PARIS — Thelma Sweetinburgh, the Paris-based fashion editor who helped put WWD on the map during the Sixties, died Thursday at a convalescent home here. She was 97.
While considered a formidable journalist, Sweetinburgh also possessed such style and beauty that Karl Lagerfeld on Monday sketched from memory the outfit she wore 53 years ago when she was then head of the Paris office of the International Wool Secretariat: a gray flannel ensemble by Jacques Fath.
"She was so chic," Lagerfeld recalled. "She was the first person of the fashion world I met when, in late 1954, I got my first prize in the International Wool office contest. I went to Lachaume and ordered her flowers and I am a client there since then….As far as I'm concerned, the word 'sweet' in her name was perfectly legal."
"She was very professional," said Hubert de Givenchy, whom Sweetinburgh tapped as a judge for the wool prizes. "She always was well-dressed, charming and perfectly coiffed. She was adorable and very nice."
Although of English descent, Sweetinburgh was born in Chantilly, France, where her father worked in the textile business, according to Jean-Pierre Duclos, a partner in the Paris law firm Duclos, Thorne, Mollet-Vièville and Assoc., who was like a nephew to her.
Sweetinburgh began her fashion career as an editor at French Vogue in 1946. She left in 1952 to join the International Wool Secretariat. In that role, Sweetinburgh organized the fashion sketch competition whose winners included Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent, who was soon after hired by Christian Dior.
On Monday, Saint Laurent said, "She is linked in my memories to the opening of my couture house in 1961. She was elegant, highly dignified and perfectly loyal."
Sweetinburgh's appointment as WWD's Paris fashion editor made the paper's front page in 1960; the article noted she would make her first trip to America that year on the S.S. United States.
"She was a great fashion editor with a great beauty," said John B. Fairchild, former chairman and editorial director of Fairchild Publications. "In fact, she was the most beautiful fashion editor I've ever seen.""She was very proud of her career," Duclos said. "And although she was not rich, all her clothes were perfect. She always made sure she was perfectly dressed, even to go to the Chinese restaurant across from her apartment."
Sweetinburgh was married briefly before the World War II, but divorced shortly after, Duclos said. After leaving WWD in the late Sixties, she returned to work for a wool organization, he added. In her retirement years, Sweetinburgh indulged her love for classical music and opera.
"She was a force," said Didier Grumbach, president of the French Fashion Federation. "She knew a great deal about fashion. People loved her. She was extremely elegant, graceful and beautiful. She was the perfect image of a fashion editor."
At WWD, Sweetinburgh took a wide-screen view to her coverage, even sitting in on press conferences at the Elysée Palace, describing the proceedings before the entrance of then-president Charles de Gaulle in a dark gray double-breasted suit. "After a few shakings of the red brocade curtain and a couple of peeps, the ministers made a casual entrance," she wrote in her brisk, no-nonsense style.
In 1965, Sweetinburgh traveled to Moscow for WWD with a pack of Paris notables, including Jacqueline de Ribes, Princess Ira von Furstenberg, Bernard Buffet and Gunther Sachs. There, she picked up the local fashion jargon, including the word "chatsky…the name for anything smart and new in clothing," she wrote. "The young generation is developing a strong urge to get away from the dowdy look of the last decades."
Besides Duclos, Sweetinburgh is survived by a half-sister, Jacqueline Elliott, who lives in New Jersey.
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