NEW YORK -- Last September, at the Michael Kors spring fashion show, three sets of sisters, reed thin and crisply dressed, threaded their way past curious publicists and editors before piling into the front row. The Lauder, Boardman and Miller sisters may as well have been on the runway for all the frantic camera clicking, notepad filling and neck craning of bystanders angling for a closer look.
A minute later, when the lights dimmed, the impression was redoubled, for there on the catwalk were the young women's mirror images: models with enormous towels sweeping up their hair, as if they'd just stepped up from the cabana in Palm Beach. The fashions were inspired by Lilly Pulitzer's bold colors -- lemon, tangerine and aqua -- and Pucci's psychedelic swirls. There were also baby-blue cable-knit sweaters and zebra-stripe blouses.
Designers have always had their muses -- the women they fantasize about dressing while sitting at the drawing board -- but rarely has the connection between front row and runway seemed so direct as at Kors' show, which looked like the moment of critical mass for this spring's strongest trend: the return of discreet, ladylike dressing.
Not just at Kors, but also at Louis Vuitton, Ralph Lauren and even cutting-edge Prada, the Park Avenue princess is the new fashion icon. Designers have revived blouses tied with a bow, shirtdresses, A-line skirts and other staples of postdebutante style. They have turned their backs on the overt sexuality of Hollywood, rock stars and supermodels and embraced the glamour of swan-necked, icily poised socialites.
It is no coincidence that this is occurring when a new generation of daughters and wives of Manhattan's superrich have emerged on the social scene. Their names are filling the night life columns of newspapers and magazines, elbowing aside traditional stars of movies and pop music.
"We've seen so much rock 'n' roll sequins and heavy eyeliner from Donatella Versace and Tom Ford and Tommy Hilfiger," said Alexandra Kotur, Vogue's party coverage editor. "We needed a new theme." She includes many of the young socialites in her pages, along with traditional celebrities. "It's so much more fresh to show a real mix -- a photo of an edgy singer like Lil' Kim next to a social young woman like Marina Rust," she said. "They have great flair, and we always want to know what they're wearing and what they're doing."
The polished young women sitting in today's fashion hot seats include, besides Ms. Rust, Samantha and Serena Boardman, Sloan Lindemann Barnett, Lauren duPont, Jane Lauder and Aerin Lauder Zinterhofer, Brooke de Ocampo and the ubiquitous Miller sisters -- Alexandra von Furstenberg, Pia Getty and Crown Princess Pavlos of Greece.
"They've achieved their own kind of celebrity," said Patrick McMullan, whose party pictures appear in New York magazine and Vanity Fair. "They walk into the room, and I mean, they own it."
Not since the 1960s reign of Slim Keith and Babe Paley, the original beautiful people anointed by Diana Vreeland, have social figures so influenced fashion and culture.
In "The Talented Mr. Ripley," with its plot line of socialite envy and aping, Gwyneth Paltrow plays a gloss on her own life as a privileged child of the Upper East Side and the Spence School. The model Carolyn Murphy is a similarly aloof young society daughter in the Grace Kelly mold in "Liberty Heights." Offscreen, Ms. Paltrow is in a Dior ad for a boxy ladylike handbag, set on a balcony overlooking Central Park.
Glossy magazines are stepping up coverage of young socialites. Harper's Bazaar has hired away W's society reporter, Melissa Ceria. Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, is considering a feature on young socialites in the mold of his annual young Hollywood fold-out cover story.
Then there is the love life of James Truman. Truman is editorial director of Conde Nast, which entails knowing which way the cultural tide is running. Since late last year, he has been dating Samantha Boardman, 28, a medical student, who lays claim to several generations in both Locust Valley and Palm Beach. The couple have been out in New York, they attended the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute gala last month, and this weekend, Ms. Boardman, who is descended on her mother's side from the founder of the First National Bank of New York, plans to take Truman on his first visit to Palm Beach.
Not long ago, she posed with seven other members of her set for a two-page fashion spread in the current Talk magazine, everyone dressed in the spring Michael Kors collection.
"I love Palm Beach -- they trim those privet hedges with nail scissors out there," Kors said. "This season is about looking pretty and groomed, with a little flag-waving thrown in. All that coupled with a boom economy, and suddenly it's OK to be looking back at those stylish icons of the '50s and '60s. They make a great reference, and then what you do is make it modern."
