It has been a long time since the humorist Fran Lebowitz first made the often-quoted remark that “If you removed all of the homosexuals and homosexual influence from what is generally regarded as American culture, you would be pretty much left with `Let’s Make a Deal.’ ” The quotation dates from the 1980’s, and so does Ms. Lebowitz’s own moment of cultural valence, specifically the beginning of a decade when the gay influence on America’s aesthetic life achieved a kind of apogee.
And its been a much longer time since Ms. Liebowitz was anything more than the court jester to the Velvet Mafia.
But as journalist Guy Trebay is out to prove in his New York Times piece, modestly entitled “Calvin Klein Introduces 400 to His Piece of Heaven,” terms like that simply won’t do in the post Lawrence vs. Texas era.
Simply everyone’s out of the closet now darling. Even those who made their careers out of being in — like Velvet Mafia Capo di Tutti Capi, Barry Diller. And wouldn’t you know it? They’re here to take credit for that which they in no way, shape or form deserve.
In the last months before AIDS devastated a generation, a small group of gay artists and designers began putting forth a highly stylized and lacquered version of their own reality, one whose influence seems to have had the half-life of plutonium. It is likely that America might eventually have gotten around to a taste for buffed bodies, depilation, white lilies, spare interiors and designer underwear if there had never been a Fire Island Pines circa 1981. But getting there would have taken much longer.
And it appeared as if it was the Pines of that era that was being evoked at Calvin Klein’s big party in Southampton last Saturday, an event that was by turns enchanted, confounding and suffused with nostalgia for a period when Mr. Klein, and the world of fashion as it is now, were still young.
And when the New York Times while making note of white lilies and spare interiors would never mention buffed bodies or designer underwear — save for its ads. Abe Rosenthal simply wouldn’t have stood for it.
The pretext for the party was the opening of Mr. Klein’s new beachfront house, a Gothicized behemoth sitting on 10 acres astride a narrow billionaire’s sand spit between the ocean and Shinnecock Bay. Great expense had obviously been gone to, but how much precisely those who work for Mr. Klein refused to say. (Estimates by local caterers were in the $500,000 range.) For a measure of the party’s scale, however, consider the waiter to guest ratio of one to three. Mr. Klein invited 400 of his friends, an assortment that included Barry Diller and David Geffen and the agent Sandy Gallin and also Martha Stewart and Lauren Bush and the Rev. Al Sharpton. A handful of journalists were also asked, with the understanding that cameras would be confiscated lest anyone catch Ms. Stewart shoveling beluga. The smattering of conservative locals who joined in lent to the evening a surreal aspect, as if the White Party in Miami had been relocated to the Meadow Club.
And while Ms. Stewart’s erstwhile co-defendant Peter Bacanovic would have doubtless been at home at the White Party — and even the Black Party — one can’t imagine Martha there, or the Rev. Al, or a Bush of any sort whatsoever. Now they can “slum” in style, leaving the rest of us to gawk on the sidelines, stealing whatever vicarious pleasure we may from this press account. With tips on real estate too.
Renamed Elysium by Mr. Klein, the house has been called a lot of things in its time and has a history that is worth a slight detour. Built by Henry F. duPont in the English Georgian style in 1929, Elysium was the largest house in the Hamptons in the days before the industrialist Ira Rennert came along, and supersized domiciles became the vogue. It had 45,000 square feet and 72 rooms, 60 of them bedrooms. For decades, the duPont family held on to the white elephant and then finally shuttered it.
Overgrown and semiderelict, the house was sold at auction in 1979 to Barry Trupin, whose fortune derived from truck leasing, for a reported price of $330,000. Mr. Trupin rejiggered the house as an ersatz French chateau, installed the interior of an English pub and a shark tank, and named it Dragon’s Head. His efforts to renovate were protracted and costly and eventually embroiled him in a series of lawsuits with the Town of Southampton.
Mr. Trupin’s vision of Dragon’s Head was never realized. He sold it to Francesco Galesi, a Manhattan investor, for $2.3 million in 1993. Mr. Galesi knocked the turrets down, reduced the number of bedrooms, and soon the house was on the market again, this time with an asking price of $45 million. There it languished, unloved and unlovable, until Mr. Klein came along last year and plunked down $29.9 million to buy it.
