Kenneth Jay Lane, Jewelry Designer Who Made a Fortune Faking It, Dies at 85

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Kenneth Jay Lane, Jewelry Designer Who Made a Fortune Faking It, Dies at 85

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Kenneth Jay Lane, the designer and bon vivant who built a global business from glittering acts of unabashed deception, producing fake and junk jewelry — or, as he liked to say, tongue in cheek, “faque” and “junque” — has died at his home in Manhattan. He was 85.

Chris Sheppard, the executive vice president of Mr. Lane’s company, said Thursday that Mr. Lane had died overnight in his sleep. No cause was given.

“I myself am a fabulous fake,” Mr. Lane once said. The son of an automotive parts supplier from Detroit — or “Day-twah,” as he would pronounce it with a wink — he was indeed one of his own most striking creations.

He came to be regarded as the first American jewelry designer to make it not only acceptable but also chic to wear fake jewelry, and in reaching that plateau he transformed himself into a high-society, jet-setting businessman with a lifestyle that was anything but cheap.

Darkly handsome in his glory years, always suave and impeccably tailored, an amusing and witty man who frequently poked fun at himself, Mr. Lane unapologetically wanted the best of everything — from the luxurious duplex apartment in a Stanford White mansion on Park Avenue to a coveted place on the “A” guest lists for all the best parties everywhere, be they in the United States, England, France, Italy or Spain. (The occasional blowout soiree in Morocco or Egypt also had him on a jet.)

It was a persona that began forming when he fell in love with fashion as a boy; he once took an after-school job just so he could buy a camel’s-hair coat, and when he had earned the equivalent of the price tag, he quit.

Soon, still a teenager, he left Detroit altogether, bent on a design career, and found his way to New York. To his languid Midwestern voice he soon added a slightly British overtone, acquired at the same time that he discovered British tailors, to whom he was devoted the rest of his life.

The wider public knew him from his frequent appearances on QVC, the home shopping network, where his company made a fortune in sales. He often gave viewers a glimpse of his glamorous world and advised them how to wear the different ornaments he peddled.

Many women wore his designs together with their own real jewels. Even experts were hard put to tell one from the other. Coco Chanel had accomplished the same dynamic some years earlier, but her fakes were meant for a more limited, well-heeled market and, unlike Mr. Lane’s, had little mass distribution.

Mr. Lane was self-deprecatingly realistic about his designing talent. “My designs are all original,” he told The New York Times in 2014. “Original from someone.”

He believed, however, that much of good design was what he called editorial — choosing the right ideas and applying them practically. He “drew inspiration,” he said, from all over: the work of celebrated designers like Fulco di Verdura, Jean Schlumberger and David Webb; the museums of the world; the crown jewelry of British and European royalty and of Indian maharanis; and the cornucopia of ethnic pieces found in markets around the world.

“I think it’s called ‘having the eye,’ ” he told The Times in 1993. “It isn’t necessarily reinventing the wheel.”

His name became so synonymous with fake jewelry that it was even evoked, unflatteringly, in the Lou Reed song “Sally Can’t Dance,” about a New York fashion model’s rise and fall.

He was particularly noted for his imaginative and unusual color combinations — amethyst and coral, amber and turquoise, sapphire and topaz. Early in his career he came up with such innovations as embroidered earrings, or earrings of peacock feathers and iridescent beetle bodies. Later, when he was a byword among both the moneyed class and the mass market, some of his customers had his “faux masterpieces,” as he called them, incorporated into the real thing.

Mr. Lane’s customers and friends throughout the years included some of the world’s richest, most publicized and most fashionable women — Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Greta Garbo, Nancy Reagan, the princesses Margaret and Diana, Babe Paley and Diana Vreeland among them.

Through many of them, Mr. Lane became one of the most in-demand escorts of single and married women — wives whose husbands refused to accompany them to some of the sparkling parties they enjoyed. He denied, however — indignantly — that he was a “walker.”

