Three and a half years after the death of Ruth Finley, dozens of her designer friends and devotees are expected at Friday’s premiere of the documentary about her overly scheduled life.
Aptly entitled, “Calendar Girl,” the film highlights how the American businesswoman started the Fashion Calendar, orchestrated the sequence of cascading industry events and kept everything in check for nearly 70 years. Designed with a red cover and pink pages so readers could easily find it on their messy desks, the biweekly mimeographed publication was a necessity for generations of designers, retailers, manufacturers, media types, advertising executives and others. It listed all the fashion shows, awards galas, launch parties and other need-to-know activities.
Preferring to stay behind the scenes, Finley, who lived to be 98, was equal parts ringleader and diplomat. Running the show largely independently from her Upper East Side apartment, while raising three children after the sudden death of her second husband, Finley’s professional story is also a personal one. Decades before WFH was the norm, she, like other single mothers, did what was needed. Despite all of the gymnastics necessary to finesse seamless fashion week schedules, to appease big-personality designers and guide the unproven, the diminutive Finley did so with gusto.
A Simmons College graduate, she started out in New York working in Lord & Taylor’s visual department and later wrote for the New York Herald Tribune. With a $1,000 loan from a friend, she launched the Fashion Calendar in 1945. In the years that followed, she often found herself mentoring young designers — many of whom are now the leaders of the industry. Finley once explained to WWD, “Several times a week, designers, reporters and public relations directors will call me and the query is the same, ‘I wonder if you can help me?’ My answer is always, ‘I certainly will try.’”
That was an understatement. Finley ran the operation almost entirely on her own throughout her lengthy career. In 2014, she sold the Fashion Calendar to the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
Thom Browne, Carolina Herrera, Diane von Furstenberg, Andrew Bolton, Nicole Miller, Dennis Basso and the CFDA’s chief executive officer Steven Kolb are among the many who describe key exchanges with Finley in “Calendar Girl.” Several of the industry types featured in the flick are expected at the screening, Q&A and cocktail party at Scandinavia House on Friday.
In an interview Wednesday, the film’s Danish-born director, producer and cinematographer Christian D. Bruun praised Finley’s ability to strike a work-life balance as an entrepreneur and “a great mom” in the 1940s and 1950s.
During the shoot, nothing was off-limits. Finley spoke of her second husband’s death from a heart attack, when she was 39 with three children. “She was quite open about how she felt about things and how she managed to move on with her life,” Bruun said.
Filming got underway at the end of 2014 when Finley was in the midst of selling the Fashion Calendar and New York’s fashion industry was consolidating. “This seemingly straightforward calendar has had so many implications in the fashion industry and that was changing. At the same time, Ruth had to come to terms with the fact that she was over 90,” Bruun said.
The film’s star had seen a nearly final version of the documentary before her passing. But she was more pleased about the story of New York Fashion Week’s evolution being shared than gaining any personal fame, Bruun said.
“In some ways, it was not about her. She did talk about herself with me but that was not how she operated or why she did what she did. She just did it because she liked to be part of the industry, just do her job and put her kids through school,” Bruun said. “I think she would want to be remembered as a good mom and a good friend…she just enjoyed the ride.”
Inherently pragmatic and positive, Finley had tried to figure out a way to keep it in her family, but none of her kin felt they could carry on her work as effectively as she had, since so much of its success hinged on her orchestration and intuition, Bruun said. “It later was decided that the Council of Fashion Designers of America would be the best home for it, and the organization became the new owner.”
As for the more digital-minded, who might have a “Who cares?” reaction to the idea of such an archaic tool but, as Bruun noted, it was a key component in fashion’s story.
“A calendar printed in an office may seem insignificant. When you peel away the layers, you truly understand that it was a gift. What makes it exciting was that she kept that position of being important even way past when it could have become an app or any of those other things,” Bruun said.
And Finley’s unfailingly personal touch with designers and other power players could not be matched.
“Sometimes, I’m sure it was frustrating that they had to go through this hub. But many, many times she would offer a solution. Think about the amount of advice that she gave to people about when they could and should show and all the logistics were in her head,” Bruun said. “As a reflection of our digital age, everything is removed from customer support. You have to check that little box to say if you are a robot or not. In that day and age, Ruth was a real person, who actually connected people, helped people and guided them through.”
Recalling how he shadowed her during fashion week for some of the filming, Bruun described her warming effect on so many people: “Everyone from Ralph Lauren to the security guards would all give her a big hug and say, ‘Hey, Ruth!’”
Diminutive and soft-spoken as she was, Finley was unabashed about telling designers when their plans could go off-track and why. She would say, ‘You can’t show on this day because your collection would be going up against these other designers [in the same time slot], or a luncheon, a press conference or the model you really want to use will be busy uptown for five hours that day,’” he explained.
In a non-fashion light, the film demonstrates “how to just live a good pure life and be productive,” according to Bruun.
“But the fact is she just did it for the love of fashion,” he said. “Someone in the film says that most people complain about that big schedule and having to make it to all those fashion shows. Ruth just did it — she showed up to as many as she could. And she would probably go to the opera at night afterward [laughs].”
Intrigued by how scheduling and the fashion calendar continue to be such an integral part of the industry, Bruun said, “There was a metaverse fashion week going on last time. All of the intricacies of the fashion world are about pushing the boundaries. To me, Ruth opened up all of those doors to understanding it and being part of it. I hope that is part of her legacy.”