Silk and British Steel

updated 12/07/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/07/1992 01:00AM

CLASSICAL MUSIC WAITS SOFTLY into the West Lounge of the tony Metropolitan Club on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, as tuxedoed waiters dispense goblets of champagne to toast the arrival of Britain's newest queen—Elizabeth Tilberis, 45, the recently appointed editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar. The power crowd in attendance is singing her praises. "I adore Liz," says Donna Karan, swooping in wearing a long dress and platform shoes. "I love her genius and her heart." "I think Liz is an incredible person," gushes Isaac Mizrahi. "She's extremely real." Adds supermodel Naomi Campbell, making a late entrance in a sleek black dress: "Even though she's editor-in-chief, you're not frightened to talk to her like you are with some of them. She's really nice and sweet."

Obviously the fashion elite aren't about to bite the hand that feeds them—especially at a shindig in her honor. But "nice and sweet" isn't just the party line on Tilberis. Back in her native England, where she edited British Vogue for the last five years, Tilberis was so beloved by her staff that a close friend described her as an editor who "can fire a person and have them walk out the door thanking her for releasing them from a lifetime's toil."

Of course, Hearst, which publishes Bazaar, saw more than an agreeable demeanor when they asked Tilberis to join rival British Conde Nast expatriates Tina Brown (The New Yorker) and Anna Wintour (Vogue) in making the transatlantic jump. Hearst is paying Tilberis a reported annual salary of $600,000 (plus such perks as first-class travel and a generous clothing allowance). In return they want her to perform a complete face-lift on the 125-year-old monthly Bazaar.

Fashion experts are coming to respect Tilberis's judgments, and so are readers; her redesigned and heavily promoted inaugural issue outsold the previous month by 145,000. Says her husband, Andrew, 50, an artist who creates three-dimensional wall hangings: "She's a very tough lady underneath."

A fighter, too. Last year the demure Tilberis made rag-trade headlines by punching a security guard who pushed one of her colleagues at a crowded Jean Paul Gaultier fashion show in Paris. "I just slugged him in the mouth," Tilberis recalls with a laugh. "When I got back to London, I received a poster from Gaultier saying WELCOME HOME, CHAMP"

The combative side has surfaced in her efforts to make a contender of Bazaar, which now ranks third among the nation's top four fashion magazines. Tilberis already has made incursions against Wintour's top-selling Vogue (circulation: 1.2 million), luring away that magazine's renowned photographers Patrick Demarchelier and Peter Lindbergh. "That was the hardest part of all," Tilberis says, "but now I've got the people I want."

What made the raid especially prickly is her prior relationship with Wintour, who gave Tilberis her big break back in 1987, when Wