Along with a 40-year friendship, Cornelia Guest and Dennis Basso share a decisive sense of style that has withstood that same amount of time.
While some image makers would turn a photo shoot into an hours-long endeavor, Guest and Basso needed merely minutes Saturday afternoon with a photographer. Her affinity for his designs isn’t feigned, as evidenced by the stalled start of an interview. Seated at a desk on the second floor of his Madison Avenue store and ready to get the conversation going, Basso called out, “Cornelia, where are you?” “Trying on clothes,” she explained, resurfacing in seconds.
Guest has served as muse of the spring collection and she will close the designer’s runway show Monday. “Great American families” was the starting point for Basso’s spring lineup, which plays up intergenerational dressing. Guest, who was dubbed the “Debutante of the Decade” in 1986 — a moniker that she considered tongue in cheek — qualified beyond her family’s lineage.
“What could have been better than to call one of my great friends, who is from such a great American family that has set such an amazing example. Your [late] mother [C.Z.] Guest was the quintessential arbiter of good taste and fashion,” Basso said.
The greatest change in fashion during that 40-year span is the misuse of “chic,” Guest said. “Everybody wants to be chic. So if one person wears a black skirt and says, ‘Don’t I look chic?’ [pretending to click a selfie] then everyone thinks that that black skirt is for them. Not true. So many people are trying to fit themselves into what they think is good. If you just stick with what looks good on you and makes you feel good, that — to me — is chic. The trends are not a good thing for all people.”
Basso added, “Fashion and trends evolve, change and rearrange, but good solid fashion remains. I’ve been wearing the same thing for the past 60 years. With a good blazer and khakis, or a nice well-cut pair of jeans with a white buttoned-down shirt and a pair of loafers, a man is home free. You just need a tuxedo and a navy suit and you’re ready to go.”
Guest still wears L.L. Bean shorts from 30 years ago, as well as even older ones that belonged to her mother. That inkling for classicism applies past practical choices. The timeless gown with a twist that Basso designed for her finale could have been worn by her mother to the 1955 Metropolitan Opera opening or more recently, the pair agreed. “When I went into business, I was interested in making clothes for the C.Z. Guests of the world. That’s who I wanted to dress. Here we are with the kids,” Basso said, laughing.
But far from being just a style-setter and stereotypical socialite, C.Z. Guest was a masterful gardener, New York Post columnist and consummate hostess with an equally adventurous circle of friends. In a Mainbocher dress, she wed Winston Frederick Churchill Guest, an international polo champion, at Ernest Hemingway’s Havana hacienda with the prized writer serving as best man. C.Z. Guest also launched a cashmere collection with the help of Adolfo.
Her daughter’s pursuits are also plentiful. Her acting credits include “Twin Peaks,” but the ongoing Screen Actors Guild strike made that aspect of her career off-limits. Highly committed to the Humane Society of New York, Guest has rescued a multitude of animals — including goats, mini donkeys, turkeys, numerous dogs and even a tortoise. “It’s work. It’s work,” she said.
Her signature line of vegan handbags and totes has disbanded but she is toying with the idea of introducing another one, as well as writing another book. Basso, meanwhile, is encouraging her to develop a collection for “the American woman, who wants to be a tomboy and still wear ballgowns,” Guest said.
Walking the runway Monday will not be a first for Guest, who modeled years ago, including a finale once with her friend Andy Warhol for the designer Stephen Sprouse. Another chum, Halston, taught her the tricks of the catwalk. “He’s the one who taught me how to walk one day. He didn’t like the way I walked. He said, ‘You walk like an elephant.’ He put me in these high-heeled shoes with straps and made me walk up and down the runway,” she recalled, impersonating his criticism of her complaining of sore feet. “’I don’t care. Beauty knows no pain. Get back up there.’”
Basso and Guest first met in 1983, when C.Z. took her then-ponytailed teenage daughter to the designer’s 1983 fashion show at The Regency Hotel. The high schooler and Basso were soon nightclubbing — Studio 54, Régine’s, Le Club. “We were kids,” Basso recalled, but wise enough to start the nights with “serious dinners” at legendary New York City haunts like 21 and Le Cirque. “We were playing in an adult world. We were sophisticated kids.” he said. “Well, you had to be because New York was so sophisticated at that time. That was the time in New York,” Guest said.
