`She was really brave'

Tribute: Elizabeth Tilberis' magazine won awards as her spirit won hearts.

April 23, 1999|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Elizabeth Tilberis -- Liz to her friends and fashion peers -- was fuming.

At a Jean Paul Gaultier show in Paris, a burly guard was manhandling Tilberis' assistants. She asked him to stop. He declined.

What did one of the world's most celebrated fashion journalists, a woman known for her reserve and elegant nature, do about that? She slugged him.

"The fashion industry has a reputation for people who are self-involved and aggrandizing, but she was the exception," said Mary Lou Luther, a veteran fashion columnist, who years ago witnessed the event. "She was so fabulous."

Tilberis, 51, died Wednesday morning of ovarian cancer. She was editor in chief of Harper's Bazaar and often credited with turning a somewhat creaky, 132-year-old magazine from a fashion irrelevant into an elegant style-setter.

She was a friend of fellow Brit, Princess Diana, and a lot of important people in the fashion world. But many in her business are in mourning today because she was also a down-to-earth, genuine, warm human being who bravely fought ovarian cancer in public.

"Fashion people are notorious for being sort of selfish and difficult and very prima donna-ish. She was never anything like that," said Valerie Steele, chief curator of the Fashion Institute of Technology museum in New York. "Liz Tilberis brought out the best in people."

Tilberis took over Bazaar in 1992. She was already celebrated in fashion circles as editor in chief of British Vogue.

With the help of art director Fabien Baron, she immediately redesigned Bazaar, casting aside the clutter, and giving it a more daring visual style. It was an immediate success. Coolly elegant. Striking graphics. More fun.

"Here was this amazing publication that went from being sort of non-important to being something that people looked toward for trends," said designer William Calvert. "The magazine was breezy and light and fresh."

But little more than a year after taking over Bazaar, Tilberis was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. For six years, she fought the illness -- and readers accompanied her on the battle -- through first-person articles about her treatments and a 1998 autobiography, "No Time to Die: Living With Ovarian Cancer."

She was a celebrity -- not unlike countryman and fellow editor Tina Brown -- with a rumored seven-figure salary. But self-importance was not her style. She used her fame and stature to help raise money for cancer research. She served as president of the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund.

"She had such a noble attitude," said Steele. "She was really brave."

Born Elizabeth Kelly in the town of Bath in northern England, Tilberis once harbored thoughts of becoming a designer herself, but later admitted she didn't have a talent for it. She married her art school professor, Andrew Tilberis, in 1972, and the couple adopted two sons, now age 14 and 17.

As an editor, Tilberis admitted to embracing elitism. She wanted the magazine to always be at the cutting edge, not the commercial.

She was rewarded with two National Magazine Awards. In 1994, she was named Advertising Age's Editor of the Year and was presented a special award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America by her friend, the Princess of Wales. She was scheduled to be honored in June by the Council again -- this time as a humanitarian.

Friends said she rarely complained about her health even as it became clear she was fighting a battle she would ultimately lose.

"It's rare, especially in the fashion world, to meet someone so nice," said Luther. "It's not like everyone in the fashion world is a demon, but it's a world of synthetics in many ways."

Sun staff writer Stephanie Shapiro contributed to this article.

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