By Aaron Peasley
Illustration Allan Goddard
According to writer and historian John Tiffany, when talk turns to American fashion, all roads – or catwalks as it were – lead to one woman: the late Eleanor Lambert. “Her pioneering career and the history of American fashion were completely intertwined,” says Tiffany, who once worked for the legendary publicist and chronicled her life in his remarkable book Eleanor Lambert: Still Here.
It would take many pages to list all of the accomplishments of The Empress of 7th Avenue, as she became known. Lambert’s innovations included: the Council of Fashion Designers of America; Founding the International Best Dressed List, the COTY and CFDA Awards; and establishing the original Fashion Week. As the kind of woman who knows how to throw a swanky party, she lent a hand to Truman Capote’s Black & White Ball and was instrumental in the founding of the Met’s Costume Institute as well as its namesake ball.
Within America’s fashion and social history, Eleanor Lambert position is unparalleled. Growing up in Indiana as an art student, Lambert started out promoting fine artists (as opposed to the galleries that represented them) championing then-unknown names such Jackson Pollock and Isamu Noguchi.
“Her pioneering career and the history of American fashion were completely intertwined.”-JT
Fashion design, which she considered an art in its own right, was next. Considering herself, in far humbler terms, as “the Godmother of the fashion world,” she started Fashion Press Week, precursor to the modern fashion week, and tirelessly championed young designers. Among them were names such as Halston and Calvin Klein and others now less known like Stephen Burrows and illustrator Joe Eula. She was also the first to cast an African American model in an official runway show.
For any aspiring member of fashion, art or society, Lambert, whose redoubtable presence was complemented by her suitably magisterial wardrobe of turbans, oversized jewels and fur coats, was a force you wanted in your corner. “Eleanor Lambert was a difficult taskmaster and also a gracious mentor — often at the same time! I was with her at LeCirque getting her to sign checks for the office and she began yelling at me. Barbara Walters and Nancy Kissinger came over to see if she was ok… and she said “You both know John Tiffany right?” Well they did now!”
Lambert passed away in 2003 at 100, but age did not dim her ineffable spirit or work ethic (she worked tirelessly until the end). And as the fashion industry has grown into a global behemoth, it’s important to acknowledge a woman who possessed true vision at a time when fashion itself was denigrated as a lesser entity, culturally and economically. On the heels of fashion week, pick up a copy of Tiffany’s Still Here and take a moment to toast Lambert’s reign. “I have always loved people older than me, their lives and their stories,” explained Tiffany. “I am a passionate storyteller and to me this is one of the greatest stories of all time – a total revolutionary who did everything she could to promote artists…. while looking like an Empress!”
Can it get any better? ♥