NEW YORK — “I’m not talking really about fees. I’m talking about talent. Are you talented?”
That was how Oscar de la Renta recalled one of his first conversations with Eleanor Lambert, the longtime fashion publicist who died last month at the age of 100. Speaking at a memorial held Monday afternoon, de la Renta recalled that, since Lambert was convinced of his talent, she agreed to take his fledgling house on as a client in 1965, even though he didn’t have the money to pay her fees. She was content with the promise that when he became able to pay, he would.
A crowd of fashion industry notables and publishing executives recalled Lambert for her passionate drive to raise the profile of American fashion. They also recalled minor things about the daughter of an advance man for a circus, like her skill in preparing chicken pot pie, how good she looked in a turban and an enthusiasm for popcorn developed late in life.
“Eleanor was American fashion’s grande dame because she was part of its inception,” said Harold Koda, curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, which opened its doors on Monday — when it is normally closed — for the private memorial service. “She was more ambitious and inspired at her dreams than the very industry she was trying to advance.”
Koda credited Lambert with coming up with the plan that still provides the Costume Institute with its operating budget, a once-a-year fund-raising party.
While she was known for traveling with the fashion set and in the process turning designers into the mega-rich celebrities they have become, she didn’t have only champagne tastes, her friends said.
“Eleanor loved to shop in Chinatown for spices and bargain-priced silk pajamas,” recalled Joe Cicio, a former Macy’s executive who has had a long career in American retailing.
John Loring, design director of Tiffany & Co., remembered his first meeting with Lambert, at a lunch hosted by former Bloomingdale’s chief Marvin Traub.
He recalled her telling him, “I’m Eleanor Lambert and if I were a young man in your position, I’d make friends with me.”
The friendship paid off — in the Eighties, Loring said, Lambert persuaded actress Audrey Hepburn, who starred in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” to write a preface for a book he wrote about the famed Fifth Avenue store.
Other speakers included her son, Bill Berkson; TV personality Elsa Klensch; Hilary Weston, a member of the family that owns Selfridges in England, Brown Thomas in Ireland and Holt Renfrew in Canada, and Nadja Swarovski, vice president of international communications for the Austrian crystal maker. Her grandson, Moses Berkson, showed a brief film containing snippets of Lambert.
In one, she recalled being a young girl growing up in Indiana and wanting desperately to move to New York. She said she was drawn to the city because of its reputation for being a place open to testing and accepting new ideas.
“If no one agrees with you” in New York, she said, “Then maybe you better get another idea.”