THE BEST-DRESSED OF THEM ALL

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The Independent Culture
Audrey Hepburn made the List. So did Bianca

Jagger and Paloma Picasso. This year, however,

it is the Brits who are in with the strongest

chance. The fashion world may not care to admit

it, but the International Best Dressed List, now

in its 55th year, creates a stir time after time.

Marion Hume reveals some of the names that

are on this year's list, and some that should be

reputation as a bitchy, elitist institution,

some people will do anything to get on it

on it

NEXT MONTH, the names which will appear on this year's International Best Dressed List will be decided over a lap lunch of macaroni cheese in New York. But while the food will be humble, the business at hand will be anything but. The International Best Dressed List, which has been in existence since 1940, and which has previously included Bianca Jagger, Audrey Hepburn and Anjelica Huston, matters very much to some people.

Invented and still presided over by Eleanor Lambert, the original Queen Bee of American fashion PR, it is treated with the utmost seriousness by fashion experts all over the world, and, more importantly, by those who aspire to appear on it. Indeed, there are some for whom failure to appear on the List is the ultimate social disaster.

The first step to take in order to get your name on the List is pretty basic: take care over what you wear. The second stage, closely related, is to be seen at the kind of social gatherings where your exquisite taste will be noticed. (If you're a Hollywood star, a dollop of tinseltown tackiness might be forgiven.) The third step is to be included on the provisional list of approximately 100 women's names, drawn up by Eleanor Lambert and - unofficially, at least - her friends. (There is a separate men's list, which never receives as much attention as the women's list.) This list is printed on watermarked paper, accompanied by a ballot card and mailed out to the 1,000 "most influential people in the fashion world", who vote for their top 12 men and women. Ballot cards are returned to East 58th Street, New York, this month.

The fourth, crucial stage takes place next month, after the ballot cards have been counted: an inner jury of about 20 fashion arbiters counts the votes and whittles the list down to the 12 final women and 12 men. Winning this jury's approval is what really counts. Although it has not yet happened, it is perfectly possible, in theory, for a nominee to poll the vast majority of votes in the initial ballot and still not make the final list.

The names of this inner jury are a less than well-kept secret. Members are thought to include Hamish Bowles and Andr Leon Talley, both of whom work for US Vogue; and Aileen Mehle, aka Suzy Knickerbocker, the doyenne of society columnists of America. They all take the power entrusted in them very seriously and soberly. When they gather next month in Eleanor Lambert's drawing-room, sitting under Cecil Beaton sketches and overlooking New York's Central Park, Diet Coke will be served. A handful of key jurors who cannot attend, for reasons of geography, are asked to take a sandwich lunch at their desks in London or Paris on the day of the debate so that their opinion can be sought by telephone.

Like the people who are named on it, the International Best Dressed List goes in and out of fashion. Eleanor Lambert, who has never been named on the list, originally invented it in order to stir up interest in American fashion at a time when its European competition was preoccupied with war. There have been times in the past 50 years or so when this roll call of the wealthy has seemed cringingly bourgeois; there are times when studiously hip inclusions - Madonna made the list one year - have seemed utterly ludicrous. And then there are times like these, when the arch-glamour of dressing up is back in fashion, and the notion of joining a list which has in its time included Diana Vreeland, Princess Grace and the Duchess of Windsor seems rather glorious.

Those already nominated for this year's List include Lucie de la Falaise, the newly-wed half-French younger beauty of the de la Falaise clan; Lady Amanda Harlech, the muse for the designer John Galliano; and Lucy Ferry. Indeed, this year's list is dominated by Britons: other names on it include Lady Sarah Chatto (formerly Armstrong-Jones), Allegra Hicks, India Hicks, Patsy Kensit and British Vogue's Anna Harvey. Several leading American fashion magazine editors and stylists - Elizabeth Tilberis, Anna Wintour and Camilla Nickerson (all Brits) - are there, too.

