In a pretend world run by pretend people, Audrey Smaltz is as real as they come. She is a fashion force to be reckoned with–fierce, revered, a legend in her own time. Smaltz, a former model went from the catwalk to the boardroom. She formed her own company Ground Crew, a complete management company for fashion shows, videos, special events, and shoots that took care of all backstage operations–hair, makeup, dressing, pressing, styling, sewing, seamstress work, tailoring; the list was endless. She managed to maintain a sterling reputation for never producing a slapdash affair.
The statuesque octogenarian who sports closely cropped blond hair and who has been named to the International Best-Dressed List three times will also forever be remembered as a fashion commentator for the famed Ebony Fashion Fair shows.
Smaltz has helped to galvanize stalled minds, and refine diamond-in-the-rough ideas for many a designer and has worked with the likes of such huge fashion icons as Michael Kors, Bill Blass, Donna Karan and Oscar de la Renta to just name a few. At this point in her life, Smaltz is kicking back just a smidge to smell the posies with her wife of over six years, Gail Marquis. She is also working on a highly-anticipated memoir. The still stunning and always outspoken Smaltz shared a piece of herself with 50BOLD. Donna Karan once said that when “Audrey appeared, it was showtime.” Lights! Camera! Action! Curtains up!
Smaltz: There’s a wonderful story as to how the ground crew got started on 7-11-77. We were in business for 40 years and I had a great big party to celebrate the company. What we did during those 40 years were fashion shows, fashion shoots, fashion videos and we did backstage management. I wanted to produce an entire fashion show. Before we got started in the 70’s, I asked designers if they’d be interested in having me produce their shows and they said, they took care of their own events.
Well, I knew from being backstage and going to various shows in Europe, what a backstage should look like. Backstages were always just total mass confusion back then. In addition to the total confusion, models would take things. Oh, honey, they’d take sunglasses or a pair of shoes. You know, if they liked it, they wore it and walked out with it. I kept noticing that all the people who were working backstage were friends and family. Upon leaving Europe and coming back to America, I made the decision to part ways with Ebony after being its fashion editor and Ebony Fashion Fair show commentator to produce fashion shows all over the United States, I decided to go into business for myself. So when they didn’t let me come in the front door, I went in the back door. I wrote hundreds of letters inquiring about the need for my company’s kind of services and told everyone I knew to be on the lookout for me. Can you imagine that out of the 100 letters or so I received in return, I landed only one job. And in those days I had to lick the envelopes and lick the stamps. So that one job I landed was with a French woman by the name of Dina Viterbo who was a treasure. She along with her husband and family owned a French fashion firm, Tiktiner, located on Seventh Avenue in New York City. Viterbo’s bookkeeper answered my letter and set up an appointment for me to meet with her boss. That one job led to other many others.
We used to do shows at showrooms and would work three or four of them consecutively. Today’s fashion shows are all about ego and back then, they were all about the business. No celebs, no fanfare, just buyers at a show to conduct business.
Just an aside, when I finally met with the French businesswoman. I learned I was overdressed. I actually wore a mink coat, sported diamond hoop earrings and a beautiful emerald ring surrounded by diamonds which was an engagement ring that had been given to me by my then husband. The woman wanted to know how could I have possibly needed a job and was charging so much money when I was so dressed up. I was only charging $15 an hour! So I learned after that meeting that whenever I went on a business call I would take my attire down a notch which meant a cloth coat and certainly no diamond earrings…well, maybe gold ones (laughter).
50BOLD: Who has been your style icon?
Smaltz: I loved Mary McFadden, she always had style. Do you remember her black patent leather-looking hair? I liked Mary’s look because it was different. I like people who have their own unique style and who don’t feel the need to copy. Mary truly had a look all her own. She had that alabaster skin and pitch black hair.
United Airlines hired me as a commentator for a fashion show–50 Years of Uniform. So I did the shows featuring just uniforms and got to travel to a lot of places. And on one occasion I got to meet the legendary costume designer Edith Head who I think had designed something for United Airlines. Anyway, I met Edith while in LA because she had actually wanted to meet me. She stated how my commentary was so very unique. Edith also had such great style.
