The Legend of Liz Tilberis —One of Bazaar’s Best
Over the years,Harper's Bazaarhas often pondered the meaning of the word “elegance.” “Elegance is refusal” was Diana Vreeland’s dictum (which she pinched from Coco Chanel), while Carmel Snow famously described it as “good taste, plus a dash of daring.” In a column forBazaar’sMay 1964 issue, the onetime Capote swan Gloria Guinness proposed that elegance was something that could not be acquired, that it was “a gift of nature.” And then, in September 1992, implored us to enter the era of it.
In March of that year, Liz Tilberis, the new editor ofBazaararrived at the magazine from BritishVogue.The daughter of an eye surgeon, she was born in Alderley Edge, in Cheshire, England, just outside Manchester. Tilberis didn’t look the part: She sported a prematurely gray bob and wore a size 14—a detail the British press often liked to point out. Tilberis, though, delighted in such attempts at derision—and suffered no fools gladly. She was also exceedingly English. When she was in the process of settling in New York with her husband, Andrew, and their two young sons, she asked her publicist, Susan Magrino, how she could act more American. Magrino told her to start by not using the word “jolly.”
All told, Tilberis had spent 22 years at BritishVoguestarting out as an intern under the magazine’s mythic editor, Beatrix Miller, in the late 1960s, eventually rising through the ranks to fashion director. In 1987, after Miller’s successor Anna Wintour decamped for the United States to oversee Condé Nast’sHouse & Garden(soon renamedHGin an effort to reenergize the title), Tilberis herself was named editor of BritishVogue.
Wintour’s time atHGwas, by design, brief. In 1988, after less than a year on the job, she was tapped to replace Grace Mirabella as the editor of the American edition ofVogue,which Wintour immediately infused with a more youthful vigor and sensibility. The announcement of Tilberis’s appointment atBazaarin January 1992 made for easy media fodder, spurred by the notion that the former colleagues from London were now running America’s two preeminent fashion magazines. “WAR OF THE POSES:BAZAAR'SNEW LIZ TAKES ONVOGUE'SANNA” blared an April 1992 edition ofNew Yorkmagazine, which ran a cover story that pondered the latest plot twist in the near-century-long rivalry between the titles. But while the prospect of a face-off made for good copy, Tilberis’s vision for had less to do with what Wintour’sVoguewas than with whatBazaarwasn’t—at least anymore.
Outgoing editor Tony Mazzola’s had been commercially successful for much of his tenure, but it no longer possessed the revolutionary air that surrounded the magazine in the 1940s and ’50s, at the apex of the Carmel Snow years, when Alexey Brodovitch’s avant-garde designs, Vreeland’s creative vision, and Richard Avedon’s groundbreaking imagery made it feel boundless. Even the experimentalism of Nancy White’sBazaarin the ’60s had dissipated—in part due to changes in the business of fashion magazines in the ’70s and ’80s, and in part due to the times.
Tilberis wasn’t out to reclaim past glories, but she did want to once again harness the kind of electricity it had at the height of its creative dominance, when it didn’t just cover fashion but also embodied it.
In Fabien Baron, Tilberis found her lightning rod. Tilberis was introduced to the French-born art director by a close collaborator from her BritishVoguedays, the photographer Patrick Demarchelier. Baron had overseen redesigns ofVogue ItaliaandInterviewand ran his own creative agency, Baron & Baron (he was the only Baron). He was a polymath, however: a designer of advertising campaigns, books, furniture, and products; an image-maker, photographer, and film director. He’d cut his teeth on the controlled anarchy of Brodovitch’s designs forBazaarand the boundary-busting imagery that Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton produced for Francine Crescent’sVogue Parisin the 1970s. But there was nothing the least bit retro about Baron’s work, which was focused, modern, and explosive, filled with bleeding imagery, bold typography, and graphic collisions, but composed with an exacting clarity and rigor. He was working with Steven Meisel on Madonna’s book when Tilberis asked him to be her creative director.