He added: "It's a lifestyle that sells, because no matter what's coming around the corner in fashion, people will always crave a look that is glamorous, beautiful, sexy and rich."
In fact, people have not always craved the look, or the life of country clubs and charity galas that the look implies. A decade ago, once-prominent socialites like Pat Buckley, Susan Gutfreund and Gayfryd Steinberg had faded from the front rows of fashion shows and the covers of society magazines. They had made their mark as leaders of philanthropy, supporting New York's hospitals and museums, but no younger generation took their place.
The pendulum is swinging back. Aerin Lauder Zinterhofer, 29, fronting for her family's cosmetics empire, was the youngest co-chairwoman ever of the Costume Institute gala. Ms. Rust, 34, whose great-great-grandfather was Marshall Field of the department store chain, spent part of her childhood on an Oregon commune, but now she embraces the blueblood tradition to which she is heir, with a Mark Hampton-designed apartment and her own foundation.
On Feb. 25, Ms. Rust; Aerin Lauder; Ms. duPont, 28; and Ms. von Furstenberg, 28, will be chairwomen of a new junior society ball for the Frick Collection, the Fifth Avenue museum whose paintings and parties are culled from the era of Mrs. Astor's 400. Guests are requested to wear Edwardian clothes.
"There was a time when the emulation of one's parents' generation was anathema," said Amy Fine Collins, a fashion writer and special correspondent for Vanity Fair. "The conservatism implied by dressing in golf clothes was hopelessly dated and square and shallow. This was true for my husband's age group, and he's 44. People just 10 years younger are embracing again what was once rejected by his preppy peers. Clubs, bastions of tradition, which not long ago wondered if they would survive, are suddenly experiencing a resurgence of memberships."
One of the reasons that being a young socialite was out of style through much of the 1990s was the stigma of the word itself, suggesting a woman who didn't work and had few interests beyond parties and clothes. The term is still loaded, but what distinguishes the latest Park Avenue princesses is that many have serious careers. Both Lauder daughters are executives in the Estee Lauder Companies. Samantha Boardman will graduate from Cornell Medical College in May, and her older sister, Serena, 29, works for a luxury-goods Web site.
"I feel comfortable enough in my achievements that I can ignore the stereotypes of being called a socialite," said Ms. Barnett, 32, a former Manhattan assistant district attorney, who writes a weekly consumer column for The New York Daily News and is co-host of a show about Internet shopping on Oxygen, the new cable-television service and Web site.
Ms. Barnett, the daughter of George Lindemann, whose fortune from cable TV and cellular phones is put at $1.5 billion by Forbes magazine, was married in June to Roger Barnett, 35, the son of Victor Barnett, the chairman of Burberry. Christian Lacroix designed her wedding gown.
"People want to know why I'm working so much," Ms. Barnett said. "What do they want me to do? Get a facial all day long?" On Thursday night, she was a chairwoman of the Young Collectors' Night at the Winter Antiques Show, a benefit for the East Side House Settlement. At 8:45, she and her husband, who last year founded Beauty.com, a cosmetics Web site he has sold for $42 million, dashed from the show on Park Avenue to the Metropolitan Opera, where they were hosts of the Young Patrons Trio Series, an evening of opera for 135 of their friends.
Ms. Barnett discovered opera through her mother, Frayda, who has a Ph.D. in musicology and sits on the Met's board. "My mother set an example for me not to be just a party girl," said Ms. Barnett, a graduate of Brown University and New York University Law School. "She wanted me to have a real career and education. All of this doesn't mean you can't wear a pretty dress. That's what is new about our age group. The TV show 'Ally McBeal' shows a woman who is in court in front of judges all day, and they have her wearing miniskirts up to her panties. I think the times have definitely changed. Women are now comfortable enough with their intelligence and power to retain their femininity."
Likewise, Samantha Boardman is secure enough in her identity as a future doctor to joke about her fashion obsession. "I love Carolina Herrera and Oscar de la Renta, but Michael Kors is definitely my favorite," she said. "He's hysterical. I was recently complaining about how unchic my hospital scrubs were, and he told me that he'd design me a pair in cashmere."
