Liz Tilberis, late 80s – early 1990s Vogue editorNovember 27, 2021
Liz Tilberis was the editor of British Vogue from 1988-1992. She won a competition to come and work there as a teenager in 1969 and, starting as an intern, rose through the ranks to become fashion director and finally editor in chief. Tilberis was at Vogue for 22 years. She also edited Harper’s Bazaar from 1992 – 1999 when she died from ovarian cancer. Tilberis was a campaigner for more knowledge and less stigma around this illness, as well as a fundraiser and president of the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund.
Tilberis was a Vogue editor in Chief for only four years. But her influence was felt for over two decades.
Elizabeth Jane Kelly was born in Alderley Edge, Cheshire, on the 7th September 1947. Her background was very well-off. Her father was Manx and her mother English.
The family was unusually adventurous. Along with her parents and siblings, the young Elizabeth travelled all around America by road when she was ten years old. Her father was an optical specialist, and she assumed they had travelled for business, but later on, her mum told her they had just wanted to see the country.
Liz Tilberis – a little rebellious
She fitted in well at boarding school, with average grades and a slightly rebellious streak which led to her friendship group doing things like climbing across roofs to other people’s dorms at night. It also lead to her being expelled from her first degree course within a few weeks of joining it. She was discovered half-naked with a man in her room. She went on to study at Leicester and came out with a degree in Fashion in 1970. One of her tutors was Andrew Tilberis, whom she dated while studying and married in 1971.
The couple wanted to have children, and Liz underwent nine rounds of fertility treatment. She believed that contributed to her later ovarian cancer. They went on to adopt two boys, Robbie and Christopher.
Liz Tilberis – a Talent Contest Winner
In 1969, when she was 22, Liz entered and was a runner up in the Vogue Talent Contest. The actual winner declined the prize: her place as an intern for the summer in the Vogue offices, preferring to continue her studies. It was offered to Liz instead, who gladly took it up. The local paper, the Bath & Wiltshire Evening Chronicle, also gave her a weekly fashion column.
From there, she was offered a job as a fashion assistant by Beatrix Miller, the editor. From the start, Liz was known for being kind and taking care of everyone, from the top models and designers to the van drivers and hairdresser’s assistants.
Liz Tilberis steadily rose up the ranks. From 1970-73 she was a fashion assistant, then fashion editor from 1973- 85, Executive Fashion Editor from 1985-86, Fashion Director 1986-87, and finally Editor in Chief 1987-92. During this time, she became friends with Anna Wintour, the editor before her. She was also particularly close friends with Grace Coddington, whom she also worked with on Vogue. Another good friend was Diana, Princess of Wales.
Editor at Harper’s Bazaar
When Liz Tilberis was asked to take up the role of Editor in Chief on Harper’s Bazaar in 1992, the press were gleeful. They pitted Tilberis and Anna Wintour against one another – two Englishwomen at the head of America’s two most famous fashion magazines. Headlines included “War of the Poses”. But though they appreciated the publicity and publicly played up the feud, there was no real hostility between the two women.
Harper’s Bazaar was going downhill when Tilberis arrived. She put together a strong team and turned around its fortunes, creating an airy but down to earth publication. Fantasy and glamour were its by-words, but she didn’t shy away from talking about the real world.
Keen to embody fashion and not just comment on it, she asked Fabien Baron to be her creative director. He had overseen redesigns of Vogue Italia and Interview and ran his own creative agency. He designed advertising campaigns, books, furniture, and products and was an image-maker, photographer, and film director. Her new photographers were Patrick Demarchelier and Peter Lindbergh. Liz Tilberis’s very first issue featured a then-unknown Kate Moss.
Discovered she had Ovarian Cancer
In December 1993, in only her second year at Harper’s Bazaar, Tilberis discovered she had stage 3 ovarian cancer. A visit to a gynaecologist revealed a suspicious mass. A couple of days later, at an appointment with an oncologist, he demanded that she had an operation the next day to remove it. However, the party of the year was coming up: Tilberis was to host a Christmas party for 250 of the fashion world’s finest at her home the following evening. Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Paloma Picasso and Grace Coddington were all invited. She was determined not to cancel, and as a result, attended the hospital for the operation with a terrible hangover. The operation and subsequent chemotherapy was a success.
She continued working, wearing a wig called Larry and joking about her slimmed-down frame being due to her “cancer diet”. In 1994 the cancer returned. In September of that year she was interviewed for her own magazine for a huge feature focussing on ovarian cancer, its treatments and possible causes. She then began to write a lighthearted monthly “cancer diary” for Harper’s. She also published a memoir in 1998, “No Time to Die”. “I never wanted to be a cancer spokesperson”, she wrote. “But cancer has become an immutable part of my persona. I don’t run from it. I study, anticipate and confront it.”
Worked Right Until the End
Liz Tilberis died in New York from her illness on the 21 April 1999, aged 51. She worked right up until a few days before her death.
“She was a very special woman,” said Calvin Klein. “I don’t know anyone who’s displayed the kind of courage that she has in the last six years. To have editorial meetings while she’s having bone marrow transplants, and be a wife and mother and run a fashion magazine while she’s dealing with this terrible illness is incredible. “Throughout all this time, there’s her extraordinary will to live and to enjoy life,” Klein added. “She had such a sense of humor and still had such a passion for clothes and for photography. And she always wanted to gossip. She’d call and say, ‘Okay, let’s have it.’ I don’t gossip with very many people, but we talked about everyone.”