MOST ELEGANT PAULINE

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Pauline Trigere, I can testify, still has great legs.

The French-born fashion designer and her then-husband arrived with their two little boys in New York on Christmas Day 1936 and Pauline's been here ever since. And now she was arriving, right on time, for lunch at the Four Seasons in Manhattan, sporting a brilliant red silk blouse and nubby reddish tweed skirt under a fur coat of ocelot or leopard or some variety of spotted cat.

"Synthetic, I assure you," she said.

After ordering a dry gin martini (straight up with ice on the side and an olive) Pauline said she'd just won a cooking prize at a March of Dimes benefit held at the Plaza. "I made boiled chicken and lobster with rice. The secret is to use a roasting chicken. Much more tender. Cooks quicker, too. The trouble is, before the event they asked me to send over the recipe and I said, `How do I write down a pinch of this and a touch of that?' "

Pauline is now 82 years old and a Scorpio (who will tug out a gold scorpion medallion she wears on a gold necklace to prove it) who celebrated her most recent birthday, in part, by not showing a fashion collection under the tents at Bryant Park behind the Public Library. First time in years we haven't seen a Trigere ready to wear collection. But why?

"I just got tired of sizing things. So from now on I'm only designing things you don't have to size or alter. Jewelry, necklaces, pins, extraordinary bibs and men's ties, plus fabulous embroidered scarves and skirts, perfect to wear now or for gifts later."

She's set up her new operation on the tenth floor of 498 Seventh Avenue and wants her old customers to call.

Any professional regrets?

"That I never got into license deals. That was a mistake. The ones who made the license deals made fortunes. And they don't even need factories of their own."

As we sat there having lunch, there was a mini-parade to our table. Mort Shrader, son of Seventh Avenue legend Abe Shrader; PR woman Harriet Weintraub; Marvin Traub, longtime Bloomingdale's chairman, all dropping by to pay her homage. While, across the room, studiously ignoring her, was Pauline's old critic and Women's Wear Daily chief John Fairchild.

There was another reason Pauline was cutting back on her work. She'd just had an operation for some polyps on her throat. "I said to this guy (the doctor; in Pauline's lexicon everyone is a `guy.' She once described Hitler to me as `this little guy Hitler.'), suppose you don't operate. What then? And he said to me, `Then it can spread to your lymph glands.' So I said to him, `When can you operate? Tomorrow?' "

Pauline was full of comment about the recent New Yorker issue all about fashion. And somewhat nettled that younger journalists don't realize the magazine's been covering fashion on a regular basis since Lois Long started her reports in 1925. And the next day she sent over to me an old copy of Town & Country, when it was still large-sized, with a photo of Cary Grant and Dina Merrill on the cover, both of them looking incredibly beautiful, and a Lois Long profile of Pauline inside with the then-leading covergirl, Lisa Fonssagrives, the two of them equally spectacular and elegant.

Once upon a time in the fashion business, where beauty is the product and not just the hype, this was how people looked. I have maybe attended a thousand fashion shows. Back then I was working for Women's Wear Daily and had to go to fashion shows for a living. I have been to shows in London and Paris and Milan and Rome and Florence. I have even been to fashion shows on Seventh Avenue although John Fairchild, who is a genius about such things and back then was my boss, always told me not to attend the Seventh Avenue shows. Even after I succeeded him as publisher.

"Be aloof. They'll have no respect for you if you go to their shows," John counseled. "I never go. And they respect me." He would then skip about and look quite pleased with himself. And for several years I took John's advice and didn't go to Seventh Avenue and am still not sure if anyone respected me any more or any less for my absence.

In any event, I am sort of glad I don't have to go to fashion shows any more for a living. The New York papers have been full of coverage in which the clothes are barely mentioned. What they are all writing about is the covergirls. And their boyfriends. The covergirls, I am given to understand, no longer wear underwear when they show a collection. This has given rise to the popularity, among the paparazzi, of what they call "the crotch shot."

Then there are the boyfriends, the latest sullen young male movie stars who are having love affairs with the covergirls, so they're there at ringside.

It used to be that you put on a fashion show in a discrete salon where a few dozen fashion editors, mostly women wearing hats, sat on little gold chairs and scribbled notes. There were also buyers from the big stores and other fashion designers, who paid what was called a "caution" to see the show and buy originals to be reproduced in volume at lower prices. There were also Babe Paley, perhaps, and the Duchess of Windsor and Gloria Guinness and other rich and elegant women. And except for the directrice calling out the numbers, it was quiet, almost churchlike. Except when the Cardin show ran long and Italian fashion editors threw their rolled-up programs and cried "Basta! Basta!" or when a designer, stunned by a lack of critical approval burst into tears, or when Marie-Louise Bousquet of Harper's Bazaar again set herself aflame by dropping a cigarette down her bodice.

And now we have Mickey Rourke in the front row in an old-fashioned undershirt, his boxer shorts pulled up about his jeans, tattooed and unshaven, as he watches pass on the runway that beautiful actress/model Carre Otis, Rourke's former wife. Ms. Otis, it has been widely reported, tried to have her ex-husband banned from the shows on grounds she was afraid, which seems sensible, since she was shot in 1991 by parties unnamed.

I think I liked fashion shows better when no one got shot and people dressed up to go to them and editors sat there in their hats and movie stars looked like Cary Grant and covergirls wore underwear. And Pauline Trigere didn't have polyps.

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