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Eleanor Lambert Celebrates an American Fashion Century

Eleanor Lambert has been described as both the grande dame of fashion p.r. and as a mere flack, but as she approaches 100, she's still spinning.

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NEW YORK —Eleanor Lambert has been described alternatively by her admirers as the grande dame of fashion public relations or a fashion doyenne, and by her detractors as a fashion flack.

Either way, as she approaches her 100th birthday on Sunday, Lambert is still spinning.

She closed her office a year ago, but maintains a few longtime clients — including Tiffany & Co. and a foundation for immigrants — working from her massive Fifth Avenue apartment that overlooks the Central Park reservoir. Amid the chintz, the Art Deco screens and a collection of artifacts culled from a century of spreading the word of American designers around the world — she has circumnavigated the globe three times — she consults, gossips and picks up her phone now and then to make a pitch.

“I try to keep something to do,” Lambert said. “I don’t want to sit around waiting to die. I’m happy to be this old. I’ve had a good life. I still have all my marbles.”

A publicist who has outlived many of her clients, Lambert is one of the last open windows to the roots of American designers, from the feisty women who pioneered the American garment industry in the Thirties as if it were the Wild West, through the rise of gentlemanly designers of the Sixties and into the decadence of the Seventies and Eighties.

Her recollections may be biased and blurry. They were her clients, after all — Mollie Parnis, Ceil Chapman, Claire McCardell, Adrian, Norman Norell, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Calvin Klein and Halston — and it was her mission to promote Americans as equally creative and important as their European counterparts, whose industry had the insurmountable advantage of history.

“She’s certainly one of the pioneers of opening American fashion to the world,” de la Renta said. “Her sense of vitality has never ceased to amaze me. Eleanor was always a very strong person and once she was convinced about something, it was very difficult to make her change her mind.”

Lambert’s part in changing the perception of American design both at home and abroad is something of p.r. legend. Her ideas often came about by happenstance, silly things she thought could generate press, like a fashion show of American and French designers at Versailles.

But the results became lasting monuments interwoven into the foundation of Seventh Avenue and its organizations, like the Council of Fashion Designers of America; the Fashion Institute of Technology; seasonal fashion weeks in New York; the Coty Awards and then the CFDA Awards, and the International Best Dressed List founded in 1940, which only disbanded last year. These ideas not only made American designers more powerful, but Lambert as well, a circumstance that naturally invited jealousy and derision among her competitors and a longstanding battle with one of the other great forces in making designers famous, John Fairchild, this paper’s former publisher and chairman of parent Fairchild Publications.

“John Fairchild once told me that Women’s Wear Daily considers that all publicists are the enemy,” Lambert recalled, irritated by repeated comments about her as a “flack” that appeared in stories in the Sixties.

Apparently, the old adage that all press is good press doesn’t apply to the publicist, who was taken to task in a 1969 WWD article on the Best Dressed List, Lambert’s annual tally of two dozen of the most perpetually gorgeous people in the world — a widely coveted ranking because it was widely covered. Lambert always claimed it was determined scientifically through fair balloting, yet a secret committee ultimately selected the winners during an annual lunch at Lambert’s apartment. WWD imagined such an encounter as “BDL,” or “Buy Dame Lambert.”

Her position toward journalists remains more generous. She married one, Seymour Berkson, chief of International News Service and later publisher of the New York Journal American, who died in 1959, and was close with influential editors such as Nancy White, Diana Vreeland and Eugenia Sheppard, friendships which undeniably aided her career, although Lambert wouldn’t say as much when selling the goods.

“You can’t approach journalists without being respectful,” she said. “You want them to be interested in what you have to say. You can talk generally as a friend, but make the point right away.”

So, now on to the point. Lambert is turning 100. Her toes were amputated recently as a result of an infection on the bottom of her feet. She has been diagnosed with macular degeneration, which causes blindness, although her doctors say Lambert is among the 1 percent of victims who are able to beat the disease.

“It’s a difficult thing,” she said. “Someone once told me, ‘Don’t get old. It hurts.’”

Lambert has nothing to lose in telling a few stories of the past or to complain vastly of the world of fashion post-Armani, the last designer she will credit with having any meaningful impact on the way women dress. It was not clear whether or not she liked this impact.

“This really is the nadir of the whole thing, with Yves Saint Laurent retiring, there is not a soul left,” Lambert said. “There is no one working today like Chanel or Balenciaga, practically anybody who made you feel you had to change your way of looking.”

Not even the designers who work at Chanel or Balenciaga?

“I can’t understand why they don’t try to be themselves,” she replied. “That does not even make sense.

