Eleanor Lambert

Star fashion PR who devised the Best-Dressed List
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The Independent Online

Eleanor Olive Lambert, publicist: born Crawfordsville, Indiana 10 August 1903; twice married (one son); died New York 7 October 2003.

"Only god helps the badly dressed," goes a Spanish proverb - Eleanor Lambert would avert her eyes and shudder at the sight of them. As one socialite put it, "You certainly think twice about dressing badly when Eleanor's around."

Lambert, the prototype for that frightening species the fashion PR, was the industry's bossiest Miss Marple and the wit who in 1940 devised its greasiest pole - the International Best-Dressed List. Over the last six decades, Lambert promoted herself as the patriotic voice of American style and the broker between the American and British arbiters of taste. Her influence stretched from senators, socialites and frock magnates to struggling painters - in the 1930s she promoted Jackson Pollock - and the obscure jewellery designers she might find in a Venetian studio or a gay disco in New York.

Fashion was by no means her sole domain. One minute she might be promoting the St Regis Hotel (New York's answer to the Savoy), the next steering Tiffany's through its London launch or advising Spencer House on who must not be left off a guest list. Promoting an arguably kitsch flamingo-pink housing estate in Florida, abutted by golf courses, as a "second-home paradise", which Clive Gibson of Spencer House described as "swamp to the left of you, swamp to the right of you", she couldn't, or wouldn't, see the downside. It was up, up, up all the way with Lambert. Did she really fall in love with every client's project? Lambert's talent was that she added oodles of syrupy politeness and heart-rending patriotism to her methods, whilst never losing sight of the target, which is why she was regarded as a star PR.

Eleanor Lambert possessed the enviable capacity for appearing to find people of all types simply riveting. "Oh, I'll go anywhere," she once told me with the eagerness of a 20-year-old who has just hit town, "but I'll only stay if the people aren't a bore." But lest you were distracted by her sugary ebullience, remember that Lambert invented fashion publicity and her charm and energy were targeted at successfully promoting America, seizing the largest slice of the limelight for her clients, coaching them through catfights, making sure that her vision of style prevailed and solving problems.

So what problems did she solve? Problem One: no one took American "fashion" seriously. Problem Two: no one had even heard of American designers - Clare Mc-who? Oscar de la What? Problem Three: the chauvinistic Europe market was impenetrable. No well-dressed woman in her right mind would even look at American clothes 60 years ago.

Lambert hit New York in 1928, an art school graduate from small-town Crawfordsville, Indiana. Initially she set herself up as an art PR but by 1934 had secured her first fashion client and quickly appreciated that promoting American designer names was the virgin territory that she would occupy.

In 1940, while the Europeans were distracted by Hitler, her chance came. She devised the Best-Dressed List as a means of selling American fashion. On the backs of society ladies such as Mrs Harrison Williams, Millicent Rogers, Countess Haugwitz Reventlow (the former Barbara Hutton, the Woolworth's heiress) and Mrs William "Babe" Paley, the American designers Norman Norell, Hattie Carnegie and Clare McCardell were promoted abroad. Later Halston, Bill Blass, Geoffrey Beene and Oscar de la Renta followed them into the international spotlight.

"What sets Eleanor apart," Oscar de la Renta explained, "is her true passion for the industry. No one has given us what she has for so many years." When first in business, Lambert worked for him gratis and when he took the publicity in-house, he sent a cheque every month as a thank you. Once met, you could not forget that ageless human dynamo, with her wrap-around smile, pink-powdered complexion and that recherché turban which sheltered her modern, computer-accurate mind.

Lambert's list - The List, despite the many pale imitations - made compulsive reading if you wanted to know who was In and who was Out. Reflecting its founder's ability to modernise, it cleverly mutated. Originally money and propriety defined the elegant. By 1947 the Best-Dressed Woman Fashion Professionals were added; an early nod to the "working woman". In 1966 a men's list was devised to reflect the re-emergence of the peacock and, two years later, appreciating that elegance was no longer newsworthy, Lambert split the list into two categories - Great Fashion Classicists and Most Imaginative Woman in Current Fashion - a euphemism for the extinction of elegance.

Today, the list is regarded as achingly kitsch. It is sent up rotten by Earl Blackwell's "Worst-Dressed List" (there are many duplications between the two lists) and in 1996 was challenged by Michael Gross, a New York fashion writer, who suggested that it was snobbish and anachronistic, and started a rival list. But Lambert was no fool, for her list, which she continued to oversee personally until last year, truly reflected the times.

Women would go to ludicrous lengths to mastermind their inclusion: hiring a PR ("Ideally Eleanor!," Bill Blass recommended mischievously), throwing themselves in front of paparazzi and spending the equivalent of a hospital's annual budget on a year's wardrobe. Husbands even attempted to bribe the incorruptible Lambert just to see their spouse on the list. Sir Hardy Amies summed it up: "I don't know a single person who would want to be on that list and if they do, they're idiots!"

All this may seem laughable and utterly frivolous, but there was method in Lambert's ways. Were it not for her, Calvin Klein and Halston, to name but two, would probably have remained anonymous back-room boys designing for big Seventh Avenue manufacturers. It also networked her into the most influential circles in America and Europe, allowing her to spread her influence beyond fashion.

The public acknowledgement that her campaign had succeeded was received in 1978 when she staged the French-American Fashion Show at the palace of Versailles; Bill Blass, Halston, Stephen Burrows, Oscar de la Renta and Anne Klein shared equal billing with Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Marc Bohan of Dior, Givenchy and Ungaro. Touché to French élitism!

To carry off this promotion Lambert not only had to battle against the dogged chauvinism of the European fashion industry, who regarded American designers as sew-your-own-dress-at-home hicks, but even the contempt of America's two most powerful editors, Carmel Snow of Harper's Bazaar and Edna Woolman Chase of Vogue, whose eyes were firmly fixed on the Paris catwalks. By nurturing confidence and winning recognition, Lambert encouraged America to find its own way to dress; a refined, easy and pared-down sportswear that makes Franco-frippery look like pantomime garb.

This feisty PR also established the Coty Awards (in 1942, the Oscars of the fashion world), the Council of Fashion Designers of America (1962), the bi-annual fashion weeks and the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute (1937). Beyond the world of fashion and beyond the borders of her beloved country Lambert dedicated herself to the Save Venice appeal, a sentimental acknowledgement to the city where she met her second husband, the journalist Seymour Berkson, and she was regarded as an honorary ambassadress to her second home, Ireland.

In 1993, the designer Sybil Connolly, an old chum, threw a 90th birthday party for Lambert at her home in Dublin. In many respects these women were similar; self-made, independent, fiercely opinionated in matters of taste and beavers on the New York-London axis amongst people "one ought to know". Pamela Harriman, former US ambassador to Paris and queen of that axis, was impressed by Lambert's staying power. "One admires a real professional and when you see people thriving over the years, as I've seen Eleanor remain at the top, I think it's both remarkable and heartening."

How had Lambert enough hours in her day and physical stamina to achieve all this? The answer is that she could be reached at 6.30am on the telephone, regarded trans- Atlantic flights as mere bus-hops and was a brave and early exponent of the facelift as a rejuvenator. Close Lambert watchers muttered about spring-time visits to a German clinic for "pick-me-ups".

It was Eleanor Lambert's lifelong battle against visual mediocrity that won her such discerning clients, for they knew that, in whatever you do, whatever you sell, appearance is all.

Jane Mulvagh

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