NEW YORK — There’s no getting around Ruth Finley, but meeting halfway is always an option.
In an industry where tardiness borders on the habitual, she does everything she can to strive for order, if not punctuality. As founder and president of the Fashion Calendar, the octogenarian has tirelessly scheduled — and all too often rescheduled — fashion shows, store openings and parties for six decades. She is showing no signs of letting up, even though 200 phone conversations are par for the course for one fashion week edition of the calendar.
Finley is equally tenacious about Citymeals-on-Wheels, a group for which she has helped raise $2.5 million during the past 20 years. The organization, which delivers meals to homebound seniors, will honor her Monday night at Metrazur in Grand Central Terminal. More than 350 people are expected to raise a glass to Finley, who has been instrumental in raising $150,000 for this year’s effort.
Dressed in a navy Bill Blass knit outfit, Finley broke away from the stacks of boxes and gift bags overtaking her Upper East Side office Thursday to reminisce about her long run on Seventh Avenue. But pending assignments were never far from her mind, and mentions of last-minute touches for Monday’s event and the unfortunate timing of this fall’s 7th on Sixth fashion shows sprinkled her conversation. (The September edition falls two days after Labor Day and includes Sept. 11 and the first day of Rosh Hashanah.)
Even though 40 designers have tentative show dates, no one has yet committed to Sept. 11. Another unpopular date is Sept. 15, since the Jewish holiday starts at sundown. On top of that, Finley is concerned about how much designers will have ready and delivered in August, a typically sleepy month for production.
“The big problem is whether they will have enough merchandise in to show. I’m a little worried about showing immediately after Labor Day,” she admitted.
Hopefully, things won’t get as complicated as they did in February, when Calvin Klein decided with only a few days’ notice to move its show from a Tuesday to Thursday, at the same time as James Coviello. “That was one of the worst things. They’re still talking about it because it hurt so many people. The way it was done was completely wrong — to tell us after they did it. Obviously, they knew a day or two before…It was a big money loss for the designers who didn’t get good attendance because of it.”
All in all, Finley manages to sort things out and chalks up her orderliness to having “a very organized mind. Many people have said, ‘How is it you don’t have any competition?’ It’s because of the fact I keep it personal. If anything, I worry about it. I will call the person and say, ‘I am worried about this. What if we try to do it another way?’”
Unlike most of her generation, Finley plotted her career path early on. “When I went to school, no one went to work. My mother never quite accepted it. Women went to college, got married and had children,” she said. “When I was 11 years old, I told my father, ‘I’m going to go to a college where they send you off to work.’ He said, ‘That sounds really great, but don’t tell your mother yet.’”
At Simmons, not far from her hometown of Haverill, Mass., Finley majored in journalism and minored in food and nutrition, and freelanced at the Boston Herald. Two summers in college were spent writing for the Herald Tribune’s food pages, which meant toiling in the paper’s test kitchen. There, she befriended fashion editor Eugenia Sheppard, who would later become the godmother of her youngest son.
The root of her fashion worries began over tea in a Park Avenue apartment with family friends in the late Forties. Fresh out of Simmons, Finley caught up with two women who were working as fashion writers. “They talked about how the following Thursday Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue were having events at 11 a.m., and how could they be in two places at the same time. They were really so upset. They had no assistants. That gave me the idea to start a clearinghouse for fashion to try to avoid any conflicts.”
Early on, she and her roommate, Gladys Hoover, who worked for Finley for two years, rented a furnished, but bedbug-infested apartment across the street from the 21 Club for $55 a month. Knowing their service would be a tough sell since it wasn’t tangible, they moonlighted as ushers in the theater. Their days were devoted to peddling the Fashion Calendar and having a mom-and-pop print shop mimeograph copies of it. One of the shop’s typists, Doris Roberts, is now an actress on “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
In the late Fifties, Eleanor Lambert established “Press Week,” salon-like fashion shows at the Pierre, the Plaza and other hotels, and Finley’s Fashion Calendar got a major lift. By 1959, her job became more of a necessity, after her husband died of a heart attack, leaving her with three sons who were age seven and younger. At that time, she was working out of a one-room office in her Upper East Side town house, joining her sons for their lunch break. “I was determined to give them a normal life and to give them as much of my time as I could. My children always came first. I never went to functions in the evenings or on weekends. To me, it was more important to be with them and to do things together.”
By the early Sixties, the Fashion Calendar was clicking and designers — not just buyers and press people — were calling Finley directly. Oscar de la Renta, Halston, Diane von Furstenberg, Calvin Klein and Gerry Silverman are among the designers she knew way back when. In fact, 30-plus years ago, Bonwit Teller’s former president, Mildred Custin, tipped Finley off “to come on over right away” to check out Klein’s collection.
In the early Sixties, de la Renta phoned Finley “almost in tears,” due to a scheduling conflict with Bill Blass. He said, “Ruth, you’ve got to help me. I’m in such a terrible situation. I want to do my show in a theater on Broadway and this is the only time I can get. Can you talk to him?” Sure enough, she did and found a time that worked out for both. “And my sad designer was happy,” Finley said.
Over the years, no designer has been too big or too small for Finley to lend an ear. She also has been known to field cell phone calls from forgetful editors in speeding taxis in search of their destinations. Finley is less tolerant of party and show crashers, though.
Her favorites labels include Blass, Adolfo, Chanel and Pauline Trigère, from whom she bought her first wholesale dress, a green cotton number she wishes she still had. “I did meet Chanel years ago in Paris. She insisted that I had to have something of hers. She set me up with two outfits. She was a very small person; we were about the same size actually. She was very nervous, sort of high-strung, wound-up. Basically, if she liked you — she had strong likes and dislikes — that was great. She was fascinated with the Fashion Calendar.”
Few in the fashion industry have Finley’s unlikely combination of guile and warmth. She was the first person von Furstenberg called after Diana Vreeland enthusiastically flipped through her first collection in Vogue’s offices and then left the designer sitting there. Following Finley’s advice, von Furstenberg booked a room at the Gotham Hotel, (where the Peninsula now is) for people to see the line and that started her career. “Every time I see Diane she mentions it. She has never forgotten I helped her when she was starting out.”
For a while, Halston called Finley three or four times a week for her input about his various ideas. Trigère became a close friend and fellow Citymeals-on-Wheels honoree and supporter. Finley also saw to it that John Pomerantz, Betsey Johnson and Liz Tilberis were toasted by Citymeals-on-Wheels, but more importantly they got involved.
As for herself, she said she enjoys going back to work after a vacation and never wakes up wishing she didn’t have to go to work.
“I love working with people. I know they need me and it’s a lovely feeling to be needed. I enjoy working on problems and trying to figure out answers. I plan to work at least 20 more years.”