Eleanor Lambert: A Charmed Life

A supermodel famously once said, “You need charm to open doors and charm will keep those doors open.” Fashion warrior Eleanor Lambert funneled charm, passion, determination, and a lot more into her indefatigable desire to bring worldwide attention to American designers and artists.

For a significant part of the 20th century, Eleanor Lambert was the driving force behind American fashion and instrumental in putting the American aesthetic on the fashion map internationally. From founding New York Fashion Week to creating the Council of Fashion Designers Association (CFDA) to inventing the Best Dressed List, Eleanor Lambert used determination, intelligence, and charm to get the job done.

Biographer John Tiffany in his biography Still Here: Eleanor Lambert brilliantly captures the inimitable spirit of a woman who dedicated her life to promoting American fashion. Fashion Reverie was privileged to interview John Tiffany about his book and his long relationship with Eleanor Lambert until her death in 2002. This rich and revealing interview will be presented in two parts.

Part 1

Fashion Reverie: How did you come to work for Eleanor Lambert as her assistant?

John Tiffany: My relationship with Eleanor Lambert goes back to high school, believe it or not. I had a speech teacher who encouraged me to do a speech about style and fashion because he knew I loved clothes. The speech had to be a speech about a fashion anniversary of some kind. My high school librarian directed me to all these WWD articles and one of them was celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Grande Divertissement à Versailles of which Eleanor Lambert was the organizer of that iconic event. So that was my first introduction to Eleanor Lambert.

A college a good friend of mine, Jane LaForce’s, brother, John,  had a fashion PR firm in NYC,  and he told me that Eleanor was looking for an assistant and within a short period of time I was working for Eleanor Lambert. That is it in a nutshell.

FR: What was it like working for her?

John Tiffany: When I started working for Eleanor Lambert she was 92 years old. She was very hard working, even at that advanced age. At that time she had about 20 clients. She always went to lunch at noontime, at places at La Cirque, and then she would go home take a nap because later she had to go out and do social networking and market her clients at night.

FR: What type of events at that advanced age did she attend to promote her clients?

John Tiffany: She would attend store openings, cocktail parties, balls, magazine parties, client parties.  She was out every night, and if there was not a party or event to attend, she would have dinner parties for clients and friends at her home.

FR: Why did you feel the need to write a book about Eleanor Lambert?

John Tiffany: One of the things that people don’t fully understand about Eleanor Lambert is that she was a publicist, but not a publicist in the way we think of some publicists today. She was not really trying to promote herself.

Eleanor loved talented people and she would represent a talented person even if they didn’t have any money. She was the first and only publicist for artists for many decades. She helped found the Museum for Modern Art which was her way of trying to promote her clients. She wanted to be well known enough so that people would also become interested in her clients.  Eleanor Lambert created what we now know as New York Fashion Week, and that made her a very powerful person behind the scenes.

She founded New York Fashion Week, then called Press Week, in 1944 and invited 53 local editors of magazines and newspapers to Press Week. By including local editors in the first fashion week, Eleanor formed a lifelong bond with publications and editors who were indebted to her because she helped turn these local editors into well-informed fashion editors. She ingeniously understood that her range needed go beyond traditional fashion magazines—Harper’s Bazaar and Voguethat at the time were not very interested in American designers. After WWII, Europe was devastated by the war, so Eleanor Lambert was contacted to help start fashion weeks in major European capitals.

So, people know about Eleanor and some of her accomplishments, but most don’t know the breath and width of her influence or her legacy. Because I was around her so much in her later years and she would tell me all these great stories about her life, I felt I could detail and connect all the dots in the life of this great woman of fashion.

FR: What is most misunderstood about Eleanor Lambert?

John Tiffany: People sometimes assumed that she was controlling and had too much power. But in the context of the times, in her day, she was the only fashion publicist, and she wielded a lot of influence because she really was one of a kind. And she did not misuse her influence. She was powerful but she used that power in service to her clients and promoting American fashion.

FR: Even though she was a tough woman, she was extremely generous. Could you talk about that duality?

John Tiffany: When I decided to write this book I didn’t want to write a book in the vein of “Devil Wears Prada.” As a New Yorker and fashion industry professional a salacious book about her life didn’t carry a lot of weight. I wanted to concentrate more on her accomplishments and how her motivation and point of view helped bring American fashion to the forefront.

She was a very tough business woman, but she helped people who were genuinely talented.  She felt talent alone was enough. Nowadays, people mostly help people if there is something in it for them or there is an exchange of money.

Images courtesy of John Tiffany

FR: Many people assumed that Lambert was extremely wealthy, but she was not, could you talk about that?

John Tiffany: Eleanor Lambert was not wealthy, but she was very comfortable. She lived in a beautiful apartment that was left to her by her husband who died when he was 53. She kept working after his death, but she never made millions of dollars as a publicist. Eleanor really believed in promoting talent. If you were talented and you couldn’t pay her, she would take you on as a client, free of charge.  Eleanor never really cared about making money. She went to a fortune teller when she was young and was told that she would have an amazing life and live like royalty but never be rich.

She had wonderful clothes, jewelry and great pieces of art because she represented artists and designers like Salvador Dali, Noguchi, Halston, and Oscar de la Renta. She was rich in life experiences, but not financially wealthy.

—William S. Gooch

 

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