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Trademark Pieces

Joan Juliet Buck plays tags with the rich and famous

My life in fashion began with a Pucci shirt from Klosters, Switzerland, and might have ended with a pair of translucent rubber boots from Greenwich Village. The Pucci shirt was my firsthand taste of a famous brand name. It fit as if it were made for me; its pinks and purples and yellows screamed adjectives like dashing, madcap, reckless, Italian and nouns like élan, brio, panache. The pattern was mysterious but fun, and though it was only cotton—my mother said silk was too much for a seventeen-year-old—it was still the most sophisticated thing in my life. Furthermore, the shirt did all the socializing for me. Fellow Pucci fans, random Italians and people of fashion with brio of their own could spot me across a crowded chalet and know that I wasn’t just a seventeen-year-old with very long hair, but one of them. A Beautiful Person.

Back in London, thanks to the shirt, I was accepted into the fold. Soon, I wore dresses from Biba, just like all the right dolly girls, and clever outfits from the Elle Boutique on the Champs-Élysées, just like most London models, and long dresses from Deliss, just like the debutantes. My clothes were invited everywhere, and I went with them.

Necklace Sketch

I soon learned the language of the Beautiful People, who were a brand unto themselves. Their vocabulary was based on luxuries—“Caviar!” “Dom!”—their grammar aligned along a very simple continuum—“I love,” “I like,” “I don’t like,” “I hate.”

A good way to break the ice among the Beautiful People was to mention watches, but it was important to know the names and tricks particular to each make.

“Is that the new Jaeger-LeCoultre?” I asked a young man next to me in a discotheque.

“Yes, but a Reverso. It’s an old one.”

The man flipped the face of his watch so it lay flat against the watchband, and only a monogrammed gold back was visible.

“I love it !” I said.

“It was my father’s. For the ponies.”

This told me the young man’s father played polo, so he was both rich and somewhat idle, which meant that the son stood to inherit less than the son of a man who didn’t pass on a sportsman’s watch, but bought him, say, a solid gold Rolex.

But I was an explorer, not a fortune hunter.

The watch question became my new way of mapping the world. Women of all descriptions wore little square Cartier Tank wristwatches. They were debutantes and also, possibly, hookers. Men prized timepieces from Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin. The double names had an echo in the cars they preferred: Mini Cooper, Porsche Carrera, Aston Martin, Morgan MG, Karmann Ghia and Rolls-Royce.

I attended college in America, learned new words—Marimekko, Capezio—and continued to catalog people I knew by the brands they wore. At Glamour, my fashion editor bosses, Frances Patiky Stein and Julie Britt, wore oval Obrey watches that looked like they came from the flea market but worked. They barely tolerated my Pucci shirt, which spoke of a longing to stand on a palazzo roof staring at Tuscan hills, an ambition just a tad out of date. They wore Sonia Rykiel sweaters that spoke instead of smoky afternoons in the Café de Flore. Soon I did as well. God knows I wanted those smoky afternoons.

To the New York fashion people around me, I was pure London: the Biba dresses and Ossie Clark snakeskin vests and Hung on You panné velvet pants and little enamel butterfly brooches from Butler & Wilson in the Chelsea Antique Market.

The New York fashion people wore all kinds of new names. Long narrow WASP feet wore something called the “Navajo sandal” by someone named Jack Rogers, who was not to be confused with Jackie Rogers, a former Chanel model with a combination boutique and barbershop in the East Sixties, who sold botanically accurate printed clothes by a Milan-based American named Ken Scott.

The grandes dames of New York—a breed thinner than their London counterparts—wore the glorious costume jewelry of Kenneth Jay Lane, the father of the irresistible baby-pink-and-pale-blue rhinestone Maltese cross. He also made bangles that looked like bamboo, and wide cuffs thick with enamel, which evoked the real-jewelry bracelets of David Webb.

