Once upon a time, Paris was the center of fashion. Louis XIV had wrestled the title from the Italians in the 1650’s, so for the next 300 years, Western Civilization looked to France for style.
Until Eleanor Lambert came along, that is.
Born in Crawfordville, Indiana in 1903, Eleanor Lambert wanted to be a sculptor. She studied at the Chicago Art Institute, but recognized early on that while she had an eye for art, she had no talent for it. Undeterred, she moved to New York when she was 22.
After finding work with an advertising agency who handled the publicity for a number of opera singers, Eleanor was charged with the task of finding more clients and began at the most logic place for her: art galleries. She landed several new clients her first week and began to promote them.
Or rather, she began promoting the artists whose work was featured at the galleries.
Customers came in droves. They bought art. The artists were happy.
The galleries were not.
Because THEY were Eleanor’s clients, NOT the artists.
In those days, most artists became popular AFTER they died, not while they were still alive. That’s how it had worked for centuries. No upstart from Indiana was going to change that. So in the ultimate “throw the baby out with the bathwater” move, her gallery clients stopped working with the artists she had promoted and told Eleanor to “try again.”
Which she did – by working one-on-one with the artists. She became the first artist publicist.
Cecil Beaton, Jackson Pollock, Salvador Dali, and Isamu Noguchi – among others – owe their careers to Eleanor Lambert. She knew talent when she saw it, and would often take these artists under her wing and make them household names. Sometimes they paid her in cash; more often they paid her with art. She had one of the most enviable art collections in New York by the time she was 30.
She also had enviable influence in the art industry.
She founded the Art Dealers Association of American and the Parke-Bernet Auction House (acquired by Sotheby’s in 1964), and was instrumental in helping to establish both the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Whitney Museum of American Art. She was later appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to the National Council of the Arts and the National Endowment of the Arts. Her influence was unparalleled in the world of art from 1925 onward.
Which is why, in 1932, former actress turned fashion designer Adele Simpson asked Eleanor to be her publicist. If Eleanor could make artists famous, Adele reasoned, couldn’t she do the same for fashion designers?
Apparently, she could.
What? Don’t recognize those names?
That was the problem.
They were all talented designers, but in the 1920’s and 30’s, most were not know outside of Manhattan. As had been the case for centuries, most Americans – like the rest of the world – looked to Paris for fashion. Local talent was rarely considered, which is what had sent Adele Simpson to Eleanor Lambert in the first place.
By 1939, Eleanor’s fashion clients included designers, department stores, beauty brands, and perfumers. They formed the New York Dress Institute – a promotional organization for the fashion industry – and hired Eleanor to be their press director. They wanted to put New York fashion on the map.
But Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar didn’t agree.
As the two main fashion magazines in the United States in the 1930’s, they continued to follow Paris fashion. They had no interest in American designers, and Diana Vreeland even laughed and told Eleanor, “You are so naïve,” when Eleanor told her about the New York Dress Institute.
No one laughed when Hitler invaded Paris in June, 1940 and shut down the city. There was no new French fashion for the next five years.
Eleanor Lambert seized the day.
Her first order of business was take over the annual best dressed list, a publicity gimmick Parisian designers developed in the 1920’s to showcase their best European clients. Eleanor renamed it The International Best Dressed List, filled it with well-dressed Americans and Europeans, and sent out press releases all over the world like she was the one who invented it.
Next, she wanted American fashion editors to see American designed clothes. Since talking to Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar hadn’t worked, she phoned hundreds of newspapers all over the country and asked them if they could send their fashion editors to New York to see the collections. None of them had fashion editors – only a few had “women’s interests” writers – and they certainly didn’t have the budget to send anyone to New York.
So Eleanor took her great big budget from the New York Dress Institute and invited each newspaper to send a writer and a photographer to New York – on HER dime, all expenses paid. Fifty three people came in January, 1942 for the very first fashion press week. Eleanor put them up in expensive hotels, wined and dined them, took them to Broadway shows, introduced them to the actors – and then offered them exclusive, one-on-one interviews with the designers. She gave them the royal treatment.
Those 53 people were so blown away and razzle-dazzled by their big city experience that they went back home and wrote about it – and the American designers – for months. Since so few people traveled in those days, their local newspaper audiences were mesmerized. Ad revenues soared. Stores sold out of American designer inventories. Fashion editors were assigned at every major newspaper. The ripple effect was immediate.
Within six months of that first press week, Eleanor Lambert was the most influential woman in fashion.
New York Fashion Press Week, 1949
But she wasn’t done yet. Not by a long shot.
In addition to commandeering the best dress list and starting fashion week, she also:
- Created the Coty Awards – the “Oscars of Fashion” – for American designers (1943-1984).
- Helped Create the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Funded the upkeep of the Costume Institute through her annual glamorous charity “Midnight Supper” (the pre-cursor to the annual Costume Institute Gala).
Helped raise millions for the March of Dimes through her celebrity-packed annual fashion shows.
- Was the first to use black models in fashion shows and fashion ads.
