Classic looks, classy style gave her icon status

Fashion: The naturally elegant Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, 33, wore simple lines with telling grace.

July 20, 1999|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

Like Audrey Hepburn and Princess Diana before her, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy had the looks and the look.

Anyone searching for a modern style hero found dazzling salvation in Bessette Kennedy, 33, believed dead along with her husband John F. Kennedy Jr., and sister Lauren Bessette, after a plane crash last weekend.

"She had great dignity in the way she dressed," says Linda Wells, editor of Allure. "It was very pure. It lacked ostentation and pretention."

Yesterday, Women's Wear Daily mourned the loss felt by the fashion world, which adored Bessette Kennedy's patrician bearing and exquisite taste.

"She chooses simple, severe looks that not everyone would wear," Gucci designer Tom Ford told WWD. "She knows how to set off her beauty with clothes. That's a rare gift."

"She has the look of the '90s," Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld was quoted as saying. "She is not a label girl. Everything that she wore looked fabulous on her."

She had all the ingredients of a fashion icon: Size 6, 6 feet tall, a flawless porcelain complexion, and shimmering blond hair, almost always sleekly pulled back. The swan-necked heiress to Camelot appeared effortlessly aristocratic, a result of growing up in the privileged circles of Greenwich, Conn.

If anyone was prepared to carry on the style legacy of JFK Jr.'s late mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, it was the graceful Bessette Kennedy.

"She was about more than just wearing clothes," Wells says. "There was an emotional resonance as well."

Shortly after she wed JFK Jr. in 1996, fashion world luminaries were quick to praise her.

"She's going to be a style icon, no doubt," gushed Patrick McCarthy of WWD. "Carolyn has fabulous modern style," noted Vogue editor Anna Wintour.

Wells describes Bessette Kennedy's look as "American style elevated to the highest level."

She made statements that were simple and always elegant. Neutral suits, plain black dresses, black leather jackets, loafers on sock-free feet. Her angular face was adorned with little more than classic red lipstick. And, her hair, naturally light brown, was transformed to glimmering flaxen perfection by New York stylist Brad Johns, "The King of Blondes."

Her look has been described as "throwaway chic" -- the kind of style that mixes a Gap T-shirt with a Calvin Klein jacket. Designer Michael Kors lauded her for expertly mixing high and low couture, grunge and glam, into a winning, ultra-modern aesthetic cocktail.

Known as CBK, she spawned a multitude of fashion clones throughout the country, striving to emulate her clean, cool, casual look.

Association with her was coveted in the designer world. Narciso Rodriguez's profile skyrocketed when she wore one of his creations for her wedding -- a simple, sexy white column dress with draped neckline. Such famed couture names as Prada and Yohji Yamamoto were also staples of her celebrated wardrobe.

Bessette Kennedy's instinct for chic was nurtured at Calvin Klein. In 1988, she began working at the designer's boutique in Boston. She had just graduated from Boston University's School of Education and also worked briefly as a model.

She was quickly promoted to Klein's New York headquarters, where she was a personal shopper for celebs from Annette Bening to Diane Sawyer, before becoming a publicist.

Bessette Kennedy was the personification of the designer's minimalist glamour.

But it wasn't just what she wore, it was the way she wore it.

She was a walking camera-magnet, whether at tony New York functions or simply strolling down the street. Yet she shunned the paparazzi, never manipulating her attractiveness for the sake of exposure.

Although her time on the public runway was short, her image is likely to linger.

"She had extraordinary influence," Wells says. "We didn't get to see what she was going to do next."

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