If anything, he said to The Times in 1993, “I’m a runner,” then added more seriously: “I’m a single man and there are single women, and we balance. Walkers are people who have nothing to do; they just escort women to dinners and parties. I have a business.”

Mr. Lane was born in Detroit on April 22, 1932, and graduated from Detroit Central High School. A budding interest in design led him to the University of Michigan, where he briefly studied architecture before moving on to the Rhode Island School of Design, from which he graduated in 1954. He set his sights on New York, where designers, he once said, “were treated like celebrities.”

A brief stint in the art department at Vogue magazine was less than successful. “I’d spill the rubber cement, I’d spill the ink pot, or I’d cut my finger and ruin the layout,” he recalled.

For the next 10 years, he designed shoes, first at Delman, then with Roger Vivier at Dior, commuting to Paris to study with Vivier for three years. By 1961 he was creating shoes for his designer friends Bill Blass, Norman Norell and Arnold Scaasi.

His foray into jewelry came about almost by accident. He had been designing jewelry in his spare time when he was hired to design bejeweled shoes, some with rhinestone toes and heels, for a Scaasi show. Mr. Lane suggested that he also create matching earrings and bracelets, and Mr. Scaasi agreed. Mr. Lane then went to a five-and-dime store, bought plastic bangles and had the workers in the shoe factory cover them with brilliants.

His shoe experience led to another early inspiration: using shoe skins — cobra, alligator, lizard — to make distinctive coverings for bracelets.

Mr. Lane began designing his own jewelry collection in 1962. Soon after, the fashion entrepreneur and ready-to-wear pioneer Hattie Carnegie bought his company, and he was made design director. The arrangement lasted less than a year, and he then moved into his own space in Manhattan, a small studio apartment on East 38th Street, where he designed and sold jewelry for private customers, fashion editors and, as he put it, “husbands buying gifts for their girlfriends.”

Within a few years, he was selling to most of the Fifth Avenue stores and had bought a small jewelry factory in Providence, R.I. Quickly, his name was in fashion magazines and society columns.

Mr. Lane became part of his customers’ social set, flying to parties around the world and visiting castles, country estates and island houses. “Once one has reached one’s goal, one can take inventory and select the things one enjoys doing,” he said.

His experience with rich women exposed him to real jewels of an extravagant kind, and he began changing the color of his faux stones to more closely resemble them. When the colors still did not satisfy him — the rubies were too red, the emeralds too blue and the sapphires too dull — he began having his stones made especially for him in Germany.

In 1969, his company was acquired by the fashion conglomerate Kenton Corporation, and soon Kenneth Jay Lane boutiques, which had been established in Paris and London, opened in New York. But within five years he repurchased the company.

One of Mr. Lane’s best-known designs is a copy of a Van Cleef and Arpels Maharani necklace given to Mrs. Onassis during her marriage to Aristotle Onassis. Mrs. Onassis asked for the copy, and Mr. Lane offered her a choice: pay for the master model (for about $1,000) or allow him to mass market copies. She agreed to the copies. Some time later, in the 1980s, he said, she had been watching television and told him, “I saw our necklace on ‘Dynasty.’ ”

Mr. Lane wrote a memoir, “Faking It,” with Harrice Simons Miller, published in 1996 by Harry N. Abrams. A benefactor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he was honored when it named a room of European Orientalist paintings after him in 2007, part of the renovated galleries for 19th- and early 20th-century European paintings.

A documentary film about him, called “Fabulously Fake: The Real Life of Kenneth Jay Lane,” is expected to be released in 2018.

In 1975, Mr. Lane married Nicola Weymouth, a member of London’s swinging set who achieved a small piece of cultural immortality as the subject of a portrait by her friend Andy Warhol. She and Mr. Lane were divorced within two years, and no immediate family members survive.

“She was an unexportable Englishwoman,” Mr. Lane said later. “She couldn’t keep a horse and garden in New York.”

They remained friends. “I’m too selfish to dislike people,” Mr. Lane once said. “I find people either interesting or uninteresting. If they’re uninteresting, I can’t be bothered, they don’t exist.”

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