50BOLD: Do you have a wardrobe MVP which stands for the most valuable piece?
Smaltz: Wow, I have a Yves St. Laurent gown that was part of a couture show in Paris when I was there in August 1977. The gown is made out of a very sheer navy chiffon with gold speckles that resemble stars. Oh, how I love that gown. I stayed on in Paris to order that gown which I must have worn over a dozen times. Lord, I’ve even loaned it out to two or three opera singers. And I wore it on my 80th birthday. I am going to give it to the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) or the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture both places are in New York City. As a matter of fact, I have already donated to FIT eleven valuable articles of clothing.
Another favorite piece that I’ve always liked is a leather coat by Halston which must be at least 20 years old. It’s a hand-painted 3/4 length leather coat with a shawl collar. I mean I bought it 20 years ago and honey, it’s still fresh right now. I have a lot of beautiful things that I own but if I hadn’t gained weight I would still be able to wear them. You know today, young people don’t get dressed up much. I have a Patrick Kelly jacket that I still wear and a couple of his coats. I also have a fabulous leopard coat, a favorite, and as a matter of fact, leopard is my favorite color.
50BOLD: If you could dress one celebrity what designer would you choose to put that person in?
Smaltz: Mimi Plange. She’s incredible! She’s unique. She’s a Ghanaian-born fashion designer and she is brilliant!
50BOLD: Which celebrity would you like to dress?
Smaltz: Rihanna. I like that she is from Barbados and that’s my favorite island in the world. Rihanna is simply fabulous!
50BOLD: What fashion item would you never recommend to a client?
SMALTZ: Ripped jeans! The torn jeans look is just the worst and ugliest design I’ve ever seen. I don’t know who started the ripped jeans fad but I would never, ever recommend them to a client—ever, never!
50BOLD: Give us a classic daytime uniform.
Smaltz: A great daytime look would be a fitted leather jacket in any color paired with trousers. You can also never go wrong with a bright white shirt. Every woman needs to have at least a couple of white shirts in their wardrobe. And the shirts should remain crisp and white which means, you shouldn’t send them to the cleaners because they’ll get dull. I love a fabulous crisp white shirt with a high collar. A good low boot pairs well with trousers too. BTW, a rule of thumb is to always match your boots to the color of your trousers to give you a taller appearance.
50BOLD: Give us a classic evening look.
Smaltz: A classic evening look would be either a Halston or Donna Karan gown; perhaps in a jersey. A Giorgio di Sant’Angelo gown would be beautiful as well. The great actress/singer Lena Horne wore mostly di Sant’Angelo’s designs. A fabulous jersey dress, when it’s cut right, girl, that’s classic! And pairing the dress with drop-dead gorgeous jewelry—just beautiful!
50BOLD: What’s your trademark accessory?
Smaltz: Girl, you don’t know about my necklace? It’s a franc. I have it on right now. Lionel Hampton (Audrey had an over 14-year relationship with the beloved jazz vibraphonist, pianist, percussionist, bandleader and actor) gave me this coin in Florence where I think all the jewelry in the world is made so divinely. It was made for me in 1977, I remember because I was with Ebony Fashion Fair at the time and was doing some shopping. People love the necklace and I love it. If I don’t wear it 7 days, I’ll wear it 5 and it has been over 40 years.
And my favorite trademark shoe designer is Manolo Blahnik. I have the shoe line in every texture–silk, leather, suede, patent leather and in every color including leopard, of course. Can’t forget my leopard! Manolo’s definitely work for me.
Judyth, here is some advice, as you get older, and I’m 80-years-old now, don’t buy new shoes. I still wear high-heels but wear old high-heel shoes. I just make sure to take the old pairs of shoes to a shoe repair place so that they keep looking good all the time. I can still walk in my heels. You see young people trying to walk in new shoes and they can’t! Here I am, still walking beautifully. I can’t be breaking in a new pair of high-heels at age 80! My high heels are 3-inches!
