Keeper of Secrets
Photography Jason Frank Rothenberg

Behind the runways with Ruth Finley

Ruth Finley is probably the most unlikely famous person in fashion that no one outside of fashion has ever known. And even though she knows everyone in fashion, it’s hard to even understand what she does or how she does it. For more than 60 years, as publisher of the Fashion Calendar, Finley has been a confidant, advisor and keeper of, “deep secrets” for almost all current and historical fashion designers operating from the US market: the famous, infamous and obscure.

Her publication has been called the “Pink Bible” of fashion, making Finley the scheduling ringleader of catwalk fashion, editorial coverage and, most importantly, market awareness. Yet her job description as keeper of secrets ensures no one will ever truly really know what happens at her condo office on East 87th St, even as she discusses her role openly.

It all started in the late 1930s, when Finley, on break from Simmons College in Boston, was invited to tea in New York. Her writer friends at Cosmopolitan Magazine had the enviable problem of conflicting fashion shows at Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue. In that frustration, Finley saw an opportunity for a type of clearinghouse that could compile and list events to avoid conflicts.

By 1941, Finley had moved to New York and launched Fashion Calendar. With a $1,000 loan and the benefit of a roommate assuming multiple roles as secretary and fellow theater usher, fashion’s most significant publication of the century was born. But the first years were not easy. Finley admits the idea of New York’s largest stores trusting a 20-something with confidential information, “was a hard sell.”

In those days, the 60 or so stores in New York, rather than designers, put on small fashion shows for the press at Seventh Avenue showrooms. In 1940s New York, Finley raised the individual seats as a theater usher and chased leads as a writer for the The New York Herald Tribune. She remembers when there were 10 newspapers in New York, millinery fashions demanded their own press week, and how her first computer filled an entire office room.

It’s easy to see the Ruth Finley of 2009 as a matronly figure of fashion in New York. She sits on a massive array of leader-ship boards and advisory committees including Ecco Domini Fashion Foundation, LIM Advisory Committee, Lighthouse for the Bind, the Roundtable of Fashion Executives, High School of Fashion, Fashion Delivers & KIDS, Essentially, she has been honored with far too many awards to list here. A former assistant professor at NYU, she’s raised $2 million for Citymeals-On-Wheels and actively recruits donors from among the fashion elite and the entertainment industry. If Ruth Finley sent each of her nine grandchildren to 33 catwalk shows and presentations during s/s ’10 (September, 2009) they could collectively cover all the 293 events listed from Thursday–Thursday. Finley confesses even her three children never really knew what she did for a living. She sees her role as “neutral,” and to says that “I just help as much as I can.”

The typical process for a prospective fashion show designer in New York is to first call Ruth Finley to make sure it’s a good idea. She might recommend a presentation to save money, or a specific time slot to entice the right guests. These days, most hourly time slots are filled with up to five-to-seven designers. And Finley works to make sure they all receive the proper consideration. She praises Isaac Mizrahi and Diane von Furstenburg as two designers who went from humble beginnings to recognized brands without losing their heads. From Norman Norell, to Michael Kors and Zac Posen, Finley is not so much a kingmaker as she is a tutor for all that apply. And fashion editors like Diana Vreeland or Eleanor Lambert, likewise, took cues from Finley. After all, it was the journalists and writers that initially prompted her idea. And while designers do pay a fee for listings, the subscription service is purchased by publications (including SOMA) and stores around the world.

Finley readily admits many designers have the false hopes of launching an empire of the Calvin Klein-scale in the same way that Klein did—which is to say without money. But in the end, design talent does inspire and drive the industry. Finley councils for a business sensibility to help those voices shine through. Even beyond fashion week, Fashion Calendar lists bridal, store openings, beauty launches, and the full range of industry tradeshows. Like the designers she councils, fashion week is the most high profile time for Finley and the culmination of a season’s work.

The very look of the publication is a classic and disguisable design. With a Debby deMontfort illustration of Finley on the signature fuchsia cover, and pink paper stock, the color is intended to stand out among an editor’s paper-covered desk. Ms. Finley’s own desk seems to be perpetually covered in papers with an organization system only she could understand. As the publication prepares to phase out paper, Fern Mallis is gearing up for IMG Fashion’s lineup of 60 shows to move from Bryant Park to Lincoln Center, needless to say, Finley is going to be busy.

– Michael Cohen