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August 20 2014

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Calendar Girl: Fashion Veteran Ruth Finley Puts Down Her Pink NYFW Schedule to Pick Up the CFDA’s Board of Directors’ Tribute Award

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Ruth Finley

A new accolade will be bestowed at the CFDA Awards next week when a social-media-savvy individual picks up the inaugural Fashion Instagrammer of the Year Award. There’s no arguing with Instagram’s influence, but will it be as indispensable nearly seventy years from now as Ruth Finley’s Fashion Calendar is today? As a co-ed at Simmons College in the 1940s, Finley envisioned an industry clearinghouse. The mimeograph machine on which it was originally printed has long since been retired and her typist, Everybody Loves Raymond‘s Doris Roberts, has moved on, but Finley’s pink-sheeted biweekly calendar is going strong. Without it, how could insiders ever navigate New York fashion week’s 400-plus events?

These days, the octogenarian spends as much time with her charities—she’s raised more than $2 million for Citymeals-on-Wheels—as she does negotiating scheduling changes, but when Marc Jacobs wants to shift his time slot, his people still call Finley’s people. She took a break from booking the Spring 2015 shows—yes, the Fashion Calendar team works as far in advance as designers do—to talk to Style.com.

How did you get your start?
I met [the fashion publicist] Eleanor Lambert while I was at college. I was her Girl Friday for a huge fashion show she was doing at the Hotel Astor, which no longer exists, for the Red Cross. I had to stay at the Astor in a suite where the clothes were to make sure nobody stole anything. There was a song at the time, “She Had to Go and Lose It at the Astor,” and when my mother heard that, she was going to come and bring me right home. She didn’t understand the whole thing.

And you got the Fashion Calendar off the ground while you were still at college?
I met with two women in fashion, and they were complaining that Bergdorf’s and Saks were doing two shows—same day, same time. It gave me the idea that fashion needed a clearinghouse to avoid that kind of thing happening. I was doing that even before I graduated. Then I came to New York and I took an apartment on 52nd Street, right across from the 21 Club. Fifty-five dollars a month, two bedrooms, but bedbugs! I lived there with my secretary. At night we used to go out to the theater and usher to make extra money. She and I were selling a service, which is a difficult thing—we had to prove how important it was to become part of the Fashion Calendar. At that time, most of the shows were in the department stores. There were at least fifty retailers: Arnold Constable, Franklin Simon, Best, Ohrbach’s—an amazing number of stores. Of course, no designers’ names were published, that came later on. If you were buying a Bill Blass, you would get a Saks Fifth Avenue one.

When did that change happen?
That happened in the fifties, after World War II, when American designers here were becoming more important. During World War II, nobody could go to Paris to buy clothes; that was helpful for us. Gradually the stores began promoting the designers. Eleanor Lambert was important in pushing that, in realizing that designers needed to have the credit that they deserved. American fashion has become more and more important over the years. We were very insignificant back in the forties; we were belittled by Paris. We’re certainly on their level now.

Do you have a favorite decade in American fashion?
I like the fifties a lot. Pauline Trigère and I became quite close. She was sensational. I think she lived until about 92. She was a real designer, you know? She did the cutting and everything herself. My first wholesale dress was Trigère, I was so excited to have a designer dress. I was at that time probably 25. I wish I had kept it. A beautiful green cotton dress.

Did you know Charles James, the subject of the current exhibition at the Costume Institute?
I did. I liked him a lot. We became good friends. Of course, he never made much money, but he was such a talent. I had one of his outfits once. Another designer whom I was really close to was Norman Norell. I liked him a lot. One time he ran into a terrible conflict on his show. After that he never let his secretary call me—he picked up the phone and called me himself to set his dates.

You’ve seen so much fashion over your sixty-plus years in the business. What stands out?
It’s interesting to see even today how Marc Jacobs changes each season and does this fabulous extravaganza. You ask yourself, How is he going to outdo himself again? And every single time he keeps doing it. As you know, Marc Jacobs once kept people waiting two hours, and everybody stayed, nobody left, and of course there were a lot of complaints the next day. And since then, he is the only designer who starts right at the appointed time of 8, and you’re out by 8:10. The first year he did that, I arrived at 8 and I couldn’t get in. Now, if he can do that, why can’t others do it?

Marc has always been until a couple of years ago on Monday night. Recently he’s changed to Thursday, but he never told us he was changing until a month before. Now it looks like he is [officially] changing. So, several designers want 8 p.m. on Monday. Last season Donna Karan took it and it worked out. Who’s going to get it this season remains to be seen.

And that decision is up to you?
Well, most likely. I thought Donna might want to come back and keep it, but so far she hasn’t. We’ll just wait and see. We’ll know in a couple of weeks.

How do you keep it all straight?
We have grown from, let’s say, one hundred shows a year—or fifty shows a season, which was the case in the forties—to this past season, in February, we had about four hundred, which is really huge and too many. But what are you going to do? I can’t tell you as a young designer you can’t show. That’s when I’ll try to talk them into doing a presentation.

So you don’t think there should be a barrier to entry, some sort of approval process?
How can you tell a young designer, “You can’t do it”? Sometimes I’ll tell a designer to wait until next season when [they're] better known or selling more to stores, especially if they don’t have much money. Even to do a show at a small place, it costs so much money. I try to guide them, and very often they listen to me, but sometimes they don’t. My personal relationships are what kept the business going. I showed no prejudice.

No favorite designers?
No, absolutely not. I scheduled shows in the order in which they contacted me, that’s the way it was done. And I watched them grow. I knew Marc Jacobs before he had a partner, when he was carrying his clothes around in a suitcase. And Diane von Furstenberg, I met her over the phone. When she showed her clothes to [Vogue editor in chief] Diana Vreeland, she called me from the hotel to say, “Diana [Vreeland] walked out and said, ‘Beautiful, these are great,’” and Diane [von Furstenberg] turned to the secretary and said, “What do I do now?” And she said, “Call Ruth Finley.” So she called me and remembers it very well. I suggested she contact editors and stores and take appointments—I think it was at the Hotel Gotham.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced over the years?
A problem I used to have with some people is their superstitions. One designer would never take a date with a four in it because that was a bad omen. Another designer, Arnold Scaasi, would not confirm his date until he consulted his numerologist, so I called him and said, “Let me have the number of your numerologist, I’ll solve this.” He refused. You just had to be patient. Another time, Oscar de la Renta was just so upset because he had booked a theater for a Monday night fashion show and found out that Bill Blass was showing that night. So he said, “Ruth, can you just call Bill and see what you can work out for me? I’ve already put my deposit down.” Bill, who was great to work with and whom I was friendly with, we went back and forth, I changed Bill’s date, and they both had successful shows and it worked out fine. Luckily, Bill Blass was not a difficult person. Anybody else might have been more of a problem.

Any examples when designers didn’t budge?
Oh, yes, I tried to change Tommy Hilfiger when he moved to 11 a.m. on Monday, knowing how it was going to affect Carolina Herrera’s models and makeup people and all that. Herrera has shown at 10 a.m. on Monday for at least twenty years. I offered him a couple of really good times, but no, they set themselves down, it was going to be 11. They’re there to stay. It’s much harder work today. Every season I say this is the worst season we’ve had, because it just gets worse all the time.

But you’ve never been tempted to retire?
No, not yet. Too young.

Photo: Neil Rasmus / BFAnyc.com 

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