Tilberis and Baron immediately went about building a team. Demarchelier and Peter Lindbergh, both of whom had worked with Tilberis at BritishVoguewere the first photographers to sign on. Paul Cavaco, who had cofounded the public relations firm Keeble, Cavaco & Duka (now known as KCD), and Tonne Goodman, who had worked for Calvin Klein’s in-house agency, soon joined as fashion directors. The September 1992 issue was Tilberis’s first. The cover image, photographed by Demarchelier, was a portrait of Linda Evangelista in a beaded-net Donna Karan bodysuit, her hand raised as if to gently lift the last tilted “A” in “Bazaar” into place—a subtle nod to the Henry Wolf–designed December 1959 cover. Photographed by Richard Avedon, it featured a model in a pink cape perched on a ladder with an “A” in her hand. Tilberis and Baron provided just a single cover line: “Enter the Era of Elegance.”
In her Editor’s Note, Tilberis explained what elegancemeant in this context. “In putting this magazine together, the idea of modern elegance has been our central inspiration,” she wrote. “Elegance— of mind as much as of appearance—implies intelligence, certainty of taste, a balanced and centered identity.” Remarkably, the issue contained many of the same elements that would later become hallmarks of Tilberis’sBazaar: lyrical images by Demarchelier; a pair of wide-screen fashion stories by Lindbergh; sharp, punchy writing on contemporary art, culture, and architecture; in-depth reports from the front lines of health and beauty—all presented in Baron’s sleek, dramatic packaging.
The issue also marked the American fashion-magazine debut of a model who would become a mainstay in the pages ofBazaar. Kate Moss, then still in her teens, was the antithesis of the statuesque supermodels who ruled the earth back then: She was small and waifish, and her slight physique would become the flash point of a 1990s debate surrounding the glamorization of so-called heroin chic. Demarchelier shot Moss in a rock-’n’-roll-dandy-inspired story for Tilberis’s first issue, and later for Moss’s first cover, which appeared that December. A year later, Moss was everywhere, and the magazine announced her coronation with a December 1994 feature by Lindbergh, aptly titled “A Star Is Born.”
Lindbergh’s early sessions forBazaarwere like mini-movies. They were narrative- and character-driven, often shot on location, and always with fleshed-out premises and plot points. His indelible “Angels” story in the December 1993 issue was inspired by the 1987 Wim Wenders filmWings of Desireabout a seraph who falls to earth, featuring Amber Valletta in ethereal looks at locations throughout Manhattan.
By then, grunge—the tattered, distressed cultural phenomenon hatched in the American Pacific Northwest—had become a catchall to describe both a musical style that blended strains of punk rock and heavy metal, and a dissident aesthetic that comprised ripped jeans, combat boots, knit caps, flannel shirts, unwashed hair, and forlorn gazes. The Spring 1993 collection that Marc Jacobs created for Perry Ellis was a controversial homage to it all. The collection, though now well regarded, inspired an extreme—and split—response. Less than four months after it was shown, within the span of two weeks, Jacobs was crowned Womenswear Designer of the Year by the CFDA and summarily dismissed from his job. “I really prefer people to love and hate than to feel, like, eh,” Jacobs toldBazaarin January 1993, shortly before his ouster. “I just think that in order for fashion to become less precious, it has to have some root in reality.”
Realism, rebellion, and youth all became part of the vernacular of ’90s fashion. Demarchelier and Lindbergh were soon joined by an influx of young talent from the U.K. Photographers David Sims and Craig McDean had both published work in British style magazinesi-DandThe Face,and arrived with a group from London that included hairstylist Guido Palau, makeup artist Dick Page, and stylist Melanie Ward. Terry Richardson, whose father, Bob, had shot forBazaarin the ’60s, was immersed in the American underground scene, and the Paris-bred Nathaniel Goldberg shot for the French magazine20 Ans.