50BOLD: Do you think folks should be closet builders, keep adding new stuff? Should they take stuff away, or just keep what they have and work with it?
Smaltz: I’ll tell you the truth. Once you figure out your style, you hang with that style. For me, my style is lots of white shirts and lots of white tops. And I have black bottoms. And I have colorful leather jackets. That’s my casual daytime look. Now my legs are still good, so I wear skirts but not as often as I wear pants. I don’t like to add a whole lot to my wardrobe because I buy expensive clothing. If you spend a little more on good pieces they will last longer and look right.
50BOLD: Pet peeves—GO!
Smaltz: Ladies who carry these big bags on their shoulders when they’re all dressed up. You can’t be chic with a big bag on your shoulder. You cannot look chic with a huge bag!
First of all, many women buy bags that are too big for their bodies and the proportions are oftentimes not right. And second of all, when they take a picture with the handbag, the first thing you see is the handbag. You can’t even see the clothing because the bag is so big! They don’t know how to stand because they didn’t take ballet lessons, so their feet are going in the same direction. They don’t know feet positions–1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th—they didn’t take ballet! Little things like knowing how to stand, walk, sit, etc. will remain with a person throughout their lives. I didn’t become a ballet dancer but I have grace because of ballet. Every mother nowadays should have their child take ballet and then enroll them in something else that is cultural like piano lessons. I feel a child should take ballet because it gives them grace and elegance.
And that’s why I ask, where has all the elegance gone in this world? Do you see it? I don’t see it anywhere. Honey, people will walk across a street now looking like they have no class. Very few people look elegant anymore. I just don’t see beautiful… and when I do see someone who looks elegant, I tell them, “Oh, Miss you look so…” I just have to tell them!
And women should wear gloves. I have gloves for all seasons. I’m always in gloves. I don’t know why women no longer wear gloves! Gloves give you a finished look.
50BOLD: Who are your go-to designers now?
Smaltz: My go-to designer is Lafayette 148 New York a line where my friend Edward Wilkerson was their design director for 15 years but he is no longer with them. I still shop at their sample sales held twice a year online because they have the best known to man!
I also like the designer, Eskandar, I purchase pieces at Bergdorf Goodman. And of course, I also love designs by Mimi Plange and Tom and Linda Platt. I get my jeans and pants for everyday wear from the online retailer Long Tall Sally because my hips are a 36.
50BOLD: After the age of 50, what fashion pieces should men and women steer clear of?
Smaltz: Women should not wear leggings especially if they have fat around the thighs. Even when wearing a tunic with leggings underneath, they are just not designed to look good on everyone. If a woman is thin, however, she can wear them.
And if a man has a paunch, he should consider wearing a guayabera-style shirt which is Cuban. I hate seeing a man with a big paunch squeezed into a tight T-shirt. A man shouldn’t wear T-shirts when he has a big paunch. Every man can, however, look good in a Cuban shirt.
Both men and women who are of a certain age should also not try to dress so youthfully. Everyone should enjoy who they are now! After all, been there and done that, right!
50BOLD: Do you have any great, crazy, fashion shoot stories?
Smaltz: When I was doing the Ebony Fashion Fair shows we traveled all across the United States. And we would always work on Halloween. I had about 12 or 13 models, two males and the rest were female. Since I’d been doing the show for so long, I told the models they could take their outfits and wear them however they wanted–upside down, inside out, or backward. I couldn’t wait to see what they would do. Most of them wore their outfits backward. The show was funny and I had the best time. We did, however, get into trouble. So we only did it once. We did put on the regular show but just wanted to add something silly into the mix.
50BOLD: What’s was the most exciting part of your job?
Smaltz: Everything! Entertaining! Relating to people! I didn’t think of my profession as a job. It was more like a hobby. Can you imagine getting paid to do something you love? I looked forward to getting up in the mornings and every day was just beautiful.
50BOLD: Are you working on an autobiography?
Smaltz: I am not working on an autobiography, it’s a memoir, I’m working on a memoir now, and I’m slow at it. So just keep bugging me about it!