Until now. His new collection takes a high dive into that world, starting with its very obvious inspiration: textiles. Nicholas renders fabrics, from nubby herringbone tweeds to silky damasks, into shiny, textured rings and cuffs. He splices together, for instance, amethyst, lemon chrysoprase and 18-karat gold for a plaid-based bracelet pattern. But as lavish as that sounds, it’s actually a departure from the over-the-top statement pieces—a crab claw–shaped bracelet set with 2,000 precious stones, for example—for which he’s best known. “It’s a bit more simple,” says Nicholas. “I did this collection based on what I remember about my childhood, and I wanted to see it as I saw it then. There’s a simple, happy feeling to these pieces.”
While Proust had his tea-soaked madeleine to jog cherished memories, Nicholas has his bolts of cloth. “It wasn’t just the family fabrics,” he reminisces, “but going to Venice and [textile manufacturer] Rubelli’s with my father, shopping. I wanted to approach jewelry with those remembrances in mind.” To that end, the herringbone design recalls his childhood trips to Ireland (the family has a home there); the damask motif connects the dots to Fortuny fabrics his father used; and the tartan—well, anyone familiar with the Draper oeuvre knows she and, by extension, Carleton were mad for plaid.
It seems this is a time of serious reflection on Planet Varney. The new book, an in-depth monograph published by Pointed Leaf Press, covers the considerable scope of the senior Varney’s career, including his early beginnings as a Spanish and English teacher and his ascent, at age 26, to the helm of the Dorothy Draper company. To shed some light on the book, Carleton, 68, conducts his portion of this interview via telephone from a terrace in St. Croix that overlooks the Caribbean. He peppers his conversation with anecdotes from such diverse characters as singer Ethel Merman and politicos Jimmy Carter and Dan Quayle—all past clients of his. He also touches on his 20-odd-year stint as interior designer to Joan Crawford, one of the greatest influences on his career. Indeed, a section in his book is devoted to the MGM grande dame. Crawford, he adds, “actually wanted me to marry her daughter, Christina.” You know, the tell-all author of Mommie Dearest. (That relationship went no further than a couple of dates.)
Press the younger Varney about growing up in this star-filled galaxy, and he’s cagey. And what few celebrity tales he does divulge come scraped of any gloss. Meryl Streep, for instance, was merely the woman he sold corn to on the weekends at the Varney country home in Stanfordville, New York. “We’d fill a truck and park it,” he recalls. “And everybody would come by.” His other Streep story takes place at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris. Varney was 11, upset with his parents and “trying to get the concierge to check me into an orphanage.” The actress, who recognized him from his corn peddling, talked him out of it.