris. Then there was Paris. Then there was Paris and London mirrored by New York and Hollywood.
High society jetted to Paris Haute Couture and prêt-a-porter fashion extravaganzas.
Chanel embroidered her post-war comeback with the classic, forever copied and all-but-Xeroxed beaded suits and gold chains. Audrey Hepburn personified Givenchy’s understated sophistication and elegance. Jackie Kennedy created enviable style in Halston pillbox hats for the public. Time out? She camouflaged herself from paparazzi, swathed in Hermes scarves and sunglasses that signaled, “Solitude, si vous plais.”
Fashion enveloped the ebullience of youth and independent thinking: minis, maxis, frosted lipstick, false eyelashes on uppers and lowers, jeans and Guccis, bell bottoms, Pucci everything, Flower Power and boutiques sprouting over Madison Avenue with new names that were here to stay (Yves Saint Laurent, Halston, Armani, Paraphernalia, Betsey Johnson, and “who’s next?”)… at least for a while.
Women’s Wear Daily’s “eye,” immortalized their infamous “in “list. See and be seen. Be seen, be photographed, and be written about in “W,” Eugenia, Suzy and Vogue.
Eugenia Sheppard didn’t care if “fashion” was worn inside out, upside down or backwards, as long as she could report it.
All five feet minus a minutia of millimeters, Eugenia Sheppard surged power. Syndicated in over 100 international newspapers, a major fashion show did not begin until she arrived, which often was late.
She cultivated, created and inspired a new collection of fashion designers: all American names from Blass to Halston, and wore their made-to-Eugenia-sized creations with an unalienable sense of entitlement.
Daring, tantalizing and flirtatious at times, she reveled in details of Grace Kelly’s trousseau, oh-so-risqué and deliciously décolleté, to her audience’s delight.
Not simply a scribe of fluff and finesse, she broke the big, bold front page headlines, and pooh-poohed any consequences…
”We write for our audience,” she said, “not for ourselves.”
Shattering the image that the privileged few were guarded from the real world, her by-line belted out in Town Crier volume that a major fashion designer’s daughter had been kidnapped. The story went through the roof, penthouse, and over private planes takeoff engines.
She mused somewhat sadly that she had lost a friend. The designer was furious.
Waltz on. There were more friends to be had.
Eugenia and her elegant escort, Earl Blackwell, were invited everywhere. From one yacht (Revlon mastermind Charles Revson’s was a favorite) and over-stuffed and staffed mansion to another, International balls, and private parties that touché-d cache in Eugenia’s columns. Eugenia adored youth and highlighted the young debutante set, cushioned by generations of names that spelled s-o-c-i-al-l-y seductive.
She also loved beauty. She convinced a public relations man to hire a young man, who had no apparent skills, simply because he had danced with her. And, he was handsome.
Handsome is as handsome does, and beauty may be in the eyes of the beholder, but truth be known, Eugenia had exceptionally bad eyesight. She attributed it to growing up in Ohio, where they sprayed the fields with a seemingly harmless substance that took the eyesight of many in her hometown. The best doctors were at her disposal. There was no cure.
She carried on, describing every pleat, sequin and emerald in exquisite detail.
As she aged, so-called friends would call her senile.
She was never senile for one nanosecond; her eyesight gave way to imperfection in her work, and a series of assistants.
I was one of the lucky ones to have that title. I learned to decipher which of her handwritten lists went with which event, and to make peace with her scrawling handwriting that often slid off the page.
After deadline, the real scandals snuck out, enjoyed in between bites of lunch that was inhaled between the next scandal-in-the-making.
When she was in the hospital, for the last time, her hairdresser maneuvered his busy schedule to coif Eugenia. She had made his career.
Eugenia and Earl sang Cole Porter together. She answered a few of the overload of phone calls, and made sure her column was intact.
On a torrential New York day, she was gone. Her watch read 1:30, her deadline. No one was surprised.