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Eleanor Lambert

Montgomery County, Indiana

Special series: Lambert's legend

© March 19, 2004

The Press-Enterprise, Riverside, California

Associated Press

In an industry where trends have the lifespan of a moth and novelty reigns, it is the exceptional look, company or professional who endures.

Eleanor Lambert, the legendary publicist, devoted most of the 100 years of her life to fashion, and even since her death last October, her influence is still giving a pulse to the profession.

For its April issue, Vanity Fair is readying its International Best Dressed List, which it inherited from Lambert, who starting in 1940 presided over the influential tally of taste, with its celebrities, royalty, socialites and others well-heeled and well-clothed.

If that's not enough, additional attention to the list will come from a book, "Ultimate Style: The Best of the Best Dressed List" by Bettina Zilkha (Assouline Publishing, $55 hardcover, April) with a foreword by Lambert.

Town & Country magazine earlier this year recalled her as a "fashion impresario"; W magazine, in its March issue, celebrates the "grand lady who didn't miss a trick in her life." Indeed, Lambert was known as the "grande dame of New York fashion," and she worked her trade until shortly before her death. Whether promoting Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, Halston or countless other household names, Lambert set the groundwork for the practice of fashion public relations, recasting American designers as celebrities.

Fashion shows and styles have come a long way since 1943, when Lambert created Fashion Week's forerunner, New York Press Week, so that the press could preview the upcoming season's designer collections all in one venue. The daughter of a circus advance man, she also helped launch many of the fashion industry's most important institutions, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute and the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

"Crawfordsville, Indiana, where I was born, and, as we Hoosiers often called it, 'a good place to come from,' was a proud little town," Lambert wrote in the foreword to Zilkha's new book." "The community was even proud of its Bischoff's department store, which filled a whole block and catered to its 'best-dressed ladies.' It was not exactly a fashion center, but I remember that Bischoff's provided my first party dress - a peach-colored crepe ankle-length creation, empire style, with short puffed sleeves edged in white lace and a lace-trimmed bateau neckline. That was the beginning of my love affair with American fashion." The International Best Dressed List started as Lambert's ingenious publicity ploy to enliven the ailing American garment industry during World War II by keeping fashion on the mind of the public. But it soon became a celebrated poll of the world's most glamorous dressers, chronicling the decades with the likes of the Duchess of Windsor, Jacqueline Kennedy and Nicole Kidman.

Starting with the April issue, Vanity Fair plans to make the International Best Dressed List an annual feature, says Aimee Bell, senior articles editor.

"There was no one like her, particularly in terms of integrity; the work ethic always impressed me so much," Bell says. She recalled last year when Lambert had come out of the hospital and invited Bell over. "I thought this was it, I thought I was being summoned to say farewell," Bell says. Instead, when she arrived at Lambert's regal Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking Central Park, she found one of Lambert's clients, president of a major department store, who was hoping for Vanity Fair to sponsor an event. The match took.

"Here she was, fresh out of the hospital, she had set this whole thing up," Bell says. "I was simply stunned, she was absolutely working, and working it as only Eleanor could. If anyone else would have brought me in like that, I would have politely taken their information and tossed it into the garbage. But because it was Eleanor, the thing snowballed and ended up being this very glamorous party. She had that magic touch." With the best dressed list, "We very much want to continue Eleanor's legacy," Ball says. "One of the reasons she left this list is that she knew we would continue the tradition of having this record of both fashion and social history. It's a tremendous record of what society was like." Lambert also left behind a lesson in mentoring, says John Loring, the design director at Tiffany & Company, who wrote "Tiffany and Fashion" (Harry N. Abrams, $60 hardcover), with an introduction by Lambert, who promoted his company.

In the 1970s, at a high-powered media lunch where Loring was a neophyte journalist out of his element, she surprised him with her forthright manner, he says. "The first thing she ever said to me, when I found myself seated next to her, she turned to me and said, 'I'm Eleanor Lambert. If I were a young man in your position, I'd make friends with me."' Loring followed her instructions for the next 30 years, he says. "That would have been good advice for any young man or woman in the design or journalism industry, that they would do well to make friends with Eleanor Lambert. She was terrific with young people. She didn't give them a 'B' rating. Everyone got an 'A' rating and was treated the same." Three years after the lunch, Lambert called Loring after noticing him in cocktail chatter with the design director of Tiffany's, who was seeking a successor. With her eye for talent, she was the first to see that Loring was the one. "You are the only person in the United States who can do that job," he recalled her saying. "So you telephone Tiffany's and you get that job." Never one to waste a moment, "With that, she hung up the phone in her inimitable fashion," Loring says. "Barely was the last syllable out of her mouth when she was onto the next thing." One month later, Loring had the job.

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