Tilberis, Liz (1947–1999)

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Tilberis, Liz (1947–1999)

British fashion magazine editor. Born Elizabeth Kelly on September 7, 1947, in Alderly Edge, England; died of ovarian cancer on April 21, 1999, in New York City; daughter of Thomas Stuart-Black Kelly (an eye surgeon) and Janet (Caldwell) Kelly; attended Jacob Kramer College of Art in Leeds; graduated from Leicester Polytechnic Art School with a degree in fashion design; married Andrew Tilberis (an artist), in 1971; children: (adopted) Robbie (born c. 1981) and Chris (born c. 1985).

Began working as an intern at British Vogue (1969); became editor-in-chief of British Vogue (1989); became editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar (1992); received Editor of the Year citation from Advertising

Age (1993); published memoir, No Time to Die (1998).

Editor of two of the most influential magazines in the fashion industry, Liz Tilberis was known for her sharp eye for style and fashion photography. She was born in the home of her maternal grandfather in Alderly Edge, England, on September 7, 1947, the eldest of three children. Her father Thomas Stuart-Black Kelly was an eye surgeon who had served in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, while her mother Janet Caldwell Kelly was a homemaker who encouraged her daughter's creativity. Growing up in Shirehampton, in the suburbs of the northwest industrial town of Manchester, Tilberis was drawn to fashion early on, and as a child industriously engaged in designing clothes for her dolls. Her passion for fabrics and clothing design led her to art school at the Leicester Polytechnic (from which she was expelled in 1965 for smuggling a boyfriend into her dormitory room). She spent a year at the Jacob Kramer College of Art in Leeds before returning to Leicester to finish her degree in fashion design.

Tilberis got her first break in the fashion world after winning an essay contest at British Vogue. Rewarded with a coveted internship on the Vogue staff during the summer of 1969, she became an assistant editor by 1971, when she was 23. That year she also married artist Andrew Tilberis, who had been one of her instructors at art school in Leeds. Within the cuttingedge pop culture scene of 1970s London, Tilberis scoured flea markets and bargain basements for clothing she could turn into fashion items on her meager starting salary of £900 a year. To earn extra money, she even repaired her colleagues' clothing, charging £1 to put in new zippers. Her career progressed steadily upwards as she advanced to fashion editor and to executive fashion editor, and she became a household name in the fashion industry. During this decade, unable to conceive and deeply desiring children, she also took fertility drugs and underwent in vitro fertilization nine times. These efforts proved ineffective, and she and her husband finally adopted two sons, Robbie and Chris. When Anna Wintour , the editor-in-chief of British Vogue, left to edit American Vogue in 1988, Tilberis was named to take her place. Among the many faces of fashion she brought to the pages of the magazine was that of her close friend Diana , princess of Wales, whose portrait appeared on the cover in 1990. Tilberis remained at British Vogue until 1992, when Harper's Bazaar approached her to revitalize the sluggish 125-year-old periodical.

After secretly negotiating for six months with executives of Harper's Bazaar—archrival of Vogue—Tilberis accepted the post of editor-inchief and moved with her family to Manhattan. She dove into the New York fashion world with characteristic vigor, and numbered among her friends such designers as Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Donna Karan . Harper's Bazaar experienced a renaissance; its design and photography departments began to reclaim influence in the fashion world, and the magazine won two National Magazine awards in the first year of her editorship. Her erstwhile boss Anna Wintour, still at the helm of Vogue, later called her a "formidable competitor." Tilberis was named Editor of the Year by the respected trade journal Advertising Age in 1993.

That December, at age 46, she was diagnosed with Stage 3 ovarian cancer. The morning after she hosted a gala holiday party for 250 guests at her Manhattan townhouse, Tilberis underwent surgery at Mt. Sinai Medical Center, where doctors confirmed the diagnosis. For the next six years, while she continued to edit Harper's Bazaar (often from her hospital bed), Tilberis underwent extensive treatments to stay the disease. At the same time, she began a campaign to educate women about ovarian cancer, a disease with a lower cure rate than breast cancer. She became president of the nonprofit Ovarian Cancer Research Fund, helping to raise money for the organization from the fashion world and traveling nationwide to talk with women about the disease. With Aimee Lee Ball , she wrote a memoir, No Time to Die, as part of her efforts to publicize the illness. Published in 1998, the book was simultaneously a narrative of glitter and glamour in the fast lane with the world's top fashion artists and headline makers and a tale of her bitter struggle with chemotherapy treatments and a bone-marrow transplant. It also detailed her conviction, despite the lack of scientific evidence, that the fertility drugs she had taken in the 1970s had increased her chances of developing the disease. Liz Tilberis, called "St. Liz" by her many admirers in the fashion world and beyond, died at age 51 in April 1999 of the ovarian cancer that had become her cause.


The Boston Globe. April 22, 1999, p. F7.

The Day [New London, CT]. April 22, 1999.

Newsday. April 8, 1998, pp. B6–B8.

Newsweek. April 6, 1998, p. 58.

People Weekly. May 18, 1998, pp. 93–94, 96.

Publishers Weekly. March 2, 1998, p. 48.

Lolly Ockerstrom , freelance writer, Washington, D.C.

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