Percy Savage: Mr Ab Fab

He was the original fashion publicist who got Saint Laurent his first job, introduced Dietrich to the front row and had a Dior perfume named after him
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Still statuesque at over six feet tall, Savage - sporting his signature fedora hat, his head held high - has countless anecdotes. Even the briefest encounter reveals how this boy from the Brisbane Bush won over fashion's élite to become the style socialite of the second half of the last century and, indeed, the industry's first PR.

"Before the war French Vogue hardly existed and it was considered very vulgar to have anything in the press other than perfume advertising," says Savage, explaining the non-existence of PR prior to his arrival at Lanvin in 1951.

Savage made the role his own. Aside from ensuring that the press cooed over names such as Princess Grace, Marlene Dietrich and Elizabeth Taylor, Savage's edge was his meticulous networking. He counted Cristobal Balenciaga, Jean Cocteau and Farah Dibah (who became the empress of Iran) as friends; he escorted Maria Callas when Aristotle Onassis turned his attentions to Jackie Kennedy; President Khrushchev knew him by name. His masterful connecting of politicians, actors, rock stars and royalty made him a coveted name on any guest list.

One such starry event is now the stuff of fashion folklore. When Christian Dior was searching for a name for his new fragrance, for men, he invited fashion's opinion-formers (including Savage) to dinner to help come up with one. "It was the day of the Lanvin show, so I was working, and arrived late to Christian Dior's house," recalls Savage. "The butler showed me through and announced 'Monsieur Sauvage'. Someone banged on the table and said: 'Oh Sauvage, how dare you arrive so late!' Dior clapped his hands and said 'That's it! Eau Sauvage!'" To this day the name is visible on beauty counters the world over.

It wasn't personal accolades, however, that set Percy's heart racing. "I got the biggest buzz from attaining maximum press coverage for clients; especially press coups," he says with a twinkle in his eye. His favourite was causing an almighty brouhaha with the Chambre Syndicale (Paris fashion's governing body). "Elizabeth Taylor was to attend the Lanvin show but her flight was delayed," he explains. When Taylor's film company called that evening to ask if she could choose something to wear to her premiere the following night, Savage hot-footed to her hotel with 20 Lanvin dresses.

While the actress was trying them on, Savage was on the telephone. "I knew a journalist working for the Herald Tribune, so I called her and got her an exclusive interview," he says. "I then informed the French press that Elizabeth Taylor would be wearing Lanvin to the premiere. It became front-page news in all the papers. The other houses were green with envy."

The coup broke the Chambre Syndicale embargo stating that no garment seen on the catwalks could be published in the press until a month after the shows. "That's what cau-sed the scandal," says Savage, "but there was nothing that they could do because it was the client wearing the clothes, not something I'd given to a fashion editor to photograph." So it was Savage who pioneered today's pandemic of celebrities in designer dresses on the red carpet.

Savage also had an eye for design, having trained as a fine artist (first in Sydney, then at Paris's Ecole des Beaux-Arts). He sat on a panel that judged the International Wool Secretariat award when Karl Lagerfeld won the coats' prize, Yves Saint Laurent walking away with the gong for dresses.

"Lagerfeld had a job lined up at Balmain," Savage remembers, "but Saint Laurent came to me and said 'I've got this bloody prize but I want a job'." Savage took it upon himself to find him one. Balenciaga declined, citing that he had ample assistance, whereas Dior's response was: "I already have 20 assistants so one more won't hurt." "Three years later Christian Dior passed away. That's when Yves Saint Laurent took over the house of Dior."

Savage didn't have a mentor. Instead, it was the press who guided him. "People like Madge Garland [British Vogue's then editor] and Ernestine Carter [the Sunday Times fashion editor] told me how I should operate and what was of interest to them," he reveals. And such was their admiration for Savage's promotion of Paris fashion that, when he moved to London in 1974, they asked that he do the same for British designers.

Savage's first show, entitled The New Wave, staged at The Ritz, was followed by The London Collections proper, where Bianca Jagger and Princess Margaret sat ringside at the shows of Bruce Oldfield, Wendy Dagworthy and Zandra Rhodes. These events were the precursor to London Fashion Week.

Savage's masterstroke in heightening awareness of British fashion was to get Margaret Thatcher involved. He convinced her to hold a drinks reception at Downing Street which resulted in the infamous image of Katharine Hamnett shaking Thatcher's hand while flashing her anti-Pershing T-shirt.

Sitting in Savage's flat, where vibrant artworks (including a Cocteau bearing a personal message) line the walls, one senses that there's space for one more framed piece. A CBE, perhaps, would befit a man who has spent a lifetime championing fashion.

Fashion Lives at the British Library, Euston Road, London (020-7412 7332), 11 November to 7 February

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