Liz Lee: Modeling a Life Well Lived

Liz Lee on the runway at a 1984 YSL show
Photo by Guy Marineau

“It was always Mister Beene, Monsieur Saint Laurent,” so explains Liz Lee in her upcoming book. She was for over twenty years house model and muse to the late Geoffrey Beene. “Only those who didn’t actually know them would say ‘Geoffrey’ or ‘Yves.’” Of Karl Lagerfeld’s one-time muse Ines de la Fressange: “She was responsible for the new Chanel interpretation – the ballerina shoe, the Capri pant worn with a Chanel jacket. Once she became France’s Marianne (the female personification of the Republic), he [Karl] famously dropped her.”

Of Chanel’s American Fashion Director Kitty D’Alessio who recommended Lagerfeld as the successor to designer Philippe Guibourgé. Liz says: “Karl was brazen he always had a way of saying things. Like the time he fired longtime ally Kitty with ‘You’re in charge of special projects, except we don’t have any special projects.’” D’Alessio was also Liz’s mentor, so her abrupt dismissal hurt!

Liz on the runway at Oscar de la Renta

Of YSL’s muse Loulou de la Falaise: “Saint Laurent was always smoking – he was so nervous,” Liz said while puffing quickly to pantomime. “Loulou calmed him down.” In addition to being a constant chimney, he had a “snorty bulldog” — an omnipresent fixture at haute couture fittings. At times it was impossible to tell if the snort came from the dog or Mr. Le Smoking himself.

Liz with Geoffrey Beene at a fitting

These and so many other exciting and humorous details of what it was like in that glamorous golden age of haute couture abound when Liz Lee, former high fashion fit and runway model, speaks and writes. I had the privilege of meeting this otherworldly beauty recently. She gave me a glimpse of her charmed life on 7th Avenue as Beene’s lead model, her unique experiences modeling and being hosted in the Dominican Republic chez Oscar de la Renta, as well as her detailed descriptions of the denizens and surroundings of the most highly vaunted Paris ateliers including the Maisons of YSL and Chanel.

Liz and Alber Elbaz
Polaroid photo by Geoffrey Beene

In her forthcoming memoir entitled “Runways: My International Life as an American Model,” she describes the preparation and panic accompanying an Oscar de la Renta fitting. I felt like a very lucky fly on the wall, virtually breathing the rarified creative air and observing the process while feasting on details.

“Imagine your closet and all the possibilities of a jacket. Are the lapels too wide? Shall we add faille to the collar? Are the proportions more modern with that dress with the flared skirt? Would it be better with a fuller leg pant? Would you wear a sweater underneath or a blouse? Add a heavy necklace or a scarf with piano fringe or do both? What shoes? A dark red leather Mary Jane shoe, to pick up the plaid in the blouse, or the rich suede purple bootie that compliments the sheen of the tweed jacket?”

“Does the jacket look too boxy? Shall we belt the jacket? Are those pants hanging correctly? What is that pulling on the crotch? Eliminate the look altogether? Outfit after outfit, the beautiful design teams that put clothes on the editorial pages of fancy magazines, would analyze each ancillary piece to find the perfect runway choice. Tailors, pins in their mouths, on their knees, pinning a hem, making the skirt tighter, taking in that boxy jacket, all under an urgency deadline.”

Liz (far right) with YSL

Lee claims that growing up in the late ‘50s (“a time of big winged cars and evening of slide shows on the projector in the living room,”), she felt “invisible” compared with her three studious sisters. Her family lived in Saudi Arabia and later moved to The Hague as her brilliant chemical engineer father’s oil industry job required. Eventually, after moving back to the states and New York City, the former “Ugly Duckling” got to live out her childhood fantasy of becoming a world-class model. Unbelievably, she even managed to impact the world that she once only dreamt of from the pages of her beloved fashion magazines.

Liz Lee with her first husband Mark for an article in Vanity Fair

Living her dream required strict monitoring of her weight (she checked the scale twice a day), and constant attention to her hair, makeup, and nails. Good posture was a must as her job necessitated her to stand up straight and tall, sometimes for hours on end.

Best of all, the Audrey Hepburn lookalike’s opinion on the design process of fit, fabric, and styling was solicited and taken into consideration. Although she also modeled ready-to-wear (which often features trickled down ideas inspired by haute couture), her true love is couture. She appreciates the “collaborative effort among the couturiers.”

Decades before documentaries such as “The September Issue” showed the underbelly of the fashion beast, Lee lived it. After each model’s runway look was agonized over and finally selected by committee, labeled, numbered, and bagged in plastic with the model’s name and a Polaroid showing how it was worn, the inevitable would happen:

“Sometimes, Andre Leon Tally or Anna Wintour from Vogue would show up the night before, telling Oscar to take the whole show preparation apart, emphasize this, instead of that. After the weekend of trying everything carefully, neat and organized, and now the night before, scrambling to change all those tidy bags on the rack, with another focus. Naked models again, and exhausted assistants all frantic at the 11th hour, to try that burgundy coat on, from rack one, with an orange scarf, instead of the rich brown, a stockier heel instead of the boot.”

Her early and often peripatetic lifestyle informs the titular “Runways” as it refers both to her modeling career and the airport take-off and landing strips – you could generally find her on one or the other. Her fascinating story involves both the charmed part of her life and the many serious life challenges she faced growing up and as an adult.

She confesses that writing the book was “cathartic” – it is also inspirational for anyone who has survived childhood sexual abuse, betrayal by a spouse, the reversal of fortune, life-threatening illness, or similar obstacles. The mother of two adult children now lives in Westchester County, New York, and is happily married to her second husband.

Portrait of Liz with her two children
.Photo: Francesco Scavullo

Lee dishes on those legendary A-list designers who she got to know before the dawn of social media and the cult of designer-as-celebrity. Although he was an American designer, Beene had that “international flavor both in his models – he featured a lot of Asians, and his love of Vienna as a design influence,” She describes Mr. Beene as “tricky.” After Liz had a mastectomy for breast cancer and serving as Beene’s muse for over 20 years, he unemotionally fires her with a phone call from his assistant.

Liz with Oscar de La Renta

Mr. de la Renta is revered as a true gentleman except for something remarkable, revealed after his death. Why would he cut his adopted son out of his will after his son showed his own small ready-to-wear collection? As Lee observed first hand, high fashion designers, like other egotistical creative types, will do inscrutable things on a whim – be it from insecurity, dislike of having their authority threatened, or fear that they are being upstaged.

Liz Lee
Photo: Jack Deutsch

As someone who broke into modeling with dogged determination, Lee is acutely aware that it’s much harder for aspiring models to succeed today. First of all, because of the heightened security, no one could do what she did – showing up early in the morning, unannounced, to a designer atelier until she got to see the designer or found a way to introduce herself. As for actually getting cast for a runway show: “How are models supposed to get discovered when they have only one turn on the runway? We used to each have four or five changes as fewer models were used.”

These days, as a Chanel Fashion Advisor and Consultant for Ready-to-Wear at Saks Fifth Avenue in NYC, Lee has observed several fashion trends in their infancy, including the increased desire for logos, which she believes is “urban or rapper-inspired.” Fashion has undoubtedly become a lot more relaxed since she modeled.

“Lifestyles change a lot – now comfort has taken over. People just want to be comfortable.” What does she think of Mr. Lagerfeld’s Chanel replacement, Virginie Viard? “I love her work! For years, she worked with Karl as his right hand, although her style is more pared down than he was. She gets that the street is the center of fashion–from runway to the street is her motto. She is very careful not to make it so precious.”

As we await Lee’s book you can follow her on Instagram –@Lizleerunways

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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