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'Come for the quips but stay for the coats': the enduring style of Fran Lebowitz

Morwenna Ferrier
·5-min read

Pretend It’s a City is not a fun watch. It should be. A Netflix docuseries about the writer and Manhattan socialite Fran Lebowitz complaining about New York? The definition of fun. Yet, watching Lebowitz wander around pre-pandemic Manhattan in a giant overcoat and taupe scarf, scowling at the city in all its mask-free, lattice-shaped grandeur, it is hard to stop thinking about how painful an experience it is now that the city – and Lebowitz within it – is out of reach.

Lebowitz is not a fashion icon, but she is a style icon. Embodying the sort of intellectual New York world she covered in her 70s column for Andy Warhol’s magazine Interview, she might find the idea amusing. But we will never know, because she will never read this, since she doesn’t have a phone, or a computer. Her only Tweet, posted over a decade ago, reads drily: “thank you for following me you people are uber sweet”.

Still, as a self-confessed coat-loving materialist, she would be hard-pressed to deny it. “I hate money … but I love things … I love clothes,” she says in one episode, playing with the sleeve of a crisp, white men’s shirt from Hilditch & Key. In another, she launches into the origin story of her gold cufflinks made by Alexander Calder – the sculptor famed for his kinetic wire mobiles – which are probably worth about £50,000. Later, she wonders why she was refused a mortgage.

Lebowitz has worn the same clothes for the past 50 years. With the exception of the pastel blue and cream sweaters she wore in her 20s – but gave away because they seemed “childish” – and every blue moon a pair of Manolo Blahniks, her uniform rarely deviates. It consists of the following: pinstripe blazers and broad-shouldered overcoats by Anderson & Sheppard, a Savile Row tailor whose only previous female client was Marlene Dietrich; Cuban-heeled cowboy boots, possibly by Miron Crosby (although she won’t tell), initially worn because of an injury, but also because they elevate her from 5ft 4in to 5ft 6in; many pairs of Levi’s 501 jeans with the hems ironed up; Hilditch & Key men’s shirts; and, of course, the tortoiseshell spectacles, originally by Calvin Klein but copied by a million hipsters. This led, hilariously but inevitably, to Lebowitz collaborating with the US glasses retailer Warby Parker.

If it seems reductive to talk about her coats instead of her caustic wit, blame her addiction to cashmere. Martin Scorsese, who co-produced the series and interviewed Lebowitz, knows this. He lets the camera scan her from head to toe as she takes in the “singular sensibility” of Grand Central station, or sips Diet Coke from a goblet at the Players members club, or walks over the 1964 Panorama of the City of New York at Queens Museum, those boots in protective shoe coverings.

Netflix indulges it, too, having produced a promotional poster of the show in which Lebowitz’s face becomes a doodle haircut and glasses. How many people, aside from Ziggy Stardust, John Waters and Anna Wintour, are so familiar they can be successfully reduced to a cave drawing?

And Lebowitz knows it. For every quip about the superfluousness of art on subways, or people carrying yoga mats, she has an anecdote about clothes. A favourite involves finding herself front row at the 1971 Muhammad Ali v Joe Frazier fight – the one where Frank Sinatra pretended to be a photographer to get ringside. She tells Spike Lee that she had no idea what was happening inside the ring because she was interested only in the “fantastic” fur coats and hats of the attendees.

Whether showing Lebowitz with Betsey Johnson, wearing a dinner jacket to the sequin glamour of Studio 54, or suited and booted on stage with Toni Morrison, the series is a love letter to her sartorial triumphs. But it also shows how they have grown richer with age. Since the 00s, Lebowitz has appeared (dressed) in the 2016 Pirelli calendar (“I thought it was a joke”), in a cream dinner jacket at the CFDA awards (dinner jackets are her red carpet go-to) and on the front row of fashion shows for Carolina Herrera.

Lebowitz used to be a fixture of fashion week, too. “I’m always interested in clothes, plus there are beautiful girls,” she says. “It was a perfect thing to me. What could be more perfect than a fashion show?” Now, she is not so sure. “I’ve always been interested in clothes… which is why I don’t go to fashion week any more, because they’re not about clothes,” Lebowitz told AnOther magazine last spring.

Fashion advice remains part of her repartee – no to the small glasses trend as seen on Kim Kardashian, yes to the cartoonishly large Jacquemus straw hat of 2017. On menswear, she says she would sooner see a man approach her with a grenade than wearing a pair of shorts. And as for yoga pants, it’s a firm no.

Lebowitz loves a good coat but she also sees clothes as an economy and a metaphor. From skewering Donald Trump’s aesthetic as “a poor person’s idea of a rich person”, to comparing the relationship between Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren’s customer base to the skyscrapers of New York and Dubai, she understands the role New York has to play in it.

Pretend It’s a City is a pitch-perfect dream of Warholian parties and drinking with friends, soundtracked by Lebowitz’s epigrams, which stack up like the hot dog buns of the Manhattan vendor she passes. But it is also a celebration of her style, in all its well-tailored, sensible, formality. Come for the quips, stay for the coats. If it seems strange to feel homesick for a Savile Row blazer, it will make sense after watching this.