A new exhibit at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York is shining a light on a critical industry figure recognized for her "tireless advocacy" on behalf of American designers — long before New York was known as a major fashion epicenter.
Eleanor Lambert: Empress of Seventh Avenue (running through March 28) honors the legacy of Eleanor Lambert, who has been hailed as the "original fashion publicist." The exhibit documents her varied efforts for the American fashion industry, including launching the first New York Fashion Week and helping put on the Battle of Versailles. Beyond keeping track of the many hats she wore throughout her 75-year career, it explores how Lambert could be considered an early harbinger of the more multi-hyphenated nature of fashion's fast-evolving public relations industry.
Organized by the School of Graduate Studies and The Museum at FIT, the exhibit traces Lambert's impact through a mixture of ephemera — personal letters, newspaper clippings and press photos, in addition to 12 garments by designers she represented. (A printed linen coat by Bill Blass — a client and close friend of Lambert's — hangs in the gallery alongside a photo of the publicist herself.)
Lambert took on her first fashion client in 1932. Her professional background was art: She was notably the first press director of the Whitney Museum and worked with several famous artists, including Nogucci and Salvador Dali. (A painted paper tie by the surrealist is also on display at The Museum at FIT exhibit.)
"She saw how people really only recognized Paris as the fashion capital," co-curator Faith Cooper tells Fashionista. "She ended up joining the [New York] Dress Institute to showcase designers' actual names because back then the fashion designers were hidden behind manufacturing labels."
An early example of this was Norman Norell, who worked with a manufacturer named Traina. With Lambert's support, the designer hashed out a deal: He would be paid less, but his name would appear on the garment label. One of his silk chiffon evening dresses appears in the exhibit, a representation of his creative labor and his and Lambert's emboldened partnership.
Cooper says the curators wanted to highlight fashion items by the top designers Lambert had "strong faith in" in this exhibit. This includes pieces like a wool coat by Calvin Klein, a leather and knit jacket by Stephen Burrows and a wool jersey and suede evening dress by Bonnie Cashin, the first designer of Coach. There's also a brocaded silk bark cloth caftan by Oscar de la Renta, who Lambert offered to represent for free when he was just starting out. (The designer later repaid her.)
Other highlights from the exhibit include a 1938 issue of American Vogue on display, detailing the U.S.'s rising fashion scene; a 1941 Dress Institute advertisement culled from Women’s Wear Daily and a 1942 printed program from the Coty American Fashion Critics' Awards, which Lambert started (we know them now as the CFDA Awards). There's also a 1959 article from Life magazine about a fashion show Lambert helped organize, that was boycotted by a handful of fashion editors for its diverse casting, featuring Asian and black models. Cooper says the publicist was a major supporter of black models, designers and publications throughout her career.
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There's even a personal letter to Jackie Kennedy. Why? After the First Lady was criticized for purchasing French fashion, Lambert worked with the Garment Workers Union to encourage her to wear American designers instead. Kennedy ultimately hired Oleg Cassini as her "secretary of style" — a testament to Lambert's influence beyond New York and on the broader U.S. fashion industry.
This intimate yet impactful exhibition comes at a unique time for the fashion industry — and the PR profession. Companies continue cutting back on staff and the lines between public relations, marketing and editorial are blurring together. Lambert's efforts and career might be more relevant than ever.
Eleanor Lambert: Empress of Seventh Avenue is on view at The Museum at FIT in New York from March 3 to 28, 2020.