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Playing Chessy

The late Chessy Rayner bedazzled Bill Blass, astounded Arnold Scaasi, and was admired by just about everyone else as a style icon. With her trademark look -- daring color, ornate patterns, rich jewels -- back on fashion's agenda, we pay homage to a woman whose sense of style was as playful as it was perfect.

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"Sometimes women who aren't what you'd call very pretty develop great style," says Kenneth Jay Lane, the jewelry designer. "And Chessy had style."

Chessy -- Chesbrough Lewis Hall Rayner -- was famous for it. She wore color, she wore caftans, she pioneered the concept of mixing high and low, and she famously declared that there'd be nothing more divine than to decorate her Stanford White Southampton house entirely from Sears, Roebuck. "Not everything has to be refined," she once told a reporter. "That's too easyand too boring. I like amusing things, funny things, offbeat things. In fact, if anything, I wish my taste were even more offbeat."

Born in Ohio in 1931 to a famous society beauty, she had a gardenia-scented youth, marked with finishing school, debutante balls, and a marriage to a handsome stockbroker. She was, to say the least, connected: lunches at the Colony, weekends in Southampton, vacations spent lounging by Oscar de la Renta's pool in Santo Domingo. Yet Rayner wanted never to be dismissed as a professional eater of lunch. "I'm not a society person," she explained once to the Daily News. "I work for a living. I'm a decorator. That's how I pay the rent."

Before her death from lung cancer in 1998, Rayner distinguished herself on a number of fronts. She worked for Ladies' Home Journal andGlamour before becoming a fashion editor at Vogue. In 1967, she joined forces with her friend Mica Ertegun and founded MAC II, a decorating agency that took on, among other things, the apartments of Bill Blass and Arnold Scaasi. "Not everything had to be a million dollars,"Ertegun explains of the pair's aesthetic. "If you have good taste, you can find good things anywhere."

No matter what she was doing, however, Rayner looked great, mixing high-Waspstyle -- well-cut suits, A-line skirts, crisp blouses -- with the ethnic bohemianism that colored so much of the sixties. "When she was having chemotherapy, well, nobody wore a turban better than she did," says Lane. "I said to her, 'Chesbrough, you should always wear a turban.' And she said,' Don't I know it.' "

Rayner was one of the first New Yorkers to wear the swirling psychedelia of Zandra Rhodes and was hopelessly devoted to the draped, Grecian couture of Madame Grès. "You needed a diagram to figure those things out," says Nan Kempner, "but Chessy always pulled it off. It was innate with her." She never threw anything out, so the permutations were endless. During the eighties, she'd pull out old Rhodes, mining for "vintage" in her own closet.

Lars Nilsson, creative director at Bill Blass, loves to visit the archives for pictures of Chessy. "I love her mix of bold jewels or embroidery. In fashion, it's great when people embrace your designs and clothing, but it can help you move forward, too, to see that Chessy Rayner bought that skirt or that blouse."


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