The fashion industry desperately needed Carolyn Bessette Kennedy. She was a perfect example of fashion reborn.
Her style--simple shapes, neutral colors, lean silhouettes--evoked the trends without ever making her look as if she were held hostage to them. Hers was the sort of style that designers talk about in inevitably cryptic terms: modern, personal and classic with a twist.
Folks speak about "modern" this and "modern" that so often that, in the end, it applies to everything and ultimately means nothing at all. But Bessette Kennedy's style gave meaning to the modern fashion cliche.
She mastered the skill of wearing designer clothes without turning into a fashion victim mummified in expensive labels. In her public appearances, she looked comfortable and casual, but she never veered into sloppiness. At a ball, the combination of a floor-length gown, barely-there makeup and simple hairstyle resulted in a look that was elegant, but not overdone. The effect was as if she'd simply tossed on her evening clothes without any fanfare or benefit of hairstylists or makeup artists.
In Bessette Kennedy, designers had a frantically photographed representative of the pleasures of fashion. She could be trusted to put the best spin on fashion because she had been plucked from the industry's own ranks. A onetime publicist at Calvin Klein, "she got fashion," said a friend.
Increasingly, women take great pride in detailing their lack of interest in fashion, their blissful ignorance of the latest fad. Such an attitude bodes poorly for the future of Seventh Avenue and the European ateliers. So the fashion industry has had to evolve into one that is focused on style and celebrity. It has had to become more accommodating of eccentricities and imperfect faces--if not imperfect bodies. Bessette Kennedy was arguably the best example of what this fashion renaissance aspired to be.
Princess Diana was part of the old school of fashion. People who care about such things wanted to know who she wore rather than what she wore. They remember her Christian Dior handbag, her Versace suits or the blue John Galliano gown she wore one evening in New York with her hair slicked back.
While Princess Diana groped for a style to call her own, Bessette Kennedy's choices in fashion were surprising, personal and stunning. The Narciso Rodriguez-designed wedding gown was striking not only because it was an unusually minimalist selection for such a momentous event but also because it so perfectly suited her lean body. As for Rodriguez, whose name has since become well known, few even inside the fashion industry had ever heard of him when Bessette Kennedy asked him to do the honors for her wedding.
In subsequent collections from Rodriguez, Bessette Kennedy's influence was apparent in the lean skirts, the sporty approach to evening wear and the simply groomed models. There was no "Bessette Kennedy skirt" or shoe or anything else. But there was that look. And that is far more valuable to a designer and an industry in the process of transforming style into a commodity.
Bessette Kennedy stood out as she entered the world of socialites for shunning the traditional designers favored by the old-guard lunching set and the new generation of professionally dressed rich young things and rising starlets. She was a devotee of neither Bill Blass nor Gucci. She wore Versace when she attended the Fire & Ice Ball in Los Angeles, but it would have been rude not to do so: The charity event was sponsored by Donatella Versace, and the accompanying runway presentation would showcase her work. But Bessette Kennedy chose one of the simplest and most reserved looks from that designer's atelier.
The clothes she chose for her public life were most recently dominated by the Yohji Yamamoto label. Such a coup--at last, the fashion industry had proof that one of its most avant-garde designers was both relevant and wearable. Yamamoto's wry versions of French high fashion no longer seemed so exotic and impossibly esoteric, thanks to Bessette Kennedy wearing them to mainstream big-ticket dinners.
Bessette Kennedy was not one of those bold-face names uttered reverentially as part of the new generation of couture customers. If those young women have style, it is overshadowed by the staggering fact that they are willing to spend $20,000 on a dress. Besides, Bessette Kennedy was more valuable to the fashion industry than that. She was not part of the futile plot to resurrect utterly irrelevant couture. Nor was she a member of the anti-fashion, wealthy elite. Instead, she was a spotlit vision of what fashion could be, if only the industry could be so lucky.