Obituary: Liz Tilberis
Friday 23 April 1999
She was born Elizabeth Kelly, the daughter of an eye surgeon from Bath. Her path to the editorship of two of the world's most influential fashion magazines was forged through single-minded determination: she fought for everything she achieved. Always a rebel, at Malvern Girls' College she refused to be confirmed, stating, "I don't believe in God." At Leicester Polytechnic, where she was a fashion student, she was expelled for entertaining a man in her room.
Determined, however, to study fashion, she obtained an introduction to the Jacob Kramer Art College in Leeds. The first person to look through her portfolio was Andrew Tilberis, an art tutor. Unimpressed, he dismissed her work as the dilettante output of a posh boarding-school. He noted the Leicester report. "We don't have hookers here," he said. Liz, though, was determined to overwhelm him with her enthusiasm for fashion: why she loved it, why it was important, and why she needed the chance to study. Andrew recalled that it was this speech - and her legs - which decided him in her favour.
At that time, 1967, Vogue was the leading fashion magazine in Britain. While still a student Liz entered the Vogue talent contest, which entailed writing three essays. She was the runner-up and was accepted by Vogue as an intern, on pounds 25 a week. She later said of her apprenticeship:
I began by picking up dress pins at photo sessions, making tea, swapping risque stories with models and complimenting hairdressers and photographers. I made myself useful, generally; slowly, very slowly working my way up. I succeeded by knowing the right answers but when to keep my mouth shut, when to smile and how to do really good ironing. I also learned everything there was to know about fabrics. It was invaluable experience.
The then editor-in-chief and doyenne of Vogue, Beatrix Miller, remembered her first impressions of Tilberis: "It was her niceness, enthusiasm and eagerness, even over making coffee; and her boundless energy. Even though she was very young she had high aspirations."
Tilberis's first substantive appointment with Vogue was as fashion assistant, in 1970. Over the next decade and a half she learnt how to nurture the photographers' creative flair and to make models feel great.
In June 1987, after almost 20 years at the magazine, she was offered a hugely well-paid job in New York as part of Ralph Lauren's design team, which she accepted. She sold her house and packed her possessions. Two days after handing in her notice she was called into the office of Anna Wintour - then editor and about to leave for New York - and offered the editorship of Vogue.
Under Tilberis Vogue won numerous awards and prestigious front-row seats at the collections world-wide. Its circulation rose to a healthy 233,000. Her approach was direct but not dictatorial. "My staff are respectful rather than frightened. I would rather be criticised than complimented. I'm Machiavellian rather than malicious."
Those who worked with her soon realised that her constant self- deprecation was a clever camouflage. It hid a very tough, dedicatedly ambitious lady, but no harridan. She was funny and courageous, and her warmth and humanity shone through. Anne Cryer, executive fashion editor of British Vogue, whom Tilberis took with her to Bazaar, confirmed this. "She was always optimistic, no matter what the crisis. Nothing overwhelmed or depressed her."
Tilberis was very family-minded, close to her younger sister, Lois, her GP brother, and her mother. Liz, with her bob of silver hair, was attractive but never claimed to be a stunning beauty. "Fashion editors who look too good make models feel bad," she said. When she took over at Harper's Bazaar in 1992, she weighed 10 stone 10 pounds, "which is practically illegal in our business - even more so in New York than in Europe - and my weight became the subject of rude gossip. One newspaper article, one of the kinder ones, called me bovine . . . Under the influence of my slender staff I'd lost about 20 pounds that first year at Bazaar."
In her autobiography, No Time To Die, published in 1998, Tilberis detailed with painful honesty the personal obstacles she had encountered and her refusal to bury her strong emotional needs. She described how her father forbade her to marry Andrew Tilberis, "because he was a foreigner". (They were to enjoy almost 30 happy years of marriage.) She wrote of her devastation at not being able to have children; the failure of her infertility treatment; and her joy in eventually adopting her two sons: Robert in 1981 and Christopher in 1985.
Her fighting spirit is nowhere more apparent than in her account of her battle against ovarian cancer, which was diagnosed in December 1993. That day should have been the "most glamorous and celebratory" of her life. Some 250 of the grandest fashion people in New York had gathered at Tilberis's brownstone house to celebrate Bazaar's fashion awards that year, which included two Ellies - National Magazine Awards, the Oscars of the fashion press, named after the elephantine statues designed by Alexander Calder.
Hearst had taken out a full-page congratulatory ad in The New York Times. After almost two years, Tilberis had reversed its decline and it was once more recognised as one of the world's pre-eminent fashion magazines. Scheduled for surgery the next day, she told no one except Andrew.
Cruelly, it seemed possible that the cancer had been caused by her infertility treatment. In spite of waging a tremendous battle against the disease and raising public awareness of it, Tilberis managed to carry on working over the next few years, and Harper's Bazaar maintained its prestigious position in the magazine world.
Although eminently successful Tilberis believed that England never appreciated her. "In England it was, 'She's just the editor of a fashion magazine.' The literary group wouldn't talk to me; the acting group wouldn't talk to me; the newspaper journalists didn't want to know. Nobody was interested in me. In New York they call me Million Dollar Liz. I'll take Manhattan."
Liz Tilberis loved fashion, writes Sally Brampton. Her affection for it was in equal measure to her irreverence. She mocked it mercilessly - "Come on, guys, we're only talking frocks here" - and defended it robustly.
