Vintage photo of Audrey Smaltz
Born c. 1937, in Harlem, New York.
Bloomingdale's, saleswoman and model, 1959-65; Lane Bryant's Tall Girl Division, model and buyer, 1965-69; Ebony Fashion Fair, coordinator, 1970-77; The Ground Crew, founder, 1977--.
The women's wear trade usually accounts for an annual bottom line of nearly $35 billion in the United States. This huge amount of seasonally generated money covers profits drawn from sales to both the thriftiest clothes shoppers at one end of the spectrum and the wealthiest trendsetter's at its opposite edge. Regardless of the market a clothing designer is targeting, he or she runs a fierce race for customer dollars. The life of a designer would be easier if one knew positively whether women would like shorter or longer skirts next winter; whether buyers for department stores would like to offer their customers classic elegance or novel chic for spring, or whether summer's merchandise should feature cool pastels or vivid brights. But predicting trends is a precarious business.
All designers use potent weapons to meet these formidable challenges of bulls-eye forecasting and relentless competition. Heavy advertising is one method. Another is the fashion show, which can be cleverly accessorized with music or strobe lights, or whatever else will suggest the link between the clothes on display and a targeted customer group's innermost longings about their image.
Fashion shows are expensive undertakings guaranteed to bring a designer plenty of praise or ridicule in the all-important trade magazines. So behind every successful show a wise and experienced organizer with a streak of self-confidence wide enough to weather any last-minute crisis, a cutting-edge fashion flair, and a healthy respect for the power of the spotlight must exist. Enter Audrey Smaltz.
Smaltz's first brush with celebrity came in 1951, when Life magazine photographed her as a "Say Hey" kid cheerleader for baseball great Willie Mays. But though the memory lingered, her own space in the spotlight waited until 1959, when she started working as a saleswoman at exclusive Bloomingdale's in New York City. Soon thereafter, her six-foot one-inch height and her willowy body earned her the additional assignment of modeling Christmas robes. The two roles blended together well for her--so well that she entered the store's executive training program early the following year.
By 1965, Smaltz was ready for a new challenge. She found one in the Tall Girl division of Lane Bryant, a store that specializes in clothes for women requiring special sizes. She enjoyed her work there but was surprised to learn that her job description included the unusual request that she give up her wardrobe of designer clothes in order to wear only Lane Bryant merchandise. "But what did I care," she later told Newsday magazine, "I was making $140 a week and getting my wardrobe absolutely free." Smaltz stayed with Lane Bryant until 1969, when she left to marry a Chicago physician. The marriage was short-lived, and she was soon back looking for work on the fashion scene.
The right job came along in record time. In 1970, Smaltz went to work with Eunice Johnson, wife of the Chicago-based Ebony magazine publisher. Already highly experienced in the fashion world, Smaltz was asked to put her expertise to work coordinating the Ebony Fashion Fair, a review that traveled from coast to coast featuring shows for charities, the garment industry, and conventions.
For anyone who enjoyed being on the road, this was an ideal job. The Fair required constant trips to Europe to visit the top couture houses, plus many other jaunts to exotic places, where novel accessories, textiles, and designs could be found. And when Smaltz brought all her treasures back to the United States, she was needed on the tours themselves.
Smaltz found all this highly enjoyable. She also took great pleasure in the commentaries she did for the Fashion Fair performances, though she found that providing a constant interpretation of outfit after outfit could become terminally boring for her. So she took infinite care to find something unusual and interesting to tell each audience. "I'd tell them what they didn't know," she told Savvy Woman in 1990, "like what the inside of the Christian Dior boutique in Paris looks like."
40 years old in 1977, Smaltz felt it was high time she stopped working for others. So as a first step she moved back to New York City and used some of her $60,000 savings to buy a 900-square-foot condominium on West 55th Street. Then, using the apartment as both business headquarters and residence, she started planning her business around the fashion shows she understood so well. Smaltz began by comparing the two completely different halves that any show encompasses.