- Organized the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) in 1962
- Was instrumental in getting 53 million people to the New York World’s Fair in 1964, many to see her fashion shows
- Counseled Truman Capote on his lavish 1966 Black & White Ball
- Traveled all over the world promoting American fashion
And she did all this while also running a top New York PR Firm whose clients included hotels, restaurants, jewelers, artists, authors, and more. She kept up her indefatigable schedule well into her 90’s.
But she didn’t just impact American fashion; she elevated European fashion as well.
Because after World War II ended and the Paris couturiers reopened their shops, a strange thing happened: many of their pre-war customers didn’t come back. Most of the Americans stayed home and bought American fashion instead.
The French designers were flabbergasted. Many of the “Old Guard” fashion houses like Worth and Schiaparelli decided to ignore the situation and plod along – and ended up bankrupt and closing their doors.
But Christian Dior was the first to recognize that “burying his head in the sand” wasn’t the answer. So he flew to New York and hired Eleanor to help him publicize his bold new silhouette. Intrigued, Eleanor dubbed it the “New Look,” and Dior’s Spring 1947 collection became – and remains – the most successful fashion launch in history.
After Dior’s success, Eleanor quickly added French, Italian, and British designers to her client roster. All three countries asked her to help them launch their own fashion weeks, which she did. She kept her finger on the pulse of the fashion world, and was on a first name basis with designers, models, socialites, and actresses.
Which is why, for decades, she refused to pit American designers against French designers in any sort of competition. She was asked to many times, from the 1940’s onward, but she refused to participate in any such show because she knew the Americans would lose. They were good, but the French were better. The Americans needed time to cultivate their skills.
Finally, in 1973, Eleanor decided the time had come. She agreed to a charity “presentation” at Versailles featuring five French and five American designers, with proceeds going to palace restoration. Royals, socialites, celebrities, and couture customers were invited to the event. It was not promoted as a competition, but behind the scenes, Eleanor stoked the fires on both sides to ensure that it was. It later became known as the “Battle of Versailles.”
The French opened the show with a dazzling performance by Josephine Baker. Hosted by the queen of French high society, Marie-Hélène de Rothschild, the five designers – Givenchy, Cardin, Ungaro, Yves Saint Laurent, and Marc Bohan of Dior – who would “Never be seen in an elevator together, let alone a show,” each presented 10 gowns with elaborate cardboard cutout settings in a series that included a limo, rocket ship, pumpkin coach, and gypsy caravan. Accompanied by a full orchestra, the French presentation seemed cumbersome and lasted for more than two hours.
The Americans opened their half with Liza Minelli walking on stage with 36 models – 12 of whom were black, 10 others who were Broadway dancers – saying, “Bonjour, Paris!” and then belting out a song to pre-taped music as the models danced and walked the runway. The 33-minute show featured clothes from Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Halston, Anne Klein, and Stephen Burrows, and was so well rehearsed and choreographed that energy and excitement filled the room. When the show was over, the audience went wild, cheering and throwing their programs in the air.
It marked yet another turning point in fashion history, courtesy of Eleanor Lambert.
So what happened?
- First, Americans stopped copying French fashion one and for all. The French presentation seemed theatrical and out-of-date, while the Americans seemed modern and “With the times.”
- Secondly, it opened the door to black models. Ten months later, Beverly Johnson became the first black woman to appear on the cover of Vogue.
- Finally, it launched the careers of all five American designers, with Halston in particular becoming a favorite of the jet set.
It had taken nearly 35 years of hard work, but Eleanor Lambert finally knocked Paris off the top of the fashion pyramid.
Yet, you probably don’t know her name.
In his book, Eleanor Lambert: Still Here (2011), biographer John Tiffany refers to Eleanor as the “Forrest Gump” of fashion, because she’s always in the pictures from great moments in fashion history, but most people don’t know who she is.
“She was the one who never gave up,” said John, in a speech he gave to at the Library of Congress when he released his book in 2011. “If she wanted something and the door was closed, she went through the window. If the window was closed, she went through the transom. If the transom was closed, she went through the peep hole. She didn’t let anything stand in her way.”
Legend has it that Eleanor was told by a fortune teller as a young woman that she would live a long life and know the greatest and most talented people of her era. It turned out to be true: Eleanor lived to 100, and knew everyone there was to know in the worlds of art and fashion.
But she did have her challenges along the way. Her first marriage ended in divorce, and her second husband died in his early 50s. She was also prone to alopecia – hair loss – which is why she favored turbans for 60 years. Her friend and client, milliner Lilly Dachè, helped her disguise the condition with aplomb.
So the next time you see a fashion show, hear about the CFDA or the Costume Institute Gala, remember Eleanor Lambert. Because without her France might still be the center of fashion – and artists might have to wait until they die to reap their rewards.
Diana Pemberton-Sikes is an image consultant and author of Wardrobe Magic, an ebook that shows women how to dress well whatever their age, shape, size, or budget. Download Wardrobe Magic right here.