Beyond their camaraderie, Guest’s mother set the bar for a certain social set at that time. “What she thought about everything — clothing, fashion, entertaining — most women haven’t even figured out the first part of. She was the arbiter of all things fabulous,” Basso said.
As for what some would see as an unlikely bond between a tireless animal rescuer and a designer whose career started in fur, Guest said, “I am very committed to the Humane Society. I do not wear fur. I give Dennis an incredible amount of credit for doing a huge faux fur business on QVC [for 30 years]. He makes beautiful things in faux fur, which no one else, mind you, has been able to do. That’s really important because he’s giving people an out. I don’t think people are ever going to stop wearing fur because, ‘Hey, look, it’s beautiful. It’s warm.’ I get it. That’s just my opinion,” she said.
Taking an egalitarian approach to life, the mother-daughter duo were not at ease with the pomp of the Deb of the Decade event at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where participants paraded out with candles in hand before sitting in formation. After learning of the title in Eugenia Sheppard’s column, Guest said she “thought it was the funniest thing ever. I couldn’t have cared less.” Allowing how she thought it was wonderful, Guest said, “I did it because my father had just died and it was something that my mother wanted me to do.”
But that was only up to a certain point. “They wanted us to come out and sit in formation holding a candle. My mother came and got me and said, ‘You are not sitting on the ground in that beautiful dress. Let’s go.’ And we went to Studio 54.”
That mother-daughter maverick knack resonated with Basso, too, who likes nothing better than “a glamorous, sporty girl, who is not afraid to jump in the water and get your hair wet.” An accomplished equestrian, Guest said, “What I love is animals. I’m happiest in a barn or in a garden, cleaning stalls or picking carrots.“ (After learning that dogs are sometimes used for lab testing, Guest started rescuing them at a young age without her parents’ consent.)
Her daytime uniform consists of styles from Banana Republic, J. Crew, Isabel Marant and Madewell. For nights out, dresses from Dennis Basso, Carolina Herrera and Oscar de la Renta are favorites. As much as she loves and wears Wes Gordon-designed pieces for Carolina Herrera, Guest is always game to dig into her closet to find a dress from years ago such as the ones that she “literally stole out of Carolina’s closet.”
That self-assurance is another trait that Basso admires about Guest. Growing up amid cultural influencers like Warhol and Truman Capote, who were among her mother’s nearest and dearest, instilled a confidence in Guest to envision what could get done without being traditional. “So many people were doing so many different things. I thought it was OK to do anything. My parents were very much like that. My mother was not a helicopter mother by any stretch of the imagination. She said, ‘You’ve got to go live.’ I always knew she was there. She picked me up, when s–t happened but said, ‘You need to figure this out yourself.’”
When Warhol came to the Guest home for dinner one night, when she was four or five, Guest offered to show the artist her Jack Russell puppies. “We were upstairs coloring and my mother came up five times. Finally, she said, ‘Get downstairs. You have to have dinner with us.’ He asked, ‘Can I stay up here with Cornelia?’ She said, ‘Absolutely not.”
In time, she visited Warhol’s studio, which was known as The Factory, and befriended Ted Hughes, Mary Richardson and John Samuels like brothers and sisters. Another Warholian, Whitney Taylor, babysat Guest. Basso recalled how C.Z. welcomed people from all walks of life — “whether you were the richest or not the richest, young or old, intellectual or not.” Cornelia Guest added that she also learned accordingly from her “beautifully mannered and kind” father, who also talked to everyone.
Some might consider Guest, who was once dubbed a “celebutante,” as a precursor to being an influencer, but she does not. “When you grow up, it’s always the good, the bad, the ugly. Some choices are obviously better than others. I made some terrible choices that I’m embarrassed about. But what can I do about them? It’s a new day. Every day I say that if I can make one animal’s or one human’s life better, then I’m happy.”
In the ’80s, though, Guest’s style inspired others her age just as that happens today, Basso said. “What’s interesting and really a compliment to Cornelia was that she wasn’t aware that was happening. She wasn’t drinking her own Kool-Aid.”
“You can’t,” she interjected.
“That really makes it better, because it’s natural,” Basso said.