Under Tilberis,Bazaarwas once again a creative force to be reckoned with. The magazine had always been blessed with great art directors, but Baron was the first since Brodovitch to fundamentally change the face of fashion photography and magazine design. Meanwhile, fashion itself was going through a revolution. By the mid-1990s Calvin Klein had achieved a resurgent cultural dominance with advertising campaigns that were by turns provocative and iconic (with Baron’s help—he’d engineered them through his agency). Elsewhere,Bazaartracked the movements toward deconstruction and minimalism spearheaded by designers Martin Margiela and Helmut Lang, and chronicled the ascent of Brits John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, each charged with reinvigorating old French houses: Galliano at Dior, and McQueen at Givenchy. The magazine also captured the emergence of Marc Jacobs as the clothier of choice for women like Winona Ryder, Sofia Coppola, and Chloë Sevigny, and the spiritual leader of a new generation of New York designers, was breathing new life into fashion.
However, the excitement over the new was tempered by a personal battle that Tilberis was forced to confront midway through her second year at the magazine—one that would also come to define her time atBazaar. In December 1993, Tilberis was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer. Just before Christmas that year, she hosted a glittery holiday party at her Upper East Side townhouse with a guest list that included Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Barbara Walters, and executives from Hearst. Unbeknownst to everyone but her husband and one close friend, she was scheduled to have exploratory surgery the following morning.
But as Tilberis convalesced, she decided that she could no longer remain silent. In the September 1994 issue, Aimee Lee Ball’s “Ovarian Cancer: One Woman’s Fight” took Tilberis herself as its subject, addressing her illness, prognosis, and the latest science surrounding the causes and treatment of ovarian cancer, and exploring a possible link to her use of fertility drugs in her early 30s, which Tilberis believed contributed to the development of her cancer. But not long after, Tilberis’s cancer returned, and her work to raise awareness about the disease and money for research as she cycled through treatment after treatment would become a mission. In a subsequent issue, Tilberis would publish a diary-like piece chronicling her experiences with chemotherapy, experimental drugs, and a difficult bone marrow transplant. Even in her illness, she found moments of levity, marveling at how much weight she’d lost and that she could now fit into Chanel, and wondering aloud whether her new short hair was gamine enough to be considered stylish. In one entry, after a long period of treatment, she wrote, “November 3: My first dinner out, at Petrossian, is a scientific experiment: testing the restorative powers of caviar.”
It was Tilberis’s advocacy work on behalf of women’s health issues that led to her friendship with Hillary Clinton. Clinton, then first lady, and Tilberis first got to know each other in 1994, when they cochaired a charity event to benefit pediatric AIDS research. The following year, as the Clintons geared up for Bill’s reelection campaign, Tilberis traveled to the White House, just before the Fourth of July holiday, to interview Hillary forBazaar.Tilberis stayed in the Lincoln Bedroom, and would later admit to using her security badge to roam around the private residence. She would also recall waking up with red eyes after falling asleep with her makeup on; she hadn’t removed it in case Hillary stopped by to say goodnight.
In the interview, which ran in the September 1995 issue, Hillary spoke candidly about her work on behalf of women and the barrage of criticism she had endured for her outspokenness and her appearance. They even discussed her highly scrutinized shift in hairstyles: “Hair to me has always been the one part of my body that I had control over,” Hillary told her.
Tilberis was elated. “I left the White House feeling completely awestruck and feeling incredibly honored that such an invitation had been extended to a British woman—especially as this was on the eve of the Fourth of July,” she later wrote. “Hillary Rodham Clinton didn’t miss that irony either. As we parted, she quipped that my stay could be seen as a kind of gesture of forgiveness, since the last time my compatriots were at the White House in force, they burned the place down!”
