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Vanessa Williams, Senator Chris Dodd and Carlos Falchi on His Encounter With Jackie O

LunchAtMichaelsThey don’t call this “Upfront Week” for nothing. It was clear from the SRO dining room at Michael’s today everyone who’s anyone (at least among certain circles) wanted to be up front at 55th and Fifth. Of course, this delicate dance was pulled off with aplomb by the clever and infinitely gracious Loreal Sherman. We don’t know how she does it. After all, at Michael’s you are where you seat. TV titans (Matt Blank, Steve Mosko, Henry Schlieff), actress Vanessa Williams (rocking a hippie look and some cool shades) and even a U.S. senator (Chris Dodd) were all high up in the pecking order as the usual suspects filled in the blanks. We were thrilled to score our favorite table (7) for a fun-filled and fascinating confab with iconic designer Carlos Falchi, his incredible daughter Kate Falchi and trusted friend and adviser Mickey Ateyeh — who, incidentally, happens to know every single person in the city and did her best to introduce us to anyone who walked by our table today.

Front: Diane Clehane and Carlos Falchi; Back: Kate Falchi and Mickey Ateyeh

Front: Diane Clehane and Carlos Falchi; Back: Kate Falchi and Mickey Ateyeh

I first met the Brazilian-born designer in this very room (where else?) when Mickey introduced us. But I’d certainly known of his work for many years. While the word “legend” is as commonplace as tech startups these days, Carlos is one of the few designers today who is actually more than worthy of the moniker. His signature handbags and accessories in exotic skins have always been manufactured in New York City and have earned him legions of fans that range from the ladies who lunch of the Upper East Side and in those cities in Texas where big spenders rule (“Those ladies love their handbags!”) to their fashion-savvy granddaughters. But lest you think that Carlos is the dowagers’ designer of choice, think again. His roots go back to his days of making hand-stitched leather clothing for Miles Davis, Tina Turner and Mick Jagger. And his rock-and-roll sensibility is very much a part of his individualistic ethos today. Before our lunch he’d just come from a meeting with HSN executives, during which he was formulating plans to be part of the shopping network’s designer collective of limited-edition pieces being produced as an homage to the Rolling Stones’ 50th anniversary.

Besides being a design visionary with his focus on one-of-a-kind, highly specialized designs for his discriminating luxury clients, Carlos was also a pioneer in selling designer accessories at affordable prices on television. “I was doing it when everybody was afraid,” he recalls of his earliest days when he first sold on QVC. “Mindy [Grossman, HSN president] has done an amazing job. She is doing smaller quantities and everything has more of a collector’s feel.” His line for HSN, Chi by Falchi, which has been sold on the network for 10 years also has its share of famous fans. When his “very good friend” Cher called in to the network during one appearance and the operators didn’t believe it was the ageless songstress, she rang him up on his cell phone so she could sing his praises to fellow viewers.

Today, by the sheer number of people who stopped by our table to pay their respects to Carlos (I lost count by the time our coffee arrived), it’s clear he treats every client like a celebrity. His signature line, Carlos Falchi Couture, is the unique designer brand that is not part of some big conglomerate’s marketing machine that is more about image than actual design, something his daughter Kate Falchi, president of his company, makes abundantly clear. “I saw things changing in department stores a few years ago,” said Kate, who explained that she noticed a shift in consumer patterns back when she first joined the family business in 2008. “The luxury customer really wants something special and if you show up at a lunch and everyone has the same handbag what’s really special about that?” With Kate at the helm since 2012, the company has sharpened its focus on custom designs and special limited-edition pieces like their newest Hamptons Collection, which features signature totes and clutches all hand painted on canvas. The gorgeous pieces, which I saw up close and personal at lunch, will be featured in a print campaign photographed by Steven Haas in several niche magazines, including DuJour, in the coming months.  Both Carlos and Kate literally painted the individual bags. “When a woman wears one of these bags, she is literally carrying a work of art,” explained Kate. Clever, no?

This emphasis on unique pieces for the true fashion collector is a boon for business. “The luxury retailers have stopped taking special orders and they’ve lost the top tier of customers, which is a great thing for us. When I asked the Princess of Dubai [Maryam Mohammed Rashid Al Maktoum] why she isn’t shopping in those stores, she told me: ‘I want what I want.’ We’re happy to give it to her.” Said Carlos: “The business is much more about bespoke pieces now. I have learned a lot from my ladies.”

But this is something that has always been part of the Carlos Falchi brand. “I hate the word ‘reinvention,’” said Kate. “It’s so lame. Working together with my father, we’ve just added a new dimension to the company.” Smart and savvy Kate works closely with important specialty retailers, including Stanley Korshak, Julian Gold, Fred Segal and The Ritz Carlton, whose resorts are doing a “robust” business in selling Carlos’ bag and accessories to jet-setters. The company has also achieved the impossible with 100 percent sell-through on Gilt Groupe’s luxury shopping site during certain sales.

I was fascinated by their father-daughter dynamic — even more so when Kate told me that before joining the family firm, the Trinty college graduate did the requisite two-year stint working in the ”real world,” at her father’s request. ”I think it’s really important that my children learn to work with other people,” said Carlos. (His other daughter, Juliet Falchi, is a rising star at Estee Lauder, where she works in product development for Jo Malone.) Kate interned on the Hill for Senator John McCain, working as a researcher on immigration and campaign finance reform issues. She was asked, but declined, to stay on to work on his presidential campaign. “I sent her out to go to work and now she’s my boss,” said the clearly proud papa to which Kate replied: “He’s my toughest employee.”

