Bazaar's new chief is soft on outside, but steel on inside

September 27, 1992|By Tracy Achor Hayes | Tracy Achor Hayes,Dallas Morning News

Harper's Bazaar is 125 years old, but the September issue marks a new beginning. With a clean white cover proclaiming "Enter the Era of Elegance," the magazine has an arresting new look and an ambitious new editor-in-chief: Elizabeth Tilberis, lured from her post as editor of British Vogue to reverse Bazaar's decade-long slide.

In some ways, Ms. Tilberis seems an unlikely candidate to lead what's already a stormy battle. Her prematurely silver bob, rounded curves and rosy-cheeked complexion give her the amiable look of a fortysomething English mum (which, in fact, she is). And the media have been quick to contrast her appearance with the bony, sharp-edged chic of her former boss and fellow Brit, Anna Wintour, editor of Bazaar's arch-rival, American Vogue.

Ms. Tilberis' soft-focus exterior belies a steely determination. The staff she's assembled at Bazaar includes some of the fashion world's most provocative talents, notably graphic designer Fabien Baron and photographers Patrick Demarchelier and Peter Lindbergh. And people still talk about the occasion two years ago, when, stymied by a rude guard at a Jean Paul Gaultier show, Ms. Tilberis punched him in the face -- to the delight of everyone in sight.

There were no such incidents at a recent Crystal Charity Ball luncheon in Dallas, which Ms. Tilberis attended as a guest of Neiman Marcus. We met with her that morning in her suite at the Mansion on Turtle Creek.

Q: The revamping of Harper's Bazaar has been the subject of months of speculation and gossip outside the magazine. What has the experience been like from your perspective?

A: It was terrifying. In England, I just was the editor of British Vogue and that was it. They didn't even know what I looked like. When I came to New York, everybody was scrambling around trying to find paparazzi shots, or anything. And there was nothing, a complete blank, because that's how we were treated in England.

But, for me, the important thing was forming the team. Because without them, I'm just sitting in an office. They're the ones doing it. Anyway, we sat. And we worried. Then, finally, in the end, we said, "Oh, let's just do what we think is right."

Q: Now that the first issue finally is out, is there a sense of relief?

A: There's a sense of terror. Because we've got the second one coming out in a few days. No, I think there's an enormous sense of relief, because the reaction has been so positive, in most areas.

Q: I read a quote of yours that said, "I don't think you think about a magazine's history. You try to create its future." But probably the most striking aspect of the new Bazaar is the acknowledgment of its past.

A: Yes, I think we all felt we should sort of reaffirm Harper's Bazaar's long history. It's 125 years old. So it was a little "Hat's off to you, guys." But we're onward. You'll see the next issue is very different. It's still Fabien's graphics. It's still Peter's and Patrick's photographs. But it's changed, the fashion is much different. It's the couture collections, and they were very modern. So it still looks like the Bazaar we've created -- the cleanness, the elegance -- but it's moved on a pace.

Q: Given that your whole background was with British Vogue, what kinds of considerations or adaptations did you make in shaping a magazine for the American market?

A: To make really sure, I had a lot of Americans on the team: Paul [Cavaco], Tonne [Goodman], Evyan [Metzner], most of the art staff. And, of course, the copy department has to be American. I've learned an awful lot in terms of copy and writing, about how American is written, which can be very different from the way British is written. There were times I'd say: "You mean you really say that? You really put full colons there?"

But seriously, the big consumer situation is that, here, November is resort. In England, it was mackintoshes [raincoats] and coats. So you're guided very much by what's out there in the marketplace. People here do start taking off in November and December to go to sunny climates.

Q: You're known as someone who wears a lot of Chanel. Do you own any clothes by American designers?

A: Oh, yes, I do, actually, and always have. It's just that people picked up on Chanel because it's the only thing they ever recognize. The average reporter who's not used to fashion, you know, they say, "Oh there's Liz in her Chanel plaid." I've got heaps of Donna Karan. A lot of Calvin and Bill Blass. And Geoffrey Beene, I wouldn't say a lot, but two or three outfits. It's gathered momentum as I've become an editor because when I was working [on photography] sittings you just wore blue jeans and a T-shirt.

Q: What has been your reaction to the publicity, the way the situation has been set up as you vs. [American Vogue editor] Anna Wintour. Do you feel the coverage has been fair?

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