Amy Fine Collins didn’t intend to become a muse to fashion designers, nor a journalist. Studying at Swarthmore College and Columbia University, she planned a career in formal art history teaching and academia. When a writing offer sidetracked her, Collins’ prose and poise quickly transitioned her to an authority and author on style. She held posts as Style Editor at House & Garden and Harper’s Bazaar, was a Special Correspondent to Vanity Fair, and is now an Editor at Large for the online publication Air Mail. Her most recent book, The International Best-Dressed List: The Official Story (Rizzoli), examines the coveted annual selections of well-dressed men and women. The roster mixes royalty, Hollywood celebrities, and politicians with fashion makers and mavens. Chicagoan Mrs. Howard Linn (formerly Lucy McCormick Blair) was recognized in the original 1940 debut. The List, as it is commonly referred to, tells of the partnership between clothing and the people it adorns as a powerful entity, as does Collins’ own story.
Her first editorial was on the fashion designer Geoffrey Beene, and it caught his interest. He wrote to ask how someone he’d never met seemed to know him better than he did himself. Beene looked to Collins for inspiration, and she, in turn, developed her identity through his fashion designs. “It was not a paid position like the arrangements ‘influencers’ today have,” she says, but each season a collection from Beene would arrive at Collins’ door with an expectation the clothing would be her exclusive wardrobe for outings and events. “The relationship was like a shadow marriage,” she recalls, “you had to be faithful! We were symbiotic but separate.”
Her recognition in the art, fashion, and the literary worlds also attracted the attention of legendary public relations guru Eleanor Lambert (a former student at the Art Institute of Chicago). Lambert’s firm, based in Manhattan, included as clients, artists, art institutions, and design houses. Lambert was the first Press Director for the Whitney Museum of American Art, established landmark events such as the Met Gala, and in an effort to boost the American fashion industry as U.S. troops’ entrance to WWII loomed, founded The List. “She was very conscious of cultural change,” notes Collins, herself a longtime List Committee member and participant, having been nominated to their “Fashion Professionals” category and to its Hall of Fame in the 1990s. “In almost any given year you can reconstruct some of the history of that moment through the individuals chosen.” Lambert served as a close friend and mentor, and used to adore visits from Collins’ daughter, Flora Collins (now a rising novelist with the title Nanny Dearest due out this November). Prior to Lambert’s passing at the age of 100, she turned The List over to an intimate group of four, Collins amongst them. Together, they strive for the same traditions of diversity and progress. For example, she says, “One of the issues we are discussing today is whether we should even continue to have gender sections.”
“For me, fashion has never been about consumption, it’s an aesthetic,” remarks Collins. That vision is what continues to make her contributions so distinctive. Quarantine provided her with the only real travel opportunity available in a pandemic—down memory lane. She ventured onto Instagram, “posing and posting in my vintage Beene outfits.” And what began as sorting through storage, transformed into a soon-to-be-announced museum retrospective of the late Beene’s pieces from Collins’ closet treasures. As her professional course clearly demonstrates, fashion is one of the highest forms of art.
The International Best-Dressed List: The Official Story, is available at The Book Stall in Winnetka. On September 28, Collins sits down for a tête-à-tête with Art & Design Consultant Laura Layfer Treitman at the Arts Club of Chicago in collaboration with Alliance Française de Chicago. Follow Collins on Instagram @amyfinecollinsibdl.