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Fashion's Missing Link Rediscovered by Swing Set

Trends: Collectors talk about them off the cuff while aficionados young and old wear them to seal a dressed-up look.

June 25, 1998|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Pat Kelly received a pair of cuff links from her father when she was 14 that started her on a lifelong crusade to snap up every one she could find.

Forty-four years later, Kelly has amassed at least 25,000 pairs of the shirt-cuff closers. The Orange resident has cuff links adorned with virtually every letter of the alphabet, every animal, every sport, every automobile and every profession.

She has ones that tell time, tiny battery-operated street lamp ones that light up and oil-well shaped ones that don't spout but tower a couple of inches high--huge by cuff link standards. She has ones made of human hair, false teeth, animal's teeth, doll's eyes and genuine glass eyes.

"I have cuff links for almost everything," she says. "My goal was to have something nobody else had in the world."

Others have started to share Kelly's appreciation. After falling out of favor in the 1970s, cuff links have made a comeback. Men who never considered them before are sporting both the vintage links Kelly covets as well as new models on the market.

Aficionados say cuff links add a distinctive, finishing touch to standard business attire.

"Wearing cuff links puts you one step above most of the guys out there--the basic schmoes. When you see a guy with cuff links you think, 'That guy really knows how to dress,' " says David Heil, owner and president of David Rickey & Co., a custom men's clothier in Costa Mesa. "Putting on cuff links is an extra step. That's what deters many people from wearing them. They're a little bit of a hassle."

But to him, they're worth it.

When Heil has to go directly from work to a fancy dinner or semiformal event, he likes to change into a dressy tie, a shirt with French cuffs and an elegant pair of cuff links.

"People will appreciate that you took the extra time to dress up," he says.

Gene Klompus, founder of the National Cuff Link Society in Chicago, attributes the revival to the growing dissatisfaction with business casual attire. It's a quiet rebellion against dressed-down Fridays.

Klompus says Ralph Lauren helped foster the revival in fall 1995, when the company began running ads showing guys wearing cuff links.

"That was the catalyst," he says. "Many young people had never worn cuff links before."

That there's an entire society devoted to cuff links with its own quarterly magazine (the Link) and Web site (www.cufflink.com) is proof enough of their growing popularity.

Many of the 8,000 members attend an annual convention in Chicago (Aug. 15-16), where a prize goes to the most unusual pair: Last year's winning links were tiny typewriters that came in a miniature Remington typewriter box.

Jim Olarte, owner of Locals Only vintage clothing store in Laguna Beach, keeps an eye out for any unusual ones.

"I have 10 great pairs. One of my favorites are two-sided squares with a geometric Art Deco design in blue, yellow and red enamel. When I've got a special occasion, I go right to those."

Cuff links have become so cool that Olarte has trouble keeping them in his store. The novelty styles go fast.

"We've had little martini glasses, exploding bowling pins, taillights from '50 Impala, enamel deco ones and ivory ones," Olarte says. Most sell for $9 to $40.

"More people are asking for them because of the swing phenomenon. They're dressing up and wanting to look snazzier."

Vintage ones were plentiful until the early 1980s, when the price of gold prompted many people to melt down their old jewelry. Others disassembled cuff links to use in crafts projects.

With more buyers and collectors deleting the supply, the days when you could buy a bag of them at a thrift store are over, Kelly says.

Kelly usually has several dozen for sale at her Happy Time Antiques store in Orange. Her inventory recently included ones adorned with computer parts, bowling pins, miniature door knockers, Spiro Agnew, and tiny dice. Most pairs sell for about $20.

Still, she jealously guards her personal collection, which includes ones from the estate of Rudy Vallee. Most of them were given to her as gifts. She has a Baggie filled with ones from a barber, featuring miniature razors and scissors, that were given to her after he died.

"People would give me their entire collections. They'd say, 'My husband or father passed away' and they'd give me a box of cuff links. Or I'd be at a garage sale and they'd tell their husband, 'John, go get those cuff links you don't wear anymore.' "

Kelly would write movie stars and presidents saying she was a collector and did they have a pair to spare? That's how she got ones from Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, Roy Rogers and Frank Sinatra, often with caricatures of the celebrity. Reagan, Kennedy, Bush, Nixon have all sent cuff links.

Klompus, who says Kelly's collection is one of the largest, has a few more pairs--36,000 at last count. Several date back to the 1600s--about the time cuff links first became a fashion statement.

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