- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 6, 2007

NEW YORK

In an age when the word is grossly overused, they remain, incontrovertibly, icons: elegance embodied, high fashion at the dawn of the television era, with charmed lives and striking beauty.

Celebrities fuel fashion — that comes as no surprise. However, the women with the most influence over today’s tastemakers aren’t the ones on the covers of all those celebrity magazines.

Instead, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis continue to set the standard. Their names are shorthand for the looks that are at the root of modern style many years after their deaths.

The patrician style of Main Line Philadelphia is defined by Princess Grace. One of the world’s most coveted handbags — the Hermes Kelly bag — is named after her, and that two-handled satchel has become a symbol of understated, ladylike luxury.

When Mrs. Onassis was a Kennedy, she popularized the pillbox hat and skirt suits. When she was an Onassis, it was glamorous oversized dark sunglasses worn with yacht-appropriate attire.

The pearls and black dress that many women use as their cocktail-party uniform is all Audrey Hepburn. The Givenchy black dress she wore in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” a simple yet elegant sleeveless sheath, was sold recently at Christie’s in London, fetching a shocking $807,000, almost six times the highest pre-sale estimate. Proceeds will go to the Indian relief charity City of Joy Aid.

Designer Hubert de Givenchy donated the dress, which he created. Then the company that bears his name, now a division of LVMH, repurchased it to support both the charity and the heritage of the brand.

The film series Grand Classics, in conjunction with American Express Red, polled fashion designers earlier this year about the most influential fashion movies, and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was the No. 1 choice. “My Fair Lady,” also starring Miss Hepburn, was in the top 10.

“Audrey had a timeless quality,” says Avril Graham, executive fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar, which re-created Miss Hepburn’s look — pearls and all — on young actress Natalie Portman for a recent cover. “Anyone could wear that black dress now. It doesn’t seem to be dated in any way.”

“Timeless” is the word that comes up again and again with designers, editors and fashion watchers when they talk about these women — and they talk about them a lot.

“They are the triumvirate,” designer Michael Kors declares. “All three of these women were about clean, sharp lines so you notice the woman first. And they’re very archetypal types: If you’re fine-boned, you see Audrey Hepburn and say, ‘That works for me.’ If you’re sporty and angular, you see yourself in Jackie Kennedy; and for patrician and classic, you automatically think of Grace Kelly.”

Fame, especially with the growth of television in the 1950s and 1960s, allowed Princess Grace, Mrs. Onassis and Miss Hepburn to have a worldwide audience, and they all made fashion approachable, so it didn’t seem like an only-for-insiders pursuit, Mr. Kors adds.

It’s also worth noting, says Tommy Hilfiger, that even though European designers get credit for setting fashion trends, Mrs. Onassis and Princess Grace were American. Miss Hepburn, with roots in Belgium, Holland and England, moved to the United States to advance her career.

Of course, the three were the closest America had to royalty. Grace Kelly, already the toast of Hollywood, became a real-life princess when she married Prince Rainier III of Monaco; Mrs. Onassis was the face of the country’s most famous family; and Miss Hepburn modernized the Cinderella story as both Eliza Doolittle and Sabrina on the silver screen.

Mr. Hilfiger wrote the forward to the new book “Grace Kelly: A Life in Pictures” (Pavilion) and helped choose the cover photo — a 1954 portrait for Life magazine showing her blond hair, porcelain skin and slightly red lips. She wears a simple satin spaghetti-strap gown.

Since the troika’s heyday, women have adopted a more casual approach to fashion, but the trio’s sophistication, style and influence have endured.

In contrast, the Gwen Stefanis and Sheryl Crows or even Lindsay Lohans and Paris Hiltons of today may not have that same staying power. Refinement, elegance and a serious approach to style endure, Mr. Hilfiger says; trendiness does not.

“All fashion designers need inspiration and someone to look up to, and many times Grace, Audrey and Jackie have been the ones,” he says. “They’re the most important women in fashion in the last 50 years.”

So where are the contemporary fashion icons? Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan, points to Kate Moss, known for her bohemian chic.

What makes someone a fashion icon as opposed to a mere trendsetter? A signature look, whether it’s the color red, A-line skirts or oversized sunglasses, and the ability to inspire a desire in others to mimic that look.

It’s not easy to find someone who fits both those descriptions.

“People who are celebrities now aren’t people we want to emulate. There’s a big difference between Kate Moss and Paris Hilton,” Miss Steele says. Even so, Miss Moss has more influence over designers than shoppers. She’s more of a muse than a legend in the making.

Miss Steele says she doesn’t think there will ever be a celebrity who will be as universally admired as were Miss Hepburn, Mrs. Onassis and Princess Grace.

“It’s a different world now. There’s no fashion word coming down from on high and we all say we want to look like it. There are too many mixed messages.”

Princess Diana was on her way but didn’t yet have a look that defined her, says James Mischka, half of the design duo Badgley Mischka, although plenty of people adored her clothes and were eager to adopt her style.

“Princess Diana’s wedding dress — her dress was the most knocked-off dress probably since Grace Kelly,” says Holly Alford, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s fashion design and merchandising department.

She appreciated couture, and she worked with designers to create clothes that fit her personality, Miss Alford observes.

However, it was the fusion of personality and impeccably designed garments that made Princess Grace, Mrs. Onassis and Miss Hepburn stars in the first place, she adds.

They also represented much more socially acceptable “ideal women” than blond bombshells Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, who were at their peak just a few years earlier.

“In the ‘50s, the blond bombshell was a look that women either couldn’t relate to or could only dream about,” Miss Alford says. “Jackie, Audrey and Grace — they were the women you were supposed to want to be like.”

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