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For Eleanor Lambert, starting the Council of Fashion Designers of America was much like many of the other milestones in her 100-year life: initially unthinkable but ultimately beneficial to many.
An honorary CFDA board member until her death in 2003, Lambert created the International Best-Dressed List; the Coty Awards; the first organized New York Fashion Week; televised March of Dimes fashion shows; the first and only fashion show in the White House in 1968, and the famous Franco-American designer showdown at Versailles in 1973. She had a hand in establishing the National Council on the Art; broke barriers by hiring African-American models in the Forties, and staged American fashion shows after World War II in China, Australia, Brazil, Russia and all over the globe. Thanks to Lambert, thousands saw their first fashion show in the American pavilion of the 1964 World’s Fair. For the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, Lambert convinced Mary McFadden and Monika Tilley to help her present an American fashion show there. “It was a real moment,” Tilley recalls. “She, more than anybody else, made American fashion—the CFDA, fashion week, the Coty Awards.…She was one of those people who would never look back. Her interest was always in the latest and the newest.”
Tilley adds, “I once wrote a note that said, ‘We can’t all be excellent at everything’ and placed it near my telephone. Eleanor came into my office one day, looked at it and said, ‘Says who?'”
Before she became First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy spoke with Lambert about the prospect of establishing a council for the arts and Lambert helped orchestrate that.
In her early days in New York, she could often be found observing the city’s literati in the Algonquin, watching from a side room as Dorothy Parker commanded the center of attention. Lambert ingratiated herself into that society, becoming their drinking buddy. During one particularly raucous night on the town with Parker, Lambert (not wanting to be a spoilsport) got a small star tattoo on her ankle.
Lambert started her career in publicity by working with artists such as Salvador Dalí, Jackson Pollock and Isamu Noguchi. She actually launched into fashion in 1932, signing up Annette Simpson. (She also represented the costume designer Adrian during his MGM days.)
Lambert was intent on having fashion be considered an art in National Arts Legislation. That did not pan out, since fashion is a commercial pursuit, but in the process, the CFDA was founded. In 1963, she testified before Congress and after the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act was passed two years later, she served on the first National Council on the Arts.
When the CFDA was set up in December 1962, Lambert wrote, “For the first time in the history of American fashion, leaders from all branches of creative design across the country have banded together for the purpose of furthering the position of fashion design as a recognized branch of art and culture.”
John Tiffany, who wrote a book about his former boss, Eleanor Lambert: Still Here, notes that before she arrived on the scene, apparel manufacturers called the shots, not designers. Known as “the Empress of Seventh Avenue,” Lambert had an air of imperialism in her 57th Street office (where the CFDA was housed early on) but she campaigned for the good of the industry. Arnold Scaasi, a CFDA founding member, remembers, “We all were young, but that’s what brought us together. We were the new Seventh Avenue. We were the creatives, not the manufacturers. Eleanor had a very strong business sense. She had this quality of being able to bring all these designers together to join forces instead of competing.”
In a 2003 interview with WWD, Lambert said of Versailles, “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.”
Lambert didn’t pull any punches, and had a few epic battles with Charles James. She even once called out Mrs. Kennedy, a friend from before her White House days, according to Tiffany. When the former first lady sought Lambert’s advice about how to get WWD from reporting she was buying French designer clothing, the publicist called her bluff, according to Tiffany. “Eleanor represented Givenchy personally so she wrote to Jackie Kennedy, “But you are buying French clothes. Women’s Wear will catch you, so don’t lie,” Tiffany says.
Lambert kept this and other letters, telegrams, notes and newspaper clippings from her career in meticulous files. But apparently she didn’t keep tabs on herself. Tiffany notes she never mentioned her accolades. Whenever he would ask Lambert about some honor or praise he heard about, she would simply respond, “Oh, check the files.”