Harriett Lake’s closet is every girl’s dream, and about as big as an average apartment. Racks upon racks of designer clothes dangle from a moving rod, and just a push of a switch sends them swinging gracefully left and right.
It’s a show on its own, but then there are the shoes, coordinated by color, and the hats — at last count there were about 1,600, with the total growing by the day. An air-conditioned garage houses more hats sorted again by color, and her delicate furs, which the cool air purrs on.
“I will get attached to something and wear it twice,” Lake said.
The Longwood resident is known around Winter Park, of course, for her wardrobe and famous hats, but also for her philanthropy. Lake, 90, came to Orlando from Miami with her late husband, Hymen Lake, a lawyer-turned-land developer in 1958. Some great investments, including buying some marshy land at what is now Sand Lake Road, helped earn the money Lake now happily gives away. She donates to more than 180 charities a year, including those to benefit children, curing cancer and the arts.
“Only the IRS knows, but it’s over seven figures every year,” Lake said.
Lately she’s given $1 million to the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, $100,000 to the Orlando Shakespeare Theater and $100,000 to the Orlando Ballet, just to name a few.
She sponsors Harriett’s Park Avenue Fashion Week, which kicks off its sixth year with an event in her honor — Harriett’s Happy Hour — on Aug. 14 at Luma on Park. The event sold out two weeks ago. Fashion Week continues in October, culminating with a runway show on Oct. 20.
Lake’s advocacy and generous donations have made the arts scene in Central Florida what it is today, said Shannon Lacek, the managing director for the Orlando Shakespeare Theater.
“Without her support things would be very, very different,” said Robert Hill, artistic director for the Orlando Ballet.
“She has made it a part of her life,” Lacek said. “It’s how she lives and breathes.”
But she said her motives are selfish. Lake said there wasn’t much art for her to love growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania, and now she gives to make sure it stays around. There’s nothing like watching the ballet, which she calls “wild and beautiful,” or watching as a story unfolds before her eyes at the theater.
“We’ve got a few actors and actresses in this town that bring to life stories beyond your imagination,” Lake said. “You’re transported into another world and think of things you’ve never thought about.
“[The arts] can change your life. The camaraderie of hundreds of people watching the same performance, sharing an experience, seeing, hearing, thinking the same thing all together.”
Winter Park will kick off Harriett’s Park Avenue Fashion Week with Harriett’s Happy Hour on Aug. 14 at Luma, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Tickets are sold out. Learn more about Fashion Week 2012 and buy tickets at parkavenuefashionweek.com
The beginning of a passion
Lake’s passion for the arts doesn’t come from her own drive to create art, except for a small stint as a tap dancer when she was 5, she jokes. But even though she won’t take claim to being an artist, it takes a great eye to see fashion and make it your own the way she does. Her love affair with clothes came at the young age of 5 or 6. The woman across the road got her grandchildren high-fashion duds from New York City and gave Lake the hand-me-downs. She remembers marveling over the detail and craftsmanship, even then. And she was hooked.
“She spared no expense,” Lake said.
The only time Lake took a hiatus from fashion was her time in the Marine Corps’ Women’s Reserve as a bookkeeper during World War II. She made a promise to herself after those two and a half years to never wear green again. She only broke that promise when she bought a vibrant green turban worn by Elizabeth Taylor, and she forgives herself for that one.
While she imagines the wardrobe of Beyonce would be her choice for a closet swap in her younger days — bare and wild has her name written all over it, and she loves a good mini dress. Today, Barbara Walters and Queen Elizabeth with her silk coats and lovely hats take her top spots. Lake never leaves home without one of her signature hats. Her favorite, made after one Sarah Jessica Parker wore in her wedding in the “Sex and the City” movie, with white tulle and a blue bird, is enough to transform her, it’s so special, she said. And there’s no way hats are a thing of the past.
“Girls love hats, are you kidding?” she said.
The one thing she won’t do for fashion, though, is head to the Internet. She’d be tormented by the beautiful pieces she didn’t buy, so she’d have to just buy everything that caught her eye.
“I wouldn’t dare get online, that’d be the end of me,” she said. “I can’t resist.”
But a good shopping spree can get her mind off anything — the three hip replacements, heart surgery, being 90, it all disappears.
“The minute I walk into a shop my adrenaline kicks in and I forget,” she said.
And it’s not just clothing or the arts that she loves — it’s people. She’s free and genuine with her compliments, and words like “gorgeous” and “flawless” aren’t just reserved for things. Her humor is what most say make her the woman she is.
Hill, with the Orlando Ballet, said just thinking about her gives him the kind of smile you get when you’re about to laugh, she makes him so happy. He’s never — and many may agree — met anyone quite like Harriett Lake.
“She’s a unique … genuine, authentic, no-nonsense, says what she thinks, thinks what she says woman,” Hill said.