Part one, which the audience sees, is the idyllic runway, down which graceful models parade, dance, or twirl, seemingly without a care in the world. Part two takes place behind the scenes. Inevitably the show consists of a whirlwind rush to get each model out on time with zipper forced into obedience, makeup smudges erased, and matching shoes placed on the right feet. As Smaltz knew from her own experience, the hundreds of details that go into this effort are often complicated by backstage disorganization culminating in frantic hunts for missing earrings, calls for assistants who can sew well enough to sew on a runaway button, or demands for an iron to get rid of an obstinate wrinkle.
Knowing that life behind the fashion show scenes could be made far less stressful for everyone concerned, she decided to change the situation by offering organizers teams of dressers who would work under her personal supervision. She hoped to provide an assistant for each model. That way, the dresser could keep track of the outfits, zip and unzip the model, and make sure that none of the costume jewelry, scarves, or belts matching the clothes were missing when showtime arrived.
Smaltz called her new venture "The Ground Crew," pictured above, (Smaltz in the center) after a comment once made by Dr. Martin Luther King. "He was talking about the marvel of the jumbo jets and their pilots and engineers," she recalled, in a November of 1987 interview with The Wall Street Journal. "To get that plane off! To fuel it! To keep it clean!" King had said, `You need the ground crew!' Applying this remark to her own business-in-the-making, Smaltz used her own considerable experience in the fashion industry to come up with her own adage: "To get that model out! To dress her! To make sure she has everything the outfit calls for! You need my Ground Crew!"
Smaltz planned her operation so carefully that the rules she formulated in 1977 are still the rules by which she operates in the mid-1990s. She still provides two extra dressers for emergencies, but adds no charge for them. Each dresser studies photographs of each outfit to be worn by the model who is being helped, so that she knows exactly which earrings, shoes, or lingerie go with each outfit. Smaltz has had to add one further rule: today's dresser understands that she will have to pay for anything that disappears while under her care, and that she will be fired for losing it.
In addition to the dressers, Smaltz provides other assistants to ensure that behind-the-scenes operations at fashion shows happen with the smooth precision which is the audience's view of things. She offers "fashion calculators"--people who track missing accessories; "fashion sleepers" who will spend the night in the room with valuable clothing to be shown the next day, and even "fashion couriers," who lug the huge dress boxes and racks from one venue to the next.
Smaltz herself is always available to burnish a show to perfection from its planning stage to the day of its presentation. And once the great day arrives, she is always the eye in the center of the boiling backstage storm, giving instructions, cobbling sagging hemlines, or producing the capacious bagful of extension cords, staplers, aspirins and whatever else it takes to stave off a possible disaster.
Finding Crew members has never been a problem--Smaltz often finds would-be employees clamoring to work for her. Dressing fashion models is a popular, part-time money spinner for many people with regular jobs in other fields, and she is often contacted by would- be Ground Crew members who may also hold jobs as aerobics instructors, students, and secretaries; on occasion she has even employed public relations executives and writers wanting to experience the business of fashion from this invaluable inside track.
In the mid-1990s, Smaltz's Ground Crew is familiar to most fashion designers in the United States, but business was slow at first. Organizers were accustomed to using secretaries, students, or friends as assistants--in fact anyone interested enough to help for minimal reward. The thought of using trained dressers had simply never occurred to any of them. As Savvy Woman dryly noted, "designers such as Arnold Scaasi and Carolyne Roehm weren't exactly wringing their hands without her." Still, Smaltz persevered, adding to her income by writing a regular column for Vogue, sending out business cards, and making sure that everyone who tried her service once would find her teams efficient, her own presence reassuring, and her company essential in the future.
In 1966, a civic-minded woman named Lois Alexander founded the Harlem Fashion Institute (HIF), a small private school training milliners, pattern cutters, tailors, and other indispensable members of the fashion industry. Alexander added a museum in 1979, in order to document the contribution that African Americans had made to American fashion from the Colonial times to the present. Prominently noted was the creative genius of Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who designed and sewed much of Mary Lincoln's official wardrobe; a matter of equal pride was that Jacqueline Kennedy's elegant wedding gown as well as the bridal wear worn by her entire retinue had been sewn by African American seamstress Ann Lowe.