My number one choice from the ballot list is Anh Duong, the half-Spanish, half-Vietnamese former model-turned-painter, who is beautiful as well as being possessed of an androgynous, off-beat personal style. Carla Sozzani, shopkeeper and gallery-owner of an exotic Milanese bazaar called Corso Como 10, happens to look like a Botticelli angel, but is also immensely stylish. Noona Smith Pedersen, Calvin Klein's right- hand woman, need only reach for a rail-full of her boss's clothes when she dresses each morning, but she looks like a well-dressed working woman (while many who occupy similar positions do not). Others I have voted for (yes, I am one of the chosen 1,000 voters) include the model Kristen McNemeny, who is helped by having one of those coathanger bodies that look good in clothes, and Lady Sarah Chatto, who despite being a member of the British royal family manages to look modern none the less.

Every year, there are criticisms. Despite Miss Lambert's efforts, there are those who make it on to the initial 100-long listing because they are too high-profile to ignore. One of the worst-dressed women in fashion has sneaked on to this year's nominations, although, following the discreet code set by Miss Lambert, it would be churlish to mention her name here.

Then there are those who make it to the provisional list because they are stunningly beautiful rather than stunningly stylish. Is Uma Thurman well-dressed? By what criteria does one judge someone who would look good in a sack? Is Denzel Washington, on the list of nominations for the Men's Best Dressed List, divinely dressed or simply divine?

While those who strive to be stylish might make the List one year but not the next, there are those who are born to make perennial appearances. In order to make space for new names, those who have appeared on the annual list at least three times are elevated to the Best Dressed List Hall of Fame. Those in the Hall of Fame include Paloma Picasso, Jean Muir, the Princess of Wales and Nan Kempner.

But back to that lunch. Eleanor Lambert - who, at 91, still looks fearsomely elegant in her turban - insists that it is a debate and not a soap-box for the airing of personal vendettas. "Discussion about every nominee is lively, but not bitter. There is no personal venom." Everything said is confidential, a code which has been broken only once. Someone from Women's Wear Daily, the fashion world's daily newspaper, once left Miss Lambert's luncheon and told all to her editor. "It caused a terrible furore. I always start our meeting by reminding the 18 or 20 of us gathered that whatever we say shall never leave this room," says Miss Lambert.

Miss Lambert insists that those voting on the provisional list also add on other names, perhaps unknown to those in her apartment, if "you feel [they] deserve to be recognised". So here are a few suggestions:

Natascha Loeb, fashion editor at Tatler, is one of those rare girls who can wear those bizarre suggestions that catwalk fashion occasionally throws up - such as the slinky nightie over thigh-high socks and under a little cardi look - without looking like either a fashion victim or a complete idiot, but instead looking enviably sleek. As she has just become Countess Abensperg und Traun and thus now possesses the right kind of title, she will probably end up being discussed at one of Miss Lambert's fork lunches before too long. Yuki Maekawa is unlikely to make The List because she doesn't look sleek. She does, however, give an easy lesson on how to wear sometimes tricky Japanese clothes without being overpowered by them. It of course helps that she is a close friend of Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garons, but she is often to be spotted in central London in clothes which those of us in the know can identify as at least 10 years old. I would also cast a vote for Caroline Neville. Again, she is in the fashion business, as a press officer, but she never attempts the mutton-as-lamb look and is one of those enviable women who are consummately impeccable. Ditto Ruth Rogers, restaurateur and a stranger to the glitzy and glossy, whose look is determined by what is practical for work.

Models and actresses, of course, have it easy, what with great faces and an easy flow of designer clothing. But Linda Evangelista and Helena Christiensen both have their own strong styles off the catwalk. It can't be that hard to look great if you are Madeleine Stowe, and as for Nicole Kidman, she gets a vote for looking particularly good in John Galliano recently. Bjork manages to look alluring in clothing that looks as if it has been boiled in the bag and for that achievement alone she gets a vote.

The strict code set by Eleanor Lambert means that those who sit in fashion's star chamber will not reveal who has been honoured until the official 1995 International Best Dressed List is released next month. Do we really care? Even those of us in the fashion business would protest that we do not. But we would be lying. !

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