Chic Reads: Eleanor Lambert: Still Here
09 . 11 . 11
It’s fitting that the book Eleanor Lambert: Still Here was released at the start of fashion week since Eleanor Lambert is the person responsible for creating the basis of what would become fashion week as we know it. That was just one of the fascinating things I learned about this remarkable woman in John Tiffany’s new book.
Eleanor Lambert: Still Here book on my coffee table. The photo on the cover was taken by Robert Mapplethorpe.
Eleanor Lambert moved to New York in 1925 after dreaming of moving to the big city while growing up in Crawfordsville, Indiana. She started out as a publicist and really created her own opportunities rather than just going to work as a secretary. She represented galleries and artists which caught the attention of her first fashion client in 1932, Annette Simpson. Over the years, she would represent everyone in fashion including Norman Norell, Halston, Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, Pauline Tregere, Christian Dior, Pierre Cardin, Adrien, Kasper, James Galanos, Calvin Klein, Donna Karen, Ralph Lauren, and many more.
A young Eleanor Lambert
It was her idea to promote the Couture Group, a branch of the New York Dress Institute, with fashion presentations and invite journalists from around the country. Fashion Press Week allowed editors to preview fashions six months before they arrived in stores and would be given photos to run in their magazines. The only difference between Fashion Press Week then and Fashion Week now is that a lot of editors take their own photos and tweet them during the shows!
Eleanor Lambert in turban taking TWA and fashion to Indianapolis in 1966
This was just the start of her long career. She arranged exhibitions in Moscow and the famous Palace of Versailles showdown between French and American fashion designers. She oversaw the Coty Awards and later founded the CFDA. She helped organize Truman Capote’s Black & White Ball and also created the International Best Dressed List which she turned over to Vanity Fair before her death. In between, she married, divorced, married again and had a son. She was a true working woman who also had a lot of help keeping all those plates in the air.
Eleanor Lamber in signature turban arriving to Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball behind Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra
It seems there wasn’t anything she didn’t do and she must have been happy doing it since she lived to be 100. The author of Eleanor Lambert: Still Here is John Tiffany worked for Miss Lambert for one year in 1995 but they remained friends and it’s clear she had an impact on him as well as fashion. I’ve been lucky enough to get to know John myself and he was gracious enough to answer some questions about his former boss and the book.
Eleanor Lambert with author John Tiffany
HC: When we first met last year, you were hoping to create a documentary about your former boss, Eleanor Lambert. Why did you want to tell her story and how did it end up in a book instead of film?
In the book, I get into the reasons that led me to want to tell her story. My roommate’s father asked me at the time if Miss Lambert was the same “Eleanor Lambert” who was on the National Endowment of the Arts and was instrumental in its founding in the 1960’s. When I worked for her, I kept uncovering all these amazing things she did but wasn’t talking about. I would change her bio but really wanted people to know.
I was at a dinner party last spring talking about the documentary that I had started filming. A publicist for an imprint called me in and offered me a book deal. It wasn’t the right fit but I later met with Suzanne Slesin of Pointed Leaf Press that was the right fit. I knew she got what I was trying to say. She is an amazing editor. The focus really became the book from then on.
HC: I find women like Eleanor Lambert and Diana Vreeland fascinating because they went to work because they had to and I get the feeling they kept working because they actually enjoyed it. Do you think she enjoyed what she did?
Miss Lambert loved working. She worked until the very end. She died at age 100 with four clients! She had a passion to promote people she thought were worthy of promoting – even if they didn’t have any money! She was always discovering new talent.
HC: Miss Lambert seemed rather modest and I don’t think a lot of people know how many things she did. What was the most amazing thing you found out in writing this book?
I had a conversation with Mario Buatta one day while I was interviewing him about Miss Lambert. I realized that even though she looked like a grand dame or Empress of Fashion, she was really a rebel! I mean she dared to believe she could change a whole industry and she did! She was always a rebel!
HC: There are a lot of wonderful quotes at the end of the book by fashion designers and others who knew Miss Lambert. Who had the best stories about her?
It would be hard to pick just one but some of my favorites are from Miss Lambert’s closest friends, Joe Cicio, Cathy Hardwick, Francine Parnes, and Peter Dubrow. Also, those she worked with everyday – the editors like Bernadine Morris, Enid Nemy, Grace Mirabella, Aileen “Suzy” Mehle, and John Fairchild. I loved what her maid had to say about her and of course my former co-workers too!
HC: The world has changed a lot since Miss Lambert’s time. She never learned to use a computer and hand wrote many of her press releases. What do you think she’d make of all the PR girls on Twitter today?
Well, Miss Lambert worked for almost eight solid decades so I’m sure she would have figured out how somehow, although she always used to say that “computers were stealing our brains and making us lazy.” I think however that she would love all the PR girls on Twitter. She loved being able to have a larger audience and bringing more people to the table and more ways to promote talented people like her clients.
HC: What is the one thing you’d like readers to take away from your book about Eleanor Lambert?
That sometimes it takes a long time to achieve something worthwhile. That hard work pays off. That youth is not everything, in fact, the older you get the better you get! Don’t ever give up on your ideas – it took Miss Lambert 40 years to prove that American design was its own entity.
HC: I know this book was a lot of work and you should be proud of this accomplishment. I know you want to relax and enjoy the end result but do you have any plans for another book?
Well, there are a couple of ideas floating around in my head already…
HC: Do you have any advice for me as I start my own book project?
Don’t be afraid to fight for what you want to say and how you want it to look! Stay true to your vision. These things seem so cliché but they are actually very true! Your name will be on that book for the rest of time! Think about that!
Eleanor Lambert’s bedroom where she often worked.
“When she could not see well enough to read, I read to her each morning – Page 6, Cindy Adams, Liz Smith, Women’s Wear, Suzy. When I encountered a new word that I didn’t know, she’d explain to me what the word meant. Then she’d say, ‘Ok, Belen, now read me my horoscope.’ She was a Leo. I really loved her.” – Belen Abu-Abu, Miss Lambert’s Housekeeper
“Eleanor Lambert was an American legend, a visionary, a working woman, very pragmatic and always pushing the boundaries. Her contribution to American fashion is invaluable.” – Diane von Furstenberg