As editors, influencers and buyers sort out their schedule for the next edition of New York Fashion Week, filmmaker Christian Bruun is finessing his documentary about the woman who started the Fashion Calendar and kept it rolling for nearly 70 years.
Archaic by today’s 24/7 digital demands, founder and publisher Ruth Finley relied early on on a landline, typewriter, mimeograph machine and face-to-face meetings to plot out, organize and publish the biweekly publication. Over time, the format advanced with technology and eventually introduced a web site, but many fashion insiders printed out copies of the multipage, biannual fashion week calendar and staple it together. Unfailingly kind, patient and diplomatic, Finley was also brutally frank, advising designers on time slots to avoid conflicts with their respective rivals. Her petite stature belied the shadow she cast amidst the giants of New York’s fashion scene, but Finley, who died last year at the age of 98, shunned fame and acclaim.
For a sense of perspective, women earned the right to vote, Woodrow Wilson was the 28th U.S. president and the first commercially licensed radio station started airing live election results in 1920, the year that Finley was born in Haverhill, Mass. After graduating from Simmons College in 1941, she made her way to New York City and landed a job in Lord & Taylor’s visual department. Finley later brushed up her publishing skills, writing for the New York Herald Tribune. With a loan of $1,000 from a college friend, Finley launched the Fashion Calendar in 1945. Pretty much a one-woman band for most of her career, Finley kept track of all New York City’s fashion events, parties, benefits and runway shows. In 2014, she sold the Fashion Calendar to the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
Finley once described her station in life thusly: “Over the years, I found myself mentoring young designers, many of whom are now the leaders of the industry. 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.’”
The 90-minute flick is expected to debut early next year — perhaps in time for what would have been Finley’s 100th birthday on Jan.14. Given what a New York story Finley’s life was, Bruun is gunning for an entry to the Tribeca Film Festival. The film’s Danish-born director, producer and cinematographer discussed the project from his home in Los Angeles on Wednesday. During her lifetime, Finley was kept up to speed with the film’s progress, viewing various scenes and cuts, but never the full picture as it exists today. The two-and-a-half to three years of filming started right after the CFDA had bought the Fashion Calendar, giving Finley another project.
Along with the importance of the Fashion Calendar, the consolidation of New York’s fashion industry and how Eleanor Lambert and Finley helped build the fashion scene “from nothing to essentially what it is today,” the film is also a portrait of Finley. Bruun examines “who Ruth was, what made her special and what gave her those superpowers to be able to do this for so long and to keep going. When we started filming in 2014, she was 94. She just had endless energy and she was so funny.”
Bruun first met Finley over coffee at her uptown apartment to discuss the possibility of a film, after Kate DelPizzo, Natalie Nudell and Tracy Jenkins — all of whom are involved with the picture — suggested he do so. “She was incredible. There was just something about the way that she had conducted herself, her business, her attitude and her outlook on life, fashion and her passion. I decided that there was a wonderful film to do about her and there was a great story to share with the world,” Bruun said, “This is an incredible story of 70 years of being at the center of New York fashion and not really being in the public eye.”
Tommy Hilfiger, Thom Browne, Carolina Herrera, Andrew Bolton, Nicole Miller, Steven Kolb, Betsey Johnson and Kathleen Turner are among the personalities who appear in the film. “We got such access, because everybody knew and loved Ruth. So anybody who talked to Ruth is probably in the film,” Bruun said wryly.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s former head curator in charge at its Costume Institute Harold Koda was a personal favorite, as was the museum’s current one Bolton, as well as Herrera and Marylou Luther. There is also an appearance by The New York Times’ legendary photographer Bill Cunningham, who died in 2016. Bruun noted how Cunningham recalled in the film that when he was starting out as a milliner, he couldn’t afford to list himself on the calendar. “He said that Ruth told him, ‘Don’t worry about it. You can pay me next year,’” Bruun said, “As you will see in the film, she would often meet and talk to young designers about their collections, what times would be good for them to show in the landscape of New York Fashion Week.”
He continued, “She clearly thought deeply about fashion in the way that she lived her life and the authenticity of it. She really went to every fashion show. Even before she passed away last year, you just always saw her. I could barely keep up with her. She was at five shows a day during New York Fashion Week at least and then she would go to the opera at night. She really, truly just loved it.”
Mentoring came naturally to Finley, who once explained how she decided at the age of seven to teach her three-year-old brother how to read. Finley said, “When I was 11, I had told my father that I knew I would go to college; work in my chosen profession, which was a journalist; get married, and have a successful career in New York,” After realizing there was no central coordination for scheduling fashion shows, Finley decided there was an opportunity to solve a real business problem. She once explained, “I would coordinate and schedule these shows and openings. I was determined to achieve my goals.”
Finley was very much aware and proud of being a strong female figure in the workplace, according to Bruun. That independence was not achieved easily. “When she started her business, that was very unusual. She couldn’t sign the paperwork to start the Fashion Calendar. She had to have her husband sign it, because as a woman you couldn’t own a business. She also had her office in her apartment. She was also a great mother who balanced work-life really well. She had lunch ready for her three sons when they came home from school. She would take them to a playground in Central Park and do stuff. She somehow managed to balance everything and she had a big desire for authenticity with everything she did.”
While many members of the fashion pack eventually scale back the number of shows that they attend, Finley never burned out. Bruun said, “She just loved fashion, she loved seeing it, she loved being engaged in it — just help the industry and work in the industry.”
She also was philanthropic before such altruism was fashionable. Finley joined the board of Citymeals on Wheels in 1983, just two years after Gael Greene and James Beard started it. She and her colleagues spearheaded the annual Fashion & Beauty Industry Salute to Citymeals on Wheels, which was the first of its kind for the organization. Finley also played an active role in Lighthouse for the Blind and the Roundtable for Fashion Executives.
In the early days, her typist was Doris Roberts, who went on to be more widely known for her role in the sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Finley “never took the calendar and made it into a gigantic advertisement-filled magazine as she could have done,” Bruun said. “She just kept it to its core function as a calendar and as a place for any designer — established or young and up-and-coming — to be able to be listed. And she was incredibly kind, open and democratic in her way of allowing people to list themselves on the calendar.”
While elements of Finley’s approach might seem primitive by today’s smartphone standards, coincidentally, several fashion executives have mentioned the need for her type of pragmatism in scheduling New York Fashion Week. A certain amount of confusion is due to the CFDA, IMG and Pier 59 each releasing schedules for next month’s shows — in some instances missing venue locations. Agentry’s owner and founder Erin Hawker said Thursday, “I think everyone needs to talk. You know how Ruth Finley used to have her schedule? There was the official grid, but in addition everyone still knew when everything was happening. It was all centralized. Somebody needs to take that stand and approach to say, ‘Here’s actually what’s happening in New York so it’s not so confusing.’” Her legacy lives on…