Perhaps the most charming treasure preserved in the archives of Eleanor Lambert, publicity doyenne and founder of the International Best-Dressed List, New York Fashion Week and other enduring industry institutions, is a typewritten note signed “Audrey Hepburn” and dated May 10, 1957. After learning that she had been voted for the first time onto the International Best-Dressed List, the 28-year-old Hepburn (then in Mexico, where husband Mel Ferrer was shooting The Sun Also Rises) wrote to Lambert: “I must tell you that not in my wildest dreams did I ever think this could happen to me. I have always had so much admiration for those enviable creatures who were ‘best dressed.’ ”
I was equally thrilled when I received the news of my election to the List in 1994, in the Fashion Professionals category (at the time I was a special correspondent at Vanity Fair, covering culture, style and the world of fashion, and had been the style editor at both Harper’s Bazaar and House & Garden). Hepburn won several more times before ascending to the Hall of Fame, in 1961, to which lofty station such other soigné paragons as the Duchess of Windsor, Babe Paley and Grace Kelly had already risen.
In 1997, I too was bumped up to the H.O.F., but in my case, entrance into Lambert’s fashion pantheon did not end my association with the List. Lambert invited me to become a member of her synod-like, quasi-secret committee, which oversaw the results of the annual I.B.D.L. poll (more than 2,000 voters received ballots every year). Reinaldo Herrera, a Vanity Fair colleague, already sat on Lambert’s committee — which, in the mid-’90s, included such venerable arbiters of elegance as Jerome Zipkin and Kenneth Jay Lane. Eventually, Lambert also tapped our VF confederates Graydon Carter and Aimée Bell to participate in the hours-long seances at her apartment. She valued the contributions of our VF quartet so much that, in 2002, a year before her death at 100, Lambert formally bequeathed the List and its archives to us — specifying that the List belonged to her “four friends,” not to the magazine employing them.
But even before the passing of the torch, the List had already infiltrated my life, my work and my home. A good share of the articles that I had written, or would write, for VF were, coincidentally, profiles of List luminaries, some living, others dead. In the early days of my tenure at the magazine, I composed lengthy features on Giancarlo Giammetti, Jacques Grange, Diana Vreeland, Audrey Hepburn, Hubert de Givenchy, Coco Chanel, Claudette Colbert and Carolina Herrera. In time, I would also write pieces about I.B.D.L. avatars Pauline Trigère, James Galanos, Robert Couturier, Jacqueline de Ribes, Nicolas de Gunzburg, Azzedine Alaïa, William Ivey Long and Karl Lagerfeld, to name more than a few.
Simultaneously, and unintentionally, I had been collecting objects with I.B.D.L. provenances and references. Numerous fixtures of my New York apartment — a Venetian mirror, Lucite chairs, Baguès smoked-glass tables, pink opaline vases — had belonged to Helena Rubinstein (elected 1964). Adorning my walls were (to give a partial inventory) an Eric drawing of Sophie Tucker previously owned by Bobby Short (H.O.F. 1986); a triptych of Babe Paley (H.O.F. 1958), C.Z. Guest (H.O.F. 1959), and Diana Vreeland (H.O.F. 1964) by illustrator Kenneth Paul Block; porcelain sconces deaccessioned by Gloria Vanderbilt (H.O.F. 1970); photographs by Cecil Beaton (H.O.F. 1970) of Janet Rhinelander Stewart (first named in 1940); sketches by Yves Saint Laurent (H.O.F. 1975) and Karl Lagerfeld (first named in 1982); portraits of Princess Natalia Paley (first named in 1947) by George Hoyningen-Huene and Pavel Tchelichew; a Louise Dahl-Wolfe photographic study of Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan (H.O.F. 1958); and a Marcel Vertès painting of Brooke Astor’s poodle Nora (H.O.F. 1989 — the lady, that is, not the dog).
My decor, however, was not my impetus for writing The International Best-Dressed List: The Official Story. The book grew organically from an assignment, suggested by Aimée Bell, my VF editor, that correlated the List decade by decade with concurrent events and the general zeitgeist. This was an especially enjoyable undertaking, as it gave me the occasion to delve into Eleanor’s carefully preserved I.B.D.L. archives, begun in the 1930s. Along with Audrey Hepburn’s captivating letter, there were telegrams dispatched to Lambert signed “Wallis” and “Marella,” a smarmy apology note from Louella Parsons, fawning thank-you cards from Margaret Thatcher, Tom Wolfe and Benazir Bhutto, as well as a cornucopia of newspaper clippings, press releases and photos. An assistant and I organized this trove chronologically into 12 jumbo three-ring binders, photocopying a duplicate set so I wouldn’t have to research my piece from the fragile originals.
I quickly realized that I had the ingredients for a book — one I had no time to write. But with the 2017 change of regime at Vanity Fair, and the concomitant lightening of my duties there, time became available. The departure from the magazine of so many experienced staff members allowed me to reassemble some of my coworkers, Ocean’s 11–style, into a virtuoso team. When Charles Miers, of Rizzoli, bought the book project from my agent, Andrew Wylie, my first act was to bring on board photo editor Ann Schneider, who had worked on most of my stories and all 14 of VF’s annual I.B.D.L portfolios.
Our second move was to engage Angela Panichi, who had designed our VF I.B.D.L. ballots (and much more), as the book’s art director. When Angela asked how I wanted it to look, my answer was “like a Bible” — by which I meant an authoritative, sumptuous sourcebook for both initiates and devotees of design. With Andrea Danese, our editor, we toiled almost nightly until 1 or 2 in the morning on an enterprise that turned out to be more complex and more pleasurable than we could ever have imagined. Rizzoli time and again reopened closed purse strings to accommodate coveted flourishes like gilding, embossing or a newly discovered photo. One of the loveliest last-minute developments was Luca Dotti’s and Sean Ferrer’s allowing us to reproduce an image of their mother, Audrey Hepburn, centrally on the book’s “belly band.” The actress and Lambert had shared a long history together. In 1952, almost a decade before Hepburn’s induction into the Hall of Fame, Lambert had arranged for out-of-town press, swarming into New York for Fashion Week, to see the ingenue in her first play, Gigi, followed by a backstage visit with her.
In the same 1957 letter in which Hepburn marveled at her inaugural I.B.D.L. win, the young star informed Lambert, “I had always followed the annual List with eager wonderment.” It is our hope that The International Best-Dressed List: The Official Story conjures up some of the same sense of enchantment that Hepburn wrote about so endearingly more than 62 years ago.