“We have to say that Armani is the only one,” she said, undirected. “What he has done is make comfort take the place of fashion. It’s a stupid thing to say. If you wear Armani clothes — or Prada, I don’t like Prada at all — but the tendency of changing a silhouette to make clothes comfortable is not by and of itself a trend in fashion. A trend in fashion is to make the silhouette change to something decorative or attractive — a tight waist or a loose waist, short skirt or long — that is what changes fashion. Fashion is a surprise, really, to wear something suddenly to a party that has a furbelow skirt, or one that is tight, something that makes you look around twice. It’s making people look at you, like a red dress that arrests your attention.”

Lambert no longer shops for fashion, although she is fascinated by Costco and organizes her car and driver to take her on shopping sprees for paper towels in bulk. She has long stopped wearing designer labels and instead sends a swatch to a tailor in California, who makes her pantsuits with wide necklines, which set off her jewels.

“I go to fashion shows, but it’s not worth looking at anymore,” Lambert said. “Women, when they get old, or middle-aged even, should decide this is the silhouette that is best for me and this becomes their uniform.”

While giving advice, Lambert also confirmed a long-standing rumor about her secret to eternal youth, one far less conventional. For years, she has annually flown to a clinic in Rottach-Egern, Germany, where she is a patient of Claus Martin’s live-cell therapy treatments, in which fetal cells are injected into her hip.

“Last year, I went again and the receptionist told me I had been there 13 times,” Lambert said. “You can only do it once a year or every two years. You go, you stay a week and you live in the place. You don’t do anything until Thursday. You’re there on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday…and all you do is talk to a doctor in the clinic. On Thursday, you don’t have any breakfast. You stay in the room and he comes and gives you an injection. On Friday, you see the doctors again, on Saturday you take it easy, and then Sunday, you leave. It costs $5,000 every time.”

While the treatment was once considered unorthodox, it has become increasingly fashionable and is offered in resorts around the world, with cells ranging from those of a sheep’s placenta or ground up blue sharks. Lambert liked it better when the clinic operated as a small boarding house with separate dining areas for Germans and non-German-speaking guests.

“Now the clinic is part of a big hotel,” she said. “It has five restaurants. It’s kind of blah. Siegfried and Roy were there from Las Vegas once. Siegfried was born in this town and he was there with a friend of his.”

It’s hardly the life one could have imagined for a young woman from Crawfordsville, Ind., whose father worked for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus and whose mother took her to Indianapolis, where she saw Sarah Bernhardt and touring productions of “Peter Pan” and “Jumbo.” Lambert wanted to be on her own, though, and studied to be a sculptor, but wasn’t good at it. She married young and was divorced after seven years, moving to New York in the 1920s with a letter of introduction to one man, who said he couldn’t even promise her a job.

“I forgot about art and thought I’d better look for a job,” Lambert said. “I worked for a man named Franklin Spear. He did publicity for publishing and books in a one-room office on 45th Street. The passion in his life was asking people what they thought about — not things that were happening in their life, but trends. I listened to him call Mary Pickford and ask her opinion of something like modern marriage, or anything. He’d put their opinions into a story and put them out as a release.

“I made $10 a week, working mornings only, for a couple of years. In the afternoons, I went every day to the Algonquin and looked at the people at the Round Table. I sat in another room and looked at them, at Dorothy Parker, then I went to a tiny place to get lunch. That was my day.”

Spear observed her curiosity and suggested she try public relations. She walked up to 57th Street, then the major center for art galleries in the city, and in one day convinced 10 galleries to hire her services. After a few years she was approached by the dress designer, Mollie Parnis, who convinced Lambert to take on the world of fashion.

The rest is history.

As the war approached, the garment workers’ union hired Lambert to build on its campaign to inspire the masses to go shopping. With funding from the State Department and the Department of Commerce, she established the New York Dress Institute in the early Forties, based out of her office for 18 years, organizing exhibits of American clothes around the world. The Best Dressed List was originally conceived as a press release for the organization. In 1943, she spearheaded the first American Press Week, a forerunner of New York’s fashion week, as well as the Coty Awards.

By the Sixties, individuals like Blass, Geoffrey Beene and Pauline Trigère had stepped out of the back rooms and made names for themselves, yet the predominant industry groups continued to promote the interests of manufacturers over those of the designers. In October 1962, Senators Claiborne Pell and Jacob Javits were coincidentally seeking to establish a national arts council and invited Lambert to appear at an open hearing, where they told her that for fashion to be considered as an acceptable form of American art they required the involvement of a not-for-profit organization, rather than a commercial industry or a business. In response, Lambert rallied a group of designers including Blass, Jane Derby, Luis Estevez and Rudi Gernreich to form the CFDA.