The woman who made it from the equivalent of Vogue's typing pool to become editor-in-chief knew every inch of fashion magazines, every trick, every cliche, every heart-wrenching image. She created many of them herself in her days as fashion editor when she worked with the great photographers from Terence Donovan and David Bailey to Bruce Weber and Arthur Elgort.
In her position as editor of Vogue's More Dash than Cash pages in the early Seventies, she subverted that magazine's elitist take on fashion with the notion of affordable chic. Scouring the market for unlikely sources of fashion - caterer's outfitters, army surplus stores, traditional gentlemen's shops - she put together her pages with flair and originality. Most of all, she made fashion accessible.
Later, when she became fashion editor, she introduced the work of Bruce Weber and set the tone for the healthy, vital and strong images of women that have since come to dominate fashion magazines. Weber's first cover for Vogue, in 1980, produced in collaboration with Liz, was of a fresh- faced young woman, laughing into the camera and wearing no make-up. It so confused Vogue's printers that, when the proofs were returned, they had touched in the mouth with red lipstick.
Laughing women, kids, old jeans, T-shirts, men's white shirts, and even dogs in fashion shoots - these were all part of Liz's tenure as editor- in-chief of Vogue. She believed in fantasy too, and glamour, but always grounded in ruthless common sense. It was Liz who persuaded the Princess of Wales to pose for a cover for Vogue and, together with the photographer Arthur Elgort, gave Diana the clean, carefree image of the modern princess that she kept right to her death. The two became firm friends. Diana was one of the first people on the telephone when Liz emerged from the major operation that marked the beginning of her illness. "Diana who?" asked her husband, Andrew Tilberis. "Diana Windsor," came the reply.
Liz was a great leveller who loathed snobbery in people as well as fashion and that, as an editor, was her great strength. Everybody, in Liz's eyes, was equal, but nobody was more equal than the readers of her magazine. Earthy, practical and with a wicked sense of humour, the only thing she truly revered was talent, which she encouraged whole-heartedly. All of her ex-assistants, of whom I am one, remember her with huge affection. She became our friend, as well as our mentor. The charm, which she possessed in bucketfuls, was five parts warmth, three parts humour. It was a formidable weapon, wrong-footing even the chilliest opponent. Her reputation for niceness was legendary but disguised a formidable determination. She was the iron fist in a velvet glove.
She never forgot the snobbery that surrounded Vogue in the early years, and was determined not to allow the same culture to infiltrate her magazine. Her policy as an editor was completely open door. She inspired fierce loyalty, not only in her staff but also in the photographers, models, make-up artists and hairdressers who worked for her. She regarded herself as part of a team and never claimed credit for herself alone. "A magazine is made only of people," she once told me. "It walks in the door in the morning, and out the door at night. People sometimes forget that."
Liz never did. That's why she loved America. She loved its openness, its willingness to celebrate success and to embrace new ideas. When she was invited to New York by the Hearst organisation in 1992 to revitalise the ailing Harper's Bazaar, there were many on both sides of the Atlantic who said it was an impossible task. Undaunted, Liz set up camp alone in a dark basement in the bowels of the Hearst building. For three months, she talked into a telephone. Using tenacity, determination and sheer charm, she pulled together a strong creative team and within a year, Bazaar rose phoenix-like from the ashes to take its place alongside Anna Wintour's Vogue.
She loved every moment of the magazine's success and took great joy in it. When the paparazzi turned their cameras on her, she was incandescent with delight, for it marked Bazaar as a major player in the ruthlessly competitive American market. The media made much of the rivalry between Liz and Anna Wintour, the two English-born editors, and Liz, who knew a good story when she saw it, publicly played the game to the hilt. Privately, she expressed only respect for Anna Wintour, who responded in kind.
Bazaar is her legacy and one that she was right to be proud of. Liz was far too clever to go head-to-head with the vast, commercial machine that is American Vogue. Instead, she created a quieter, cooler magazine that took fantasy and understated glamour as its blueprint. Yet, at its heart it remained true to her vision of practical, democratic fashion. Her editor's letter in the present issue of Bazaar is typically Liz. In it she celebrates the humble sweater.
She took the chill out of fashion. Her warmth and humanity were ever present. Her illness she treated with robust humour - "my cancer diet" she said of her slimmed-down figure - and she campaigned tirelessly to raise awareness of ovarian cancer and wrote candidly about the condition in the magazine. Her courage, even when she was in terrible pain, was formidable.
Soon after a bone marrow transplant, in which she nearly died, she was back attending the fashion shows - unable to resist a look at what Calvin, Donna and Ralph were up to. She couldn't eat because her mouth and throat were ulcerated, and her fingernails had splintered to the quick. Typically, all she did was tell a funny story about Andrew having to get her tights on for her in the morning. When I commented how good her hair looked despite chemotherapy, she laughed like a drain. "Some fashion expert you are. Can't tell a wig when it's staring you in the face."
She was devoted to her sons, Robbie and Christopher, and to Andrew. "My boys," she called them. "My team."
Elizabeth Jane Kelly, fashion editor: born Alderley Edge, Cheshire 7 September 1947; Fashion Assistant, Vogue 1970-73, Fashion Editor 1973- 85, Executive Fashion Editor 1985-86, Fashion Director 1986-87, Editor in Chief 1987-92; Editor in Chief, Harper's Bazaar 1992-99; married 1971 Andrew Tilberis (two adopted sons); died New York 21 April 1999.
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