Ms. Barnett understands exactly what is expected of her in exchange for having her name prominently listed on fund-raising invitations: She gives cocktail parties in her palatial Park Avenue apartment, to which the press is invited to play voyeur, and provides a mailing list of friends' names for tickets of $200 or so. "Being visible for the press helps my charities," she said simply.
How much of these women's visibility is in the cause of altruism, and how much is self-promotion, a desire to see their names and photographs in print, is impossible to say, though no doubt both motives are involved. Many donors to good causes donate in perfect anonymity.
John Fairchild, the former publisher of Women's Wear Daily, who tracked the figures of the '60s like Charlotte and Anne Ford, Jane Holzer, Marisa Berenson, Jacqueline Kennedy and Lee Radziwill, said their support of good works was often beside the point, more a means of seeing their images in print. "They all wanted to be photographed, so they'd end up on the best-dressed list and get their clothes at a reasonable price," he said. "But did they ever complain about it all!"
"The women know they're good-looking, and they love clothes and jewelry," he added. "There's nothing wrong with that, but it can all lead to an unattractive kind of competitiveness. If I was married to a young woman who was chasing the camera all the time, I'd spank her."
Goodness knows that being a fashion icon is a demanding job. There are runway shows and sample sales to attend, gowns to chose and wear for the inspection of the press, and publicist-organized dinners and cocktail parties upon which to alight. If this sounds vaguely like the duties and privileges of a fashion magazine editor, it is because the glossy magazines have long blurred the line between official and unofficial fashion arbiters. Vogue and its sisters have shown keen instincts for plucking women of wealth and taste from their natural habitat and installing them on mastheads, where their editing duties often take a back seat to social ones.
Diana Vreeland was discovered while dancing on the St. Regis' roof wearing a bolero and a crown of red roses. Today, Anna Wintour liberally stocks Vogue's masthead with young social beauties, whose job descriptions in part are to be photographed socializing, often in Vogue's own pages. Ms. duPont and Ms. Rust have been among these. Last year, Ms. Rust's white-tie wedding in Maine to Ian Connor, an investment banker, with flowers by Robert Isabell, merited six pages in Vogue.
Kate Betts, for her just-completed makeover of Harper's Bazaar, enticed Ms. de Ocampo, a daughter of Greenwich, Conn., whose Argentine-born husband, Emilio, is an investment banker, to become a contributor to Harper's Bazaar. Ms. de Ocampo is writing a book about society interiors for Assouline Publishing, and her access to that world is now at Ms. Betts' disposal.
The February issue of Bazaar is a veritable ode to discreet chic and the privileged young women who embody it. There are no fewer than five articles on the theme, including a beauty article on the cosmetics inspired by Michael Kors and a 16-page fashion spread, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" photographed on Palm Beach golf links, lawns and Worth Avenue. That issue has an article about the Manhattan apartments of Jane and Aerin Lauder Zinterhofer, and for the March issue Ms. Betts assigned Patrick Demarchelier to photograph Serena and Samantha Boardman.
Ms. Betts, 35, a Princeton graduate who grew up on the Upper East Side, seems to be merging her life with the young socialites she covers. She gave up her Thanksgiving weekend to fly to Palm Beach to be host of a Chanel store party populated with them, and she became a last-minute chairwoman of the New York Botanical Garden's junior-committee gala in December, a young society favorite, chock full of belles in winter whites.
"It was a very savvy business move on her part," said Tim Landi, a vice president for communications at the Botanical Garden, who organized a heavy-hitting committee that caught Ms. Betts' attention with its first party a year earlier: Whitney Fairchild, a daughter-in-law of Fairchild of Women's Wear Daily; Nathalie Gerschel-Kaplan, a daughter of Patrick Gerschel, a private investor; Ms. de Ocampo, the daughter of Robert Douglass, a former vice chairman of the Chase Manhattan Corp.; and Aerin Lauder Zinterhofer.
"Their parents have been involved with the garden for over 20 years, so in our minds we were just developing the next wave of donors," Landi said of Ms. Gerschel-Kaplan and Ms. de Ocampo. "Their seated dinner in the conservatory has been so successful these past two years, though, that we're now running the risk of superseding that goal with the kind of elitism that creeps in when you have a finite number of coveted tickets."
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