The icon that Detroit built
Nov 13, 2019 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Costume jewelry is defined as “jewelry made with inexpensive materials or imitation gems” and, on the surface, this description conjures up an image of mediocrity. During its early history, costume jewelry played within the boundaries of this limited realm – existing as mere copies of authentic designs. But that ordinary existence changed with the pioneering Coco Chanel during the 1920s and 30s. For Chanel, these pieces were specifically created to complete the costume and served a pivotal role in her iconic fashion empire. While she carved a path for faux jewelry to grace the coveted Parisian salons, this liberation of costume jewelry was hardly democratic. A Chanel accessory, even an imitation one, was incredibly pricey. What was a fashionable gal on a budget to do? Who would save the day? Who would dare to disrupt an industry? The son of an automotive parts supplier from Detroit answered the call and his name: Kenneth Jay Lane.
Born in 1932, young Kenneth recognized his affinity for the good life early on. As a teenager he took his first job with the sole purpose of financing a camel’s hair coat. His singular focus was to recreate glamour for the masses and that effort began with his own metamorphosis. Like most creative souls, he found the gravitational pull of New York City irresistible. He abruptly ended his tenure at the University of Michigan, paused his architectural training and transported himself to Rhode Island. Once he completed his training at RISD, he jumped into big city life with unbridled enthusiasm. Soon he was speaking in a British accent and soaking up inspiration from every corner of the world. While his sketchbooks were overflowing, he paid the bills thanks to an entry level position at Vogue. This stint gave his resume the panache needed to advance as a shoe designer – eventually taking him all the way to Paris and Dior. If we were to judge his trajectory on these historical milestones, you would assume he would continue on to be wildly successful in the world of footwear. But fate had other plans for Kenneth Jay Lane.
During one particular fashion show, the designer required bedazzled shoes. For Lane (who had been designing jewelry in the margins of his sketchbook for years) it was an opportunity to make matching earrings for the well-heeled models. His designs carried the story from the shoe, to the earring, to the bracelet and while this first foray was created at the runway speed, it motivated him to launch his own jewelry company. By 1962 he did just that and his work was recognized by the incomparable Hattie Carnegie, who bought him out shortly after he opened his doors. Sadly, the collaborative muse failed to visit the duo and Lane was on his own again. Undeterred, he was soon in his happy place: designing unique creations in his New York studio by day and rubbing elbows with the jet-set crowd by night. These years proved incredibly fruitful for Lane. Society women dripping in jewels provided him with a lifetime of inspiration and soon his faux pieces were giving the real ones a run for their money. To maintain quality, his role now encompassed procurement so he could control the supply chain of his gemstones. Every detail was carefully considered.
One of the interesting things about Lane is that his pieces were something women aspired to, yet they were also accessible. His art mirrored his life in that way as he was just as comfortable chatting on QVC as he was recreating a piece for Jackie O. Creating collections aimed at the working woman became just as integral to his identity as his lavish parties. Buying a Lane piece was like getting stock in a glam lifestyle. Lane’s international adventures remained his greatest source of inspiration and, in addition to curating bold jewelry, he was an avid art collector. During many a season some of his personal collection would be on loan to New York museums. But don’t think for a moment that made him stuffy or out-of-touch with the “real world.” As his friends would note, his apartment’s decor was decidedly eclectic. For Lane, the value was in the ability to captivate the senses, not the price tag. Seeing the world through this lens meant that flea market finds were intermixed among rare collectibles. This pursuit of joy translates beautifully in his bejeweled productions and that’s why the society pages were littered with images of the “in crowd” donning their best jewels alongside Lane costume jewelry. The philosophy is simple and egalitarian: if it brings you joy – wear it!
If you are considering collecting Lane pieces you are in luck. His design catalog is voluminous (granting you plenty of opportunities for joy!). It’s important to note that Lane is most known for his Asian-inspired pieces, faux pearls, and animals. His designs are bold and colorful, often combining hues previously appreciated separately. While we can say that Kenneth Jay Lane is the icon that Detroit built, his love of glamour perfected him. Tell me, dear reader, do you have a Lane piece that completes not only your look but your mood? Share with us in the comments…