But in America, it seemed the home of real chic wasn’t the city street or the salon or the restaurant lunch—although Women’s Wear Daily posted a photographer outside La Grenouille to catch the ladies exiting at 3 p.m. It was on the dock of the bay, where people with crisp Bostonian names wore cropped jeans and Top-Sider moccasins. Men and women carried buckets of clams, babies, shotguns and outboard motors stuffed into canvas bags made by someone called L.L.Bean.

In the margins of very long New Yorker short stories were ads for western duster coats from one J. Peterman and objects that referred to duck blinds, hunting caps and keeping hands warm and tobacco dry under the most arduous circumstances. I deduced that I’d need to become an all-round sportswoman to really make an impression in this country and retreated to Europe where silk could do all the talking, and I would be understood.

No one had to abseil or run a ketch across an ocean to be chic. They could just go shopping and then walk down the street. Everyone knew how much the wrong Manolos could hurt and how long you could dance in the right ones. The one cardinal sin was to wear the wrong shoes. I carefully wore the right shoes and avoided the trainer genre; anything made of canvas and rubber provoked the ire of the French.

The world I knew was sorted into tribes according to what people wore. In Rome, contessas of all kinds draped themselves in strange furs made by Fendi, where Karl Lagerfeld invented chimeras: the squirrel-leopard, the mink-fox, the hamster-monkey. Most artists in Milan wore the agitated static patterns of Missoni. In Paris, Yves Saint Laurent dressed everyone I knew, and many I had never met. The kind of Frenchmen who dyed their socks to match their ties bought eyeglasses from Lafont and their cashmere sweaters from a little known store named Hemispheres, on the wrong side of the Arc de Triomphe. Nicole Wisniak, the creator and one-woman staff of the magazine Egoïste, carried her papers in a narrow blue Hermès tote that passed for a briefcase, the same model that Diane von Furstenberg used, but hers was green. Inès de la Fressange, the face of the revitalized house of Chanel, had a library of sacs Chanel, many of them red, while Frances Patiky Stein, who now designed those bags, had a library of rare scarves from inaccessible countries. And in the Milan Galleria, bags at the venerable Prada store were suddenly made of black nylon as dark and cool as licorice. Miuccia

Prada was beginning to formulate her way of remaking the world.

Somehow I ended up in the International Best-Dressed Hall of Fame. Then I became editor in chief of Paris Vogue.

I moved back to New York round about the time everyone was finding out that for some reason you could walk long distances in the right Louboutins, but that wasn’t my life anymore. I began to dress like the twenty-first century: North Face for the subway, Moncler for winter, backstage and workshop clothes in thick fleece for acting. I wasn’t only writing, I was performing and emoting and rolling around on studio floors, I was out of appearance and into process.

One rainy summer day during rehearsals, I found a pair of white rubber boots at a sale on West 8th Street for $10. They were curiously translucent and as sleek as ice mints. It was the kind of unforgiving New York summer when all it does is rain. I’d been wearing a Marc Jacobs silver poncho for weeks, and the boots were just what it needed. You could see my toes through them, which was a little disgusting. I took to wearing white socks with the boots, and that was even stranger. You could make out the seams at the toes through the milky plastic. I loved them. My feet looked like Frank Gehry’s IAC Building. My feet were so today.

Then I was invited to Deauville for the film festival. I asked my hostess, the most prominent in town, if it was rainy. “It’s always rainy in Deauville,” she said.

I packed the boots. Something told me not to. They looked like enormous white jelly beans or giant white condoms. I took them and some evening shoes and, idiotically, nothing else.

The first morning in Deauville, I saw it was raining. I pulled on the boots and came downstairs to breakfast.

My hostess’s eyes went straight to my boots. They were perhaps the largest and brightest objects in the room. I wriggled my toes in their fine cotton socks.

“Ah, non!” she exclaimed. “Non.”

Not much else was said. The invitation to lunch with a mutual friend was withdrawn. The dinner invitation became a gentle suggestion that I would be happier if I ate my gray prawns and sole alone at Les Vapeurs. Soon after I returned to New York, I ceased being a voting participant on the Best-Dressed List selection committee. Never buy your boots in a sale on West 8th Street. BG