I could have spent the entire afternoon listening to Carlos recount his most colorful encounters with the famous and infamous (but, alas, duty calls). He left me with this fascinating recollection of  his meeting with none other than Jacqueline Kennedy when the conversation turned to the revelation that there is a cache of letters she wrote to a priest in Ireland about her fledgling relationship and, later, her marriage to John F. Kennedy soon to be put up for auction. During her Jackie O period, the former first lady paid a visit to Carlos’ 23rd Street studio in the late 70s. “I got a call that Mrs. Onassis wanted some bags. I thought she would send someone. When I opened the door, there was Jackie with Lee [Radziwill, her sister], Tony Perkins and another lady. I had burlap on the windows, and I was covered with dye. She went around and in this small voice said, ‘I like this one and that one.’ They wanted everything now. So I put the 14 pieces — my original samples — together and they took everything. I had to start over and remake everything.” Maybe he could buy them back if some long-lost pal puts the pricey purses up for auction one day. Stranger things have happened.

Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:

1. Bookseller Glenn Horowitz and five pals

2. Nikki Haskell celebrating her birthday with Judy Price (Loved that necklace, which Judy fashioned from some authentic war medals) and another well-dressed gal we didn’t get to meet.

3. Soethby’s Eva Mohr

4. Agent  Sam Haskell and actress Vanessa Williams, who, upon meeting Carlos, also told him she was a fan of his designs.

5. Herb Siegel and Frank Gifford

6. Renown architect Lord Norman Foster and his charming wife, Elena Foster

7. Carlos Falchi, Kate Falchi, Mickey Ateyeh and yours truly

8. New York Social Diary‘s David Patrick Columbia, Blair Sabol and Jeffrey Hirsch

9. Star Jones, with, we hear, Magic Johnson‘s son

10. Peri Peltz looking oh so chic in black and white with ABC News’ Susan Mercandetti

11Steve Mosko and Showtime’s Matt Blank

12. Disovery ID’s Henry Schlieff with the New York Daily News columnist Linda Stasi (Nice to finally meet you!), her EIC Colin Myler and Discovery ID’s PR maven Jessica Nicola. Before the group sat down for their celebratory lunch, toasting the publication of the paperback edition of Linda’s latest book, The Sixth Station, I chatted with Linda and Colin about the gift that keeps on giving to the city’s tabloids aka Alec Baldwin. “I think he was jealous of the attention Jay Z was getting,” said Colin of the week’s dueling celebrities-behaving-badly stories. In case you’ve been living under a rock, Jay Z was the subject of identical headlines (“Cray-Z!”) from the Daily News and the Post yesterday when a tape of his elevator beatdown at the hands (and feet) of sister-in-law, Solange Knowles (sister of Beyonce) was leaked to TMZ. This morning’s cover story comes courtesy of the former star of 30 Rock, who was arrested and cuffed for riding his bicycle against traffic on Fifth Avenue. The Post, clearly oblivious to the charms of Alec’s wife, Hilaria Baldwin, who recently showed up at their Sixth Avenue offices to conduct an impromptu yoga session, gave the actor the full Andrea Peyser treatment, reporting that the actor was, once again, yielding his by-now-familiar battle cry: “Don’t you know who I am?” to the police officers that apprehended him. No word on whether this is the final straw that will send Baldwin and his family to the West Coast once and for all as he promised threatened in a cover story for New York magazine. How can we miss you if you won’t go away?

14. Agent Esther Newberg and Senator Chris Dodd, who stopped by our table to say hello. “My wife is an avid collector of your bags!” enthused the senator to Carlos after offering each of us a warm greeting. After just a few minutes with the charismatic Connecticut senator, it’s very clear why he’s had a long and storied career in national politics.

15. “Theater buff” Pat Schoenfeld and two well-heeled pals. It was greet to finally meet Pat after all these years. Cheers.

16. United Stations Radio Networks’ Nick Verbitsky and pals

17. Peter Price

18. Steven Ratner

20. Former New York City Council president Andrew Stein

21. Tech guru Shelly Palmer

22. Gigi Haber

24. Susan Duffy

25. PR maven Susan Magrino

26. Jackie Style author Pamela Keogh with producer Liz Aiello. I just had to ask Pam what she thought of this latest treasure trove of Jackie letters. “As a historian, I’m thrilled we get to read even snippets of her letters,” she told me. ”We have so few insights into what she actually thought.” Well, now we do. And how.

27. Jim Mitchell

28. Candia Fisher

29. The Wall Street Journal‘s David Sanford and Lewis Stein

81. PR princess Lisa Linden

82. My Greenwich neighbor jewelry designer Adria Haume

Faces in the crowd: PR maven Maury Rogoffrocking a great tan and some fabulous shoes (as usual) … the always-dapper Michael Atmore of Footwear News, The Paley Center’s Pat Mitchell and uber publicist Judy Twersky with Victoria Shaffer (daughter of Paul Shaffer) at separate tables in the Garden Room. And congratulations to Teri Agins who was feted at a ladies’ lunch yesterday by her BFF Joan Kron who writes those fascinating reports on plastic surgery for Allure. Also in attendance: Cathy Horyn, Suzy Slesin, Jane Berentson, Cynthia Crossen – all journos and most are former WSJ pals — and Teri’s sister, Genie Agins. The power gals were celebrating the completion of Teri’s new book. Hijacking the Runway: How Celebrities are Stealing the Spotlight from Fashion Designers due out in October from Gotham Books. A timely topic indeed, but if you ask us, there’s no putting the tooth paste back in the tube on that one.

Diane Clehane is a contributor to FishbowlNY. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Please send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.

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