Tilberis first met Princess Diana back at BritishVogue. She was Lady Diana Spencer at the time, engaged to Prince Charles, and had sought out Tilberis’s boss, Beatrix Miller, for wardrobe advice as she prepared for her new role. Diana appeared on the cover of BritishVoguewhile Tilberis was the editor, and later graced the cover ofBazaar’sDecember 1995 issue. Their friendship deepened as Diana’s marriage began to unravel and Tilberis underwent treatment for ovarian cancer, and the two remained close as Diana worked to forge a new life for herself after her separation and subsequent divorce from Charles, and Tilberis’s illness took its turns. Diana also accompanied Tilberis to the 1996 Costume Institute Gala at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in honor of Christian Dior. Tilberis cochaired the event, and Diana wore the first couture dress designed for the house by John Galliano.
Diana’s death on August 31, 1997, following the car crash in Paris that also killed her companion Dodi Fayed, shook Tilberis, as it did the rest of the world.Bazaar’sNovember 1997 cover story was transformed into a special tribute to the princess, featuring a portfolio of images of Diana and her young sons, Princes William and Harry. Sarah Mower reported on the mood from London, capturing the outpouring of grief and the tremendous impact the woman who would become known as “the people’s princess” had on Great Britain, with Tilberis offering her own personal remembrance. “I think Diana would have been completely amazed by what happened after her death,” Tilberis wrote. “She had been so worried, particularly when her HRH title was taken away, that she wouldn’t be able to maintain the kind of stature as a leader that she had begun to achieve within the charity world. She was afraid she had lost it all. But in death it was clear that she had really won it all.”
Diana’s death came less than two months after the death of another close Tilberis friend, Gianni Versace, who was gunned down on the steps of his home on South Beach in Miami after going out to buy the morning paper. In her memoir, published in 1998, Tilberis reflected on losing two people so close to her too soon. “Diana and Gianni, two vibrant human beings in the prime of life, are gone, and I am thriving,” she wrote. “If anything, I had imagined the princess attending my memorial service, and here I was, attending hers. I don’t know how to resolve this conundrum, to make peace with these ridiculous facts, except to embrace the long life that she was denied.”
"Elegance and dignity were with her right to the end. She never lost those qualities."
By early 1999 Tilberis’s cancer had once again returned. Though she was undergoing treatment, with recurrence the prognosis had worsened. On April 21, 1999, at the age of 51, Tilberis died, succumbing to the illness that she had fought for most of her tenure atBazaar.
The cover of the July 1999 issue, featuring Tom Cruise, was the last one Tilberis had approved, based on a Polaroid that was brought to her at home. Instead of pressing ahead with the issue as planned, theBazaarstaff decided to transform it into a memorial to Tilberis and everything she loved. The centerpiece was a portfolio called “The White Album,” for which 60 photographers and artists who workedBazaarfor during her editorship were each asked to create a single image using white clothes from the fall collections—Demarchelier, Lindbergh, Mario Testino, Richardson, Craig McDean, David Bailey, David Sims, Goldberg, Mario Sorrenti, Steven Klein, Paolo Roversi, Mary Ellen Mark, and Karl Lagerfeld among them. Hearst donated 100 percent of the advertising revenue from the issue to the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund, for which Tilberis had served as president.
The issue also included a collection of remembrances from designers and those who knew Tilberis. “Maybe it’s because she was a wide-eyed fashion assistant when we first met at BritishVoguein the ’60s, or maybe it’s because I’m always a bit dim about such things, but it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that Liz’s career was heading someplace important,” wrote Grace Coddington, the longtime creative director of AmericanVogueand one of Tilberis’s close friends“She was completely fearless.” Hillary Clinton offered her own remembrance of their meeting at the White House four years earlier. “Watching her as she sat in the Rose Garden, what I saw was not a woman defeated by a terrible disease, but rather a woman at peace, moving ahead with her life, gathering courage and strength for the fight ahead,” she recalled. “This remarkable courage is what those of us who knew Liz will remember most about these last six years.”
But in a press release issued by Hearst the day of his wife’s death, Andrew Tilberis offered perhaps the most fitting epitaph. “Elegance and dignity were with her right to the end,” he said. “She never lost those qualities.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Harper's Bazaar.
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