Yadda, yadda, yadda.
“I looked at everything and, for some reason, nobody showed me this,” Mr. Klein remarked, as he stood greeting guests at the front door on Saturday night. Praising the house’s spectacular vistas, Julia Koch, the wife of the oil and gas billionaire David Koch, said, “It’s amazing that you’re so high above the grade.”
What was the reason, one wonders? Did they think Calvin was too tweaked to care?
Ms. Koch’s roundabout praise reflected a prevailing sentiment that the best and most obvious thing for Mr. Klein to have done with his new home was to pull it down. Instead, he accomplished the unexpected by deploying the varied elements of his style vocabulary to demonstrate what is possible if one happens to be Calvin Klein. “Everything I looked at was a tear-down,” the designer said, suggesting that he considered it wittier to use old-fashioned methods to cure what was wrong with the house.
“The party is his way of showing that he’s still here,” said an intimate of Mr. Klein’s, insisting on anonymity.
An anonymous boytoy? Maybe things haven’t changed as much as I thought.
It was Mr. Klein’s way, this man suggested, of demonstrating that — even after selling his company in 2002 to Phillips-Van Heusen, being photographed last year accosting Latrell Sprewell at an N.B.A. game and then openly entering rehabilitation for recurrent substance abuse problems — he remains a force to be reckoned with in design.
Well at least a force to be reckoned with in what the late, great Richard Rouilard called “Publisexuality”.
“He completely Calvinized it,” said Stan Herman, the president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, as he toured the transformed mansion. And he had.
Hunh? How so? Splayed Jeff Acquilon across the front porch or something?
“You know, it’s amazing that a house can be so ugly on the outside and so beautiful on the inside,” the architect Richard Meier said, duly noting that each element of the designer’s signature vision was in place.
If it is a vision dating from Mr. Klein’s finest moment, it also functions as a time capsule of period tastes. By now, most people are so inured to the style that it is hard to imagine it existed before “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” But Mr. Klein was there first, and he gave early instruction to Americans to pare down, paint well and, when in doubt, add orchids and art books.
But this dessicated stick insect is that last thing on one’s mind when one thinks of the Fab Five. In fact their vimand vigor stands in mark contrast to narcotized langor of the Studio 54 era.
The manorial rooms of Elysium, in other words, gave proof to the effectiveness of Mr. Klein’s often imitated idiom, stylistically a fusion of John Pawson and Georgia O’Keeffe. There were abundant pieces of blocky furniture upholstered in white linen. There were broad, low tables ornamented with African tribal objects collected by Mr. Klein on a recent trip. There were acres of minimalist horizontal surfaces groaning under granite lingams, shagreen boxes, Navajo blankets, thickets of candles and tubs of caviar. And there was an abundance of nubile Calvin Klein men.
Pretty damned chaotic. Thom Filicia would doubtless toss it all out in fifteen minutes — Carson Kressley making snarky quips all the while as Kayn yawns, Jai twinkles and Ted pours the wine.
“My nipples are going to go boing,” said Evan Davis, a bare-chested Wilhelmina model posted behind a bar at one of the tents in the sand.
I know the feeling, darling.
A short walk away toward the Atlantic an enormous bonfire pit had been dug. Scores of colored lanterns bobbed from bamboo poles in a brisk breeze. There was a buffet of lobster tails and heirloom tomatoes to be consumed on immense cushion groupings scattered about the sand, each cluster attended by a waiter who happened also to have been cast for his ability to look ornamental in hip-huggers and an unbuttoned white shirt while toting a tray.
A&F doubtless doubling as “Central Casting,” with perhaps an assist from Chi-Chi Larue.
It was a vision out of a Bruce Weber photograph, the sort that is inevitably suffused with the soft-core homoeroticism that he has so successfully exported to the mainstream. Mr. Weber, too, was on hand on Saturday evening. He was wearing his characteristic knotted bandanna and looking blissed out as he piloted past Mr. Klein and his celebrity guests and the many for-hire beauties who all disported themselves happily in a house Mr. Klein named, none too subtly, for the land in classical mythology where the blessed go when they die.
Ah those Bruce Weber Beauties. So young, so nubile, so boring.
The Real Thing isn’t so easily “outsourced”
As for the dead, something tells me that they have little interest in haunting the likes of Calvin.