Designers Recruit Socialites To Sprinkle Status On Handbags

  1. RICH people, it turns out, are surprisingly affordable.

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    NEW LEGACY - Vanessa Getty posed for ads for Judith Leiber handbags.

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    Zani Gugelmann did ads for Bill Blass New York, top, but it was nothing new. In 1935, Adele Van Rensselaer posed for Camel.



    When Zani Gugelmann, the socialite-turned-jewelry designer, appeared in ads for Judith Leiber that were splashed on telephone booths all over the Upper East Side in 2004, her payment for modeling was a pocketbook. A dozen other women of her social set who modeled for the same campaign, including Cristina Cuomo, Muffie Potter Aston, Susan Fales-Hill and Rena Sindi, were also offered beaded Judith Leiber bags, which can cost up to $4,000 at Neiman Marcus. And they had lunch.
    "When they asked me to do it, I said, 'Judith who?' " said Ms. Gugelmann, 28, a nearly constant fixture of society galas who, like many of her friends, has made the transition from the party pages of Vogue, W, Town & Country and Harper's Bazaar to the advertising pages. That she did not instantly recognize the 43-year-old luxury handbag label was exactly the problem the Judith Leiber company was hoping to fix by hiring socialites for its ads, the latest of which stars Vanessa Getty, the wife of Billy Getty, an heir to the Getty oil fortune. The company does not pay Ms. Getty but supports some of her favorite charities.
    "They were not looked at as being chic and young," Ms. Gugelmann said of Judith Leiber bags. "But they wanted to be seen by social women who are chic and young, because those are the people who would buy the bags."
    After supermodels replaced regular models in the 1980's, and then supermodels were pushed aside by celebrities in the 1990's, some designers have now turned to socialites. Ms. Gugelmann has also modeled for Bill Blass New York and Charriol watches; Tinsley Mortimer is promoting a Japanese handbag line, Samantha Thavasa; Lydia Hearst-Shaw has appeared in ads for Prada and Louis Vuitton; Amanda Hearst is the new face of Lilly Pulitzer; and Jessica Joffe, a former New York Observer writer who is writing a novel, will appear in fall ads for Banana Republic.
    The trend might be a formal way of acknowledging the symbiotic relationship between designers and their wealthy clients. Or it might be payback for all the free clothes that women-about-town accept from designers. But there is also a broader phenomenon at work: Socialites are becoming marketable in the eyes of some fashion companies, even if most people could not tell the difference among a Gugelmann, a Gubelmann and a Guggenheim.
    "The Getty name is an American icon," said Robert Vignola, the chief executive of Judith Leiber. "Lately we have been really targeting and speaking to younger, more contemporary fashion-conscious customers, and the social celebrities of today speak to a younger audience a lot better." Just in case the faces aren't identifiable, many companies include the names of models in their ads.
    José Solís, the design director of Bill Blass New York, a collection sold directly to consumers through private trunk shows, said, "This is about relating to the customer who would be likely to purchase this kind of clothing — anybody who would want that kind of lifestyle."
    Of course, this theory would seem to depend on customers' seeing Ms. Gugelmann in one of its ads and not asking, "Zani who?"
    There is no shortage of skepticism about the strategy, even from Pamela Fiori, the editor in chief of Town & Country, the society magazine acquired in 1925 by William Randolph Hearst, the forefather of the modeling Hearsts. "The average person might think, 'Oh, she's pretty, I wonder who she is,' " Ms. Fiori said. "But I'm not sure the interest will be anything more than that — namely, minor."
    And, boy, is this a sensitive subject with the women in question, who generally disavow the term socialite and, in some cases, insist they earned the modeling gigs because of their looks alone, not their social status. Ms. Hearst-Shaw, a daughter of Patricia Hearst and an heir to the Hearst media fortune, who is represented by One Model Management, expressed anger last week over an article in the June issue of W that said she was "milking the name she got from her mother." Ms. Hearst-Shaw sees herself as a modeling success in her own right. She will appear in a prestigious campaign for Bottega Veneta in the fall.
    "Everybody wants to categorize any girls with a name into one special group, which is high society," she said. "It's shocking to me that anyone would comment on that. People should start reading more Shakespeare. What's in a name?"

    The endorsements of socialites in advertising is as old as cafe society itself. In a 1935 ad for Camel cigarettes in Good Housekeeping, Mrs. Brookfield Van Rensselaer, who married into the Dutch family that colonized much of New York State, was shown seated primly in a ball gown, smoking. "I can't bear a strong cigarette — that is why I smoke Camels," the copy read.

    [​IMG] Chance Yeh/Patrick McMullan
    Lydia Hearst-Shaw is another socialite-slash-model.



    At the time, Adele Van Rensselaer (Mrs. Brookfield to you) was divorced with two children, and Camel probably paid well, said J. David Enright, a retired advertising executive and a family friend of the Van Rensselaer descendants. The ad must have been "quite a shocker for the family," he said. "The truth is a lot of those dames at the time thought it would be a lark, and Adele was a chain smoker."
    When the Park Avenue doyenne Nan Kempner died last year, the fashion world mourned the end of an era when socialites relished their role as customers and were in turn revered for their authentic personal taste. Nowadays, social women rarely serve as inspiration to designers; instead, their style is often created by designers who lend them dresses, exploiting their prominence. They have been turned into walking mannequins, in other words.
    "In many cases people define these women not for who they are, but for who New York City wants them to be," Ms. Gugelmann said.
    This may be an argument for using socialites as models, but it also suggests that the only people who might care are the ones in the ads, because they, more than anyone, are observant of the tiniest gradations in social status.
    Since April the reigning figures of Manhattan's young society have been tracked by an anonymous group of New York publicists and reporters on a Web site (socialrank.wordpress.com) that cattily publishes a list of the top 20 women, based on appearances at parties and in gossip columns.
    Ms. Mortimer, a former party planner who married Topper Mortimer, an executive at a private investment firm, has routinely trounced the competition, although Ms. Gugelmann, Olivia Chantecaille, Ms. Hearst-Shaw and Fabiola Beracasa have also scored well. And of course the Web site seems to be followed closely by its subjects.
    "I do pay attention to Social Rank, here and there," Ms. Beracasa said. "Of course I do. I wake up in the morning and it's coffee and patrickmcmullan.com." (She was referring to the Web site of the society photographer Patrick McMullan, who covers parties, store openings and the like.)
    "Once you're in the vein of the social circuit, you can't help but notice," she said. "What the people on that list represent is a quality of life that on the outside is a fabulous, fashionable, beautiful, party-filled, charitable, everything-perfect life. People love to see that." Social Rank claims an average of 3,600 unique visitors a day, with peaks of up to 24,000.
    Ms. Beracasa, the daughter of Veronica Hearst, who shares an art-filled apartment on Fifth Avenue with her widowed mother, who was the third wife of Randolph A. Hearst, is the creative director for Circa, a buyer of estate jewelry.
    Many of the others, like Ms. Gugelmann, have their own products to promote. Ms. Beracasa said: "One of the good things about this whole new trend is that I work for a house that buys jewelry, so there wouldn't be a conflict of interest if another house asked me to model for them."
    Still, it is not entirely clear whether socialites can do more for a brand than a celebrity, given recent history.
    "It's a crapshoot," said Ms. Fiori of Town & Country. "Always was. Always will be. Just like a magazine cover."

    I thought this was interesting.
     
  2. Interesting article. I really don't know who most of those women are though, I wonder if others do?
     
  3. WOW that was long, but quite interesting thank you

    i think i'd know them if i saw their faces
     
  4. Thank you for posting the article!