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Capturing the elusive nature of style

Barbara King can be reached at barbara.king@latimes.com.

Late on a midweek morning , Tiffany & Co. hums with Rodeo Drive consumers, a delectable incongruity of the blue-blazer and bared-navel brigades, the coifed and the careless, the blossoming and the doddering, the bejeweled and the unadorned, the local and the exotic.

They take no notice of a distinctly noticeable man -- dapper, courtly, commanding in stature -- who goes from display to display removing and returning fine porcelain and weighty silver as he delivers his private tutorial, in the manner of a benevolent English don, on Tiffany design.

In large measure, John Loring is the reason these customers come here in droves, although they probably don’t know it -- even if they’re purchasing one of his own designs like his instantly recognizable Swing clock or a piece of his Roman-numeral “Atlas” jewelry, a Tiffany signature.

Loring is also the tastemaker -- a description he would be loath to bestow on himself -- whose discerning eye and business acumen have propelled the company’s sales from $70 million to more than $2 billion since he took over 25 years ago. A former painter and printmaker, Loring applies his artistic sensibility to making decisions about what does or does not get the Tiffany seal of approval. Regarding those decisions he is quick, sure and -- the numbers would suggest -- unerring.

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The elegance of simplicity, high quality and great craft are the principles from which he has “never moved a micron” in designing objects, redesigning classic ones, working with other designers such as Elsa Peretti and Paloma Picasso. The gloppily ornamental, the show-offy, the unimaginatively derivative -- not for Loring.

He has come to Los Angeles from his home base in New York for a schedule-clogged three days of back-to-back events. There are lectures on style to give to the Fashion Council of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the California Club. There’s a signing of his two latest books: “Tiffany Timepieces” and “Greetings From Andy [Warhol]: Christmas at Tiffany’s,” featuring drawings and paintings the Pop artist created that were produced as Christmas cards. And there will be a charity fundraiser to co-host with Priscilla Presley; a cocktail party for a book of celebrity photos, for which he wrote the introduction; and meetings with staff and magazine stylists.

At 64, Loring is preternaturally energetic, like a college boy on spring break.

Downstairs at Tiffany, he lingers at a jewelry case with two gold-and-enamel “Jackie” bracelets designed in 1963 for Mrs. Kennedy. A Texas ranching heiress, he is amused to relate, uses six of them as napkin rings at, let’s see, $15,000 or so each. I have to admit it has a certain demented panache, a Gilded Age gesture only a gal with too much money (and too many Jackie bracelets) can pull off. It calls to mind a comment Loring has made in another context, certainly not about this woman, on whom he does not pass judgment: “Just flinging money is not real luxury.”

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One might understandably assume Loring would be a shade uppity, but he is remarkably democratic and unpatronizing, giving off not a whiff of snobbery where taste is concerned. That’s why I’m here, in fact, not to talk about Tiffany per se, but to find out what the man with the renowned eye -- described in a New Yorker profile as “the latest in a long line of arbiters of American taste” -- has to say about the subject, and about style and design in general.

Over breakfast the next morning, Loring has abandoned his professorial, curatorial stance and relaxed into anecdotal mode. His conversation is copiously peppered with the names of the famous and infamous who have, from childhood, been an intimate part of his life -- a life usually referred to as charmed. Those names aren’t dropped so much as they’re employed with natural ease to illustrate points or to color a narrative. In this case, he is trying to give credit where it’s due to his teachers and mentors.

He was exposed to European culture early on by his adventure-loving mother, who bought residences in Venice, Paris and Greece after divorcing his English-born father. “Real estate was nothing back then,” he says by way of dispelling any notion that he was overly privileged.

From Paloma Picasso, a friend of almost four decades, and Anna Piaggi, fashion editor of Italian Vogue, he learned “tons of things” about freely expressing your personal style. “Style comes from a generosity of spirit,” he says. “They used their clothes and accessories to perk up people’s moods.”

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His best friend, the late film director Joseph Losey, told him, “ ‘Keep your eyes open.’ He understood the role of visuals,” Loring says, “that light and reflection have a great deal to do with how we see things.”

Hotelier Giuseppe Cipriani got him started in business when he hired the young artist to run an Yves St. Laurent boutique in the Hotel Cipriani. “Thus began my retail career. I was the merchant of Venice.” From St. Laurent, “one of the great perfectionists in the world, I learned never to compromise on quality. Never.”

Thirty-five years ago, Paige Rense, editor of Architectural Digest, pushed Loring to write for her after meeting him at a black-tie dinner, even though he’d never written about interior design. She’d do anything, she said, for a man who’d wear red sneakers with a dinner jacket. (“It was raining, and I didn’t want to ruin my good black shoes.”) He still contributes.

The late fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert insisted that Loring get that job! from Tiffany’s retiring design director, Van Day Truex. Truex took him to lunch and told him that if he thought they were going to talk about design, he was dead wrong. They were going to talk about food. “He said, ‘If you’re not interested in food you have no sensuality, and anyone who isn’t sensual can have nothing to do with design. If you don’t have a feel for what people do with things, how would you know how to design them?” Having learned to cook in Paris, Loring got that job.

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Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis shaped his book-writing venture as editor of the first 6 1/2 of his books. The one she was most interested in was on weddings, because she thought women should be liberated from the constraints of the countdown and checklists. Ignore the rules and do it the way you want. “Jackie taught me what was real and what was not real,” says Loring, who proved it by leaving Fifth Avenue to live in Hell’s Kitchen. “People thought she was the ultimate material girl, but she had no interest in things as things. What interested her was how things were used. ‘Look what she did with that,’ she’d say. Not ‘Look at what it is.’ ”

Taste, in Loring’s view, is about nothing more than honesty, directness, openly liking what you look at and perceiving its quality. “Money has nothing to do with it. You see people from all walks of life who have great style.”

Style has to reflect who you really are and not who you wish you were. “All you need to ask yourself is, ‘Do I like it? Does it give me pleasure?’ You have to strip away the cobwebs of everything you’ve learned from family, friends, the media -- what I call received opinion. You’ve got to have a gut reaction to things. People with real style function according to their own emotional responses. They buy what they like, not what they’re supposed to like. They don’t give a hoot what other people think.”

The first great enemy of taste is pretension, he believes: “The imitation of another style is not taste at all.” The second, “the big undertow that pulls it down,” is sentimentality -- living in the past, not moving forward. “It’s not taste when you have a Park Avenue apartment filled with impeccable Louis XVI pieces that belong in a French palace. What utter nonsense. This is 2004.”

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He also believes that everyone is born with a sense of harmony, proportion, order -- and of who they are -- that gets corrupted by received opinion. “I have a friend in England, a builder, who’s totally clear about what he likes and doesn’t like,” he says. “I’ll catch myself explaining a piece of furniture or a building and its role in society, and he’ll say, ‘That may be true, but it’s bloody ugly.’ That’s it, you see. Bloody ugly. What more do you need to know?”


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