Eleanor Lambert: A Charmed Life, Part 2

Part Two

FR: You touched on this a little bit in Part 1, but could you elaborate more about how Eleanor Lambert started Press Week?

John Tiffany: Well, it is a little complicated how Press Week started.  Everyone knew that WWII was just around the corner, so the federal, state and local government, the International Ladies Garment Union and other manufacturers formed the New York Dress Institute to take advantage of the shopping habits of women when the male population was away in combat. Everything during wartime was rationed, so women had extra money to spend on clothes. Though fabric was rationed and a lot of the fabric was used to make military uniforms, there was a significant amount of fabric left over to make women’s garments. The rationing of fabric also resulted in dresses being shorter in the 40s.

The New York Dress Institute wanted to promote shopping, so they had an advertising campaign to get American women to buy clothing made by American designers. At any rate, the ad campaign was not good and all the major retail stores at the time, Bergdorfs, Saks and Bloomingdales, were appalled. So Eleanor Lambert was brought to give a bit of taste and sophistication to the ad campaign. Eleanor Lambert invented the Best Dressed List with society women wearing American designers as a part of the campaign. Eleanor suggested that in addition to the Best Dressed List there should also be an event to show the collections of American designers to the press. Her ideas were embraced and this series of events birthed Press Week, which came to be known as New York Fashion Week.

FR: Many people believe Eleanor Lambert’s crowning achievement was the Grande Divertissement à Versailles. Could you elaborate on that?

John Tiffany: Eleanor believed and I believe her crowning glory was spearheading the Grande Divertissement à Versailles. She was probably the only person that believed in the importance of American fashion from the 1930s. She had to prove the American aesthetic was just as important and revolutionary as their European counterparts. It was not until the Versailles exhibition that American fashion was given its rightful place.

While the French designers at the exhibition put on this over-the-top fashion show, the American designers (Halston, Anne Klein, Stephen Burrows, Oscar de la Renta, and Bill Blass) demonstrated the fashion-forward sensibility and youthfulness of American designers. This exhibition raised the visibility of American designers and American Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar realized that American fashion was just as important as French and Italian fashion.

Because of the Versailles exhibition fashion shows stopped using commentators to narrate the shows and started incorporating music into the presentations. Fashion used to dictate down and Paris was the center of the fashion universe, but after the Versailles exhibition, New York became a major force. The breakout American stars of the Versailles exhibition was Anne Klein and Stephen Burrows because they were pulling from the street and capturing the cultural revolution of the 70s.

FR: She also helped open the door for African American models, could you talk about that?

John Tiffany: Eleanor Lambert used black models in her shows going back to the 1940s. Every time a fashion designer is credited with using black models, that designer was usually a client of Eleanor Lambert. Eleanor Lambert was instrumental in having 12 black models in the Versailles exhibition and as a direct result of that in August of 1974 Beverly Johnson appeared on the cover of American Vogue.

Eleanor Lambert would not say that she forwarded the careers of African American model, but she was instrumental. She used black models in the Coty Award shows and her March of Dimes fashion shows. This point of view continued, even into the 90s when I worked for her, she was requesting designers to use black models in their lookbooks. She also had African American designers as her clients from Stephen Burrows to Willie Smith and B. Michaels.

FR: Could you speak about her eccentricities?

John Tiffany: Eleanor Lambert loved over-the-top jewelry and comfort food. She loved macaroni and cheese, she love mashed potatoes, and bacon. She also had weird quirks. She hated taking the tunnel to the airport. She would always feel the elevator to see if the elevator was hot. I remember we had a meeting at the World Trade Center and she kept talking about the Trade Center collapsing one day. She was right!!

She was not a frivolous person; she knew the value of a dollar. But, she absolutely believed in talent and supporting that talent. She believed that fashion would be the number one industry in NYC and it was until it was recently replaced by finance.

FR: What in Eleanor Lambert’s childhood informed her extraordinary personality?

  John Tiffany: I can’t say for certain, but I know her father abandoned the family early in her    childhood. He was a circus promoter with a lot of charm and charisma, and though Eleanor did not see her father again until she was 25, she held him in high esteem. Maybe because her father was not around she became an overachiever and had to be the best at whatever she did.

FR: Why was she so committed to promoting American designers?

John Tiffany: She believed American designers were talented and deserved recognition. She never took credit for the designer’s talent; she was only interested in promoting them. Sometimes people immediately embraced her clients, and sometimes it took decades. But if Eleanor Lambert believed in your talent, she would keep promoting.

FR: In your opinion what is Eleanor Lambert’s legacy?

John Tiffany: I believe her legacy is wide and diverse. To hear the mayor of New York City say that Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week brings in almost a billion dollars in tax revenue every year is due to the work of Eleanor Lambert.  Creating the CFDA is another one of her legacies. With the formation of the CFDA, Eleanor Lambert took the power away from the manufacturers and put it back in the hands of the designers. The garment industry was running NY Fashion Week and those dates didn’t work for designers, so Eleanor Lambert broke that up and created the CFDA. Now, the designers control NY Fashion Week.

There is a documentary about the Versailles exhibition premiering during the Cannes Film Festival. I believe we are just beginning to know the depth and width of this great woman. Ultimately, her lasting legacy is the belief in the American fashion aesthetic.

FR: What’s next for you?

John Tiffany: What is next for me is documenting and telling more of these stories. I have some big projects in the works that I cannot reveal just yet.

—William S. Gooch

Eleanor Lambert and John Tiffany. Images courtesy of John Tiffany

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