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Sitting next to publisher Prosper Assouline at a charity benefit two years ago proved fortuitous for social fixture Bettina Zilkha. Assouline was so impressed with his French-speaking dinner date that he offered her a job in his office, which Zilkha politely declined. Instead she pitched an idea for her own tome.

The result is “Ultimate Style: The Best of the Best Dressed List” (Assouline), a glossy coffee table book chronicling the most enduring fashion icons from legendary publicist Eleanor Lambert’s 64-year-old annual poll. Zilkha kicks off its publication with an equally glamorous launch party tonight at Gotham Hall.

This story first appeared in the May 6, 2004 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“The book’s the only place where the list is published in its entirety,” says Zilkha, sipping mint tea at a corner table at Cipriani Uptown and wearing head-to-toe Tuleh. Zilkha’s picks of the best ones — including such swans as the Duchess of Windsor, Babe Paley, Carolina Herrera, Raquel Welch and Gwyneth Paltrow — are not entirely her own. She met several times with Lambert before she died in 2003. “Every decade was so clear for her except for the Eighties,” says Zilkha. “Eighties fashion was the worst and Eleanor would say so, too.”

After two years of research, Zilkha organized the book by decade, profiling each of her picks’ looks while dishing some old gossip. Paley, for instance, planned her funeral right down to the selection of food and wine. Gloria Guinness, meanwhile, tried to sabotage Paley’s flawless fashion reputation by instructing her to bring only casual clothes on a yachting trip she was hosting. Guinness planned, and then dressed for, a formal dinner.

For those aspiring to make next year’s list, Zilkha says she picked up a few tips. “Always be aware of how you look and be well-groomed, but not forced,” she instructs. “You also have to be visible.”

But tastefully so. “People who drink and smoke too much,” according to Zilkha, commit the ultimate fashion faux pas.

She hopes the book will serve as a reference for fashion students for years to come, as well as inspire its readers. “It used to be just the wives of powerful men who made the Best Dressed List,” she says. “Now you have independent women who make their own careers. You go, girls!”

— Alison Burwell

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