Any of these moments could be considered turning points in the fate of America’s designer industry, although many give that credit to another Lambert-orchestrated event, the grand divertissement à Versailles, in 1973, a benefit where the works of five American designers were shown against those of five French designers. It was an evening of mayhem and ego where the Americans ultimately triumphed.

“We give it a little too much credit,” Lambert said. “Americans had deserved this for several years. The war was really the turning point, when we started the Dress Institute, but I had avoided showing American work in France until Versailles. I did not in any way want to sort of try to prove ourselves to the French. We had to admit that they were born in fashion. I didn’t think it was right. I didn’t have any reason to. I was trying to do this in a friendly way, to be equal, not better than.”

Lambert was vacationing in Fiorentina, sitting poolside at the home of Gerald Van der Kamp, then the curator of Versailles, who was entreating the publicist to come up with a way to raise money so that he could restore the queen’s bedroom. He suggested a fashion show, but Lambert said she’d only do it if there were American designers (Blass, de la Renta, Halston, Stephen Burrows and Anne Klein) involved, as well. Marie-Helene de Rothschild was enlisted by telephone right there from the pool to coordinate the French team (Pierre Cardin, Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro and Marc Bohan of Christian Dior).

“We couldn’t do an American fashion show in Paris without looking silly,” Lambert said. “We sure did prove we were the equal. People threw their papers in the air and screamed and yelled. It was wonderful. I do feel very proud that American designers are equal to anyone in the world, including the French. They should have had that equality. Versailles was a hilarious and unforgettable thing. It was such an exciting thing, because by accident, it became a special thing that proved a point.”

An apt metaphor for Lambert’s life. The contrast of her Middle America upbringing at the beginning of the last century with her prosperity and experience at the beginning of the next are part of that fascinating transformation that makes a life fabulous. After watching Parker at the Algonquin, she later befriended the writer, and once went with her to get a tattoo. Plus, to have known so many designers from a vantage that is off the record has given her an insight into a side of their personalities quite different from their public personas.

Chapman was “a dream,” Lambert said. “She always let people wear her clothes, and she was always generous and let you have the dress. You don’t know what a difference that makes.” Parnis was “some character, terribly self-centered. She had a temper, not a bad hideous temper, but she had one. She was touchy.

“I knew Christian Dior quite well,” she said. “I knew Balenciaga. I had his clothes. I never could say he was a friend. I guess I could, but I never went out or entertained him, except once. The most wonderful people in the industry were the women who ran the stores — Dorothy Shaver at Lord & Taylor, Sophie Gimbel at Saks Fifth Avenue and Mildred Custin. She was the president of Bonwit Teller.

“Mildred once asked me to see Calvin Klein,” Lambert continued. “I got there and he was on the floor, cutting out a coat without any pattern at all. I have never seen anything like it in my life. When I first knew him, we used to lunch at a restaurant on 56th Street. He was so jealous of Halston, he was dying. He said to me, ‘Why does Halston get so much publicity when he goes to that place, Studio 54?’ I understood it was a good place to get drugs, but I didn’t use them.

“I said, ‘Halston is a bastard. He loves to dance and loves the limelight. You are a married man with a child. You are just beginning. Don’t think you are Halston. Don’t do what he does.’ Klein soon got a divorce and became a member of Studio 54.

“I loved Halston,” she said. “He was a fascinating person, but he ruined his life.”

Designers continue to pay tribute to Lambert and frequently seek out her advice. She hosts a salon every Saturday night in her apartment and celebrates her birthday every year with a luncheon at Swifty’s with a crew of designers — Cathy Hardwick, Mary McFadden, Mary Ann Restivo, Monika Tilley, Patricia Underwood and, until she died last year, Pauline Trigère. She also will celebrate this year with a party at her home on Monday night.

“She’s a legend in the world, but she’s just a regular person, like a mother,” Hardwick said. “She’s very homey and very interesting. She remembers so many details.”

John Loring, the design director of Tiffany, similarly consults Lambert on many of his projects. She wrote the introduction to his 15th book, “Tiffany and Fashion,” which is being published by Harry Abrams in November. It covers 70 years of Tiffany’s involvement in fashion, from the point of the death of Louis Comfort Tiffany, who had never allowed the company to lend its jewelry to outside editorial projects during his lifetime.

“In 1933, she was already the publicist for Gilbert Adrian in Hollywood,” Loring said. “She’s the only primary source on this material. She’s the only one who can look at a photograph and say, ‘That’s a nice photo, but the clothes are irrelevant to the times.’ It’s a certain level of thinking she works with. She’s very quick witted and open to things, but very reflective on what she says and very to the point. She’s totally into the new.”

That’s been Lambert’s lifelong philosophy.

“I believe in people who are starting things,” she said. “You always have to be alert and think of things that aren’t done and that should be done, don’t you think?”

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