An unofficial but respected hall of fashion fame, the Black Fashion Museum was supported by such prominent members of the African American community as jazz musician Lionel Hampton and Audrey Smaltz, who was employing larger and larger numbers of African American dressers. By 1982, her contribution to New York's black community was acknowledged by the Black Fashion Museum's invitation to join their first Board of Directors--an honor commemorated by a photograph showing her, tall and svelte in shining boots and tailored pantsuit, being sworn in by then-New York City mayor David Dinkins at the Institute's Easter Gala.
This was not the only accolade to come Smaltz's way during the mid-1980s. By 1984, her name had appeared three times on the Best- Dressed List, a fashion phenomenon originally invented to promote fashion in a post-World War II world. According to Town & Country, a magazine that chronicles the activities of the wealthy, the Best Dressed List characterizes the world's best-dressed women as "those with slender waists, but never slender means," an observation borne out by such regular listees as Jacqueline Onassis, whose husband's bank account ranked in the world's top three. For this reason alone, Smaltz's name on the Best Dressed List was testimony to her financial success. A second advantage gained by this honor was the chance to improve her business networking by her association with the world's most fashion-conscious women and their designers, many of whom frequently organized fashion shows themselves.
By 1987, Smaltz's Ground Crew members in their trademark black tee shirts were a familiar sight at fashion shows featuring the clothes of fashion legends Calvin Klein and Donna Karan. So the team was a natural choice to smooth the path for the revered French designer Christian Lacroix, who made his American debut in October of that year. This was deemed such an important occasion by fashion cognoscenti that carefully crafted articles about Lacroix appeared in the press as early as February of 1987. Items about his split from the establishment of the immortal Jean Patou became familiar to fashion-lovers nationwide; details of his basic fashion philosophy were widely interpreted in newspaper articles, and speculations about his forthcoming collection increased to a garment-industry crescendo as the time for the debut approached.
When the appointed night arrived, New York City rolled out both the red carpet and the Ground Crew for Lacroix at a benefit sponsored by Bergdorf Goodman for the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. It was a spectacular occasion marked by sumptuous food, glittering decor, and even fireworks, but the 600 guests, who included opera diva Beverley Sills, dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, and actress Faye Dunaway as well as fellow-designers Diane Von Furstenburg and Calvin Klein, intimidated Lacroix to such an extent that he later confessed to greater terror than he had ever before experienced, even at his very first show in Paris.
The authoritative Standard & Poor's Industry Surveys suggested that by 1994, the number of employees in the apparel manufacturing industry had dwindled to 969,000 from a healthy 1,438 million recorded 21 years earlier. Automation and a lurching economy each bore part of the responsibility for this phenomenon, which soon showed up to such an extent in shoppers' close attention to discounts rather than exclusive designs that stores had to start keeping themselves afloat with constant sales and promotions. No doubt lingers that this new taste for austerity also tarnished the glamour and extravagance that characterized the mid-1980s fashion shows.
Comments in The Wall Street Journal reported that even the avant- garde Isaac Mizrahi, once a devout show enthusiast, decided to scale back his fall of 1995 show, opting for a simply- organized 25-outfit presentation in his showrooms, with comments about prices, fabrics and availability provided by himself instead of a hired commentator. Despite this change of heart wealthy shoppers always exist who want to see the collections modeled before they choose their own new clothes. For that reason, Audrey Smaltz will be ever in need to keep things humming smoothly.
Audrey Smaltz (today)
Smaltz has received hundreds of post-show notes from hundreds of satisfied clients. Among them are the following three: a fervent post-show "thank you" dated October of 1994 from Vera Wang, designer of exclusive wedding dresses; a 1996 note from top designer Carolina Herrerra, and a third from fashion legend Oscar de la Renta. And probably many more are to come.
Named to "The International Best Dressed List," three times.
Sources: Ebony Magazine & Essence Magazine