ZIP TALK; JOHN A.TIFFANY - about the legacy of Eleanor Lambert
By Katja Schmolka
John A.Tiffany about the legacy of Eleanor Lambert; fashion faux pas and the future of fashion
One year long John A.Tiffany followed Miss Eleanor Lambert, founder of the Council of Fashion Designers of America [CFDA], like a shadow. As her personal assistant during the 90s, he was provided an insight into the fashion industry like no one else. In his black-and-white coffee table book, Eleanor Lambert: Still Here, he describes with verve and wit his professional adventures with this exalted visionary and founder of the first fashion shows.
Reason enough, since it’s fashion show season, to take a closer look at Eleanor Lambert, who began her career as a publicist in the 1920s in New York. John A.Tiffany´s eyes sparkle when he talks about the grande dame of fashion. Born in California and Indiana respectively, both wanted more than the suburban life they were brought up in. The cherished goal: New York, a cosmopolitan city, a place where dreams can come true. Nothing comes easy in the City That Never Sleeps, but with good ideas and discipline, you can go far. Driven by a love of art, fashion, and contemporary big-city life, Lambert—and, a few light years later, Tiffany—landed in New York. As mentioned earlier, Lambert started out as a publicist. A close friend of Tiffany’s recommended him to Lambert, and he became her right-hand man. As he savored a cup of cappuccino during our interview, he said he learned a lot with Miss Lambert, for which he is very grateful.
MISS LAMBERT WAS ALWAYS AHEAD OF THE TIMES
Opera singers were the darlings of the press during the 1930s. Eleanor Lambert had the idea that artists and sculptors would be just as interesting for the media and general public. No sooner said than done. She went out and got the most renowned galleries and artists of the time excited about the idea. During the following decades, Lambert represented, among others, Salvador Dali, Cecil Beaton, Lilly Daché, Hattie Carnegie, Christian Lacroix, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, and many others. Image was of essential importance to Miss Lambert. She always went into work in her “uniform,” her famous turban, of which she owned at least a dozen. Her mission: to establish American designers on the world stage. She acted as a fashion diplomat between Paris and New York. Parisian chic was considered unsurpassable, and her concern was to promote American designers in Europe. Grotesquely enough, World War Two came to her assistance. Several of the established European fashion monarchies had to flee the Continent, and found a wonderful mentor in Eleanor Lambert. She was the first one to have the courage to send an African-American model down the runway, and in 1945 she established the first international fashion shows on a set timetable, the so-called Press Week. One could go on and on. For example, that Lambert was the first to hold the job title of Press Director for the Whitney Museum of American Art; that in 1962 she organized the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and created the Best Dressed List and the Coty Awards.
At a tiny coffee shop in Midtown, the historian and publicist John A. Tiffany and I chat about his time with Eleanor Lambert.
Katja Schmolka: Why did you want to wire a book about Eleanor Lambert?
John A.Tiffany: I think it’s shame that in the last few years Eleanor Lambert has been forgotten. With my book Eleanor Lambert: Still Here, I’d like to point out that so much, whether it’s the Council of Fashion Designers, the idea of PR for artists, press work, or the institution of fashion shows, they were all started by her. She deserves recognition. She built the bridge between New York and Parisian fashion, and was a trailblazer for seventy years.
Katja Schmolka: You’re a fashion historian and publicist. When did you realize that these were your interests?
John A.Tiffany: Already when I was a kid. My mother always wore these lovely dresses and pumps, and that was out in the middle of nowhere.. Everything that came from Europe was the crème de la crème. Food; currents in fashion; culture—she was always bringing these things to our attention. My great-great-grandmother came from Vienna, and was of the old school. I remember, growing up, things like table manners, greeting other people, and behaving in public were insisted upon. It had a lot to do with aesthetics. A teacher discovered my aptitude for and interest in fashion, and encouraged me to do a presentation in school about it. It was a fateful day for me. Just a short time later, a good friend brought me together with Miss Lambert. The rest is history.
Katja Schmolka: In your opinion, what’s changed in the fashion industry in the past few decades?
John A.Tiffany: Miss Lambert was very selective in her search for clientele. She only took the best and most talented artists, fashion designers, and photographers under her wing. Which presumes an incredible intuition and understanding for aesthetics and knowledge and art and fashion history. She herself started out as a sculptor and bookmaker, but found that she didn’t have the talent for an artistic career. Today’s message, as I hear it, is that everyone has talent. I don’t see it that way. There are only a few out there who really have the talent to make it to the top. It’s nice to hear, `Great job!`, but where do you get the constructive criticism that’ll actually make you grow? There’s never been so many people making art and fashion as there are now. Are we going in the direction of Instant Fashion? In order to participate in the fashion shows you had to be a member of the CFDA? Today as soon as you pay the fees, you’re on-board and live. And everything looks the same, like clones. To me it utterly lacks chic.
Katja Schmolka: Was working together with Miss Lambert sometimes difficult for you?
John A.Tiffany: Yeah, when she’d get up on the wrong side of the bed some mornings, or if her staff wasn’t prepared for the day’s work. Eleanor ordered everyone to read the morning papers every day to be up to date on the news coverage. She’d ask us about news items of the day. And woe to anyone who hadn’t done his homework! One day I came into the office. It seemed a couple of things hadn’t worked out the way she had imagined, and in her anger, she actually threw her pen at me. In the heat of the moment I threw it back at her. Shocked and angry, Lambert screamed at me, how could I do that. Knowing that I was one of the few people who enjoyed her respect, I answered, “Because you did the same thing to me!” and that was the end of that. Miss Lambert was a very generous woman, and supported a lot of artists even when they didn’t have the money for representation. Over the years quite a formidable collection of artworks had amassed in her office, paid in exchange for her services. Or she made deals where she wasn’t paid until years later. Who would do anything like that today?!
Katja Schmolka: Creativity is a hot topic, and somehow almost impossible to pin down. What exactly did it look like during your time with Eleanor Lambert?
John A.Tiffany: Long working hours, often on the weekend, were always on the agenda. This included nighttime presentations and organizing gala evenings. We had a lot of fun working. Often after one of Miss Lambert’s events, we would hit a disco late at night and dance till the wee hours and then be back in the office at the stroke of nine the next day, freshly combed and running on a liter of coffee, ready for the new day. This rhythm energized us! We had so much fun and fooled around a lot. And that’s when the best ideas came. Nowadays everything’s way too serious. Young people don’t have enough fun in life. Life passes by a lot of them, and they’re old already even though they’re still young. A very sad development.
Katja Schmolka: What do you miss?
John A.Tiffany: I give a lot of lectures at universities and art schools. And I love talking about my experiences with Miss Lambert. Very often names of famous art critics or notable designers will come up. And what hits me, really shocks me, is the complete lack of knowledge about fashion and art history. The new is always built on the past, that’s the magic formula. How can innovative ideas be developed in the future if they lack any kind of foundation? That bothers me a lot. I wonder what things will look like in ten years. Will there only be virtual fashion shows?
Katja Schmolka: Thanks for the interview!
pointedleafpress.com/archives/author/johnatiffany, All designer images: From Eleanor Lambert: Still Here, published by Pointed Leaf Press
Courtesy Fashion Institute of Technology | SUNY, FIT Library Dept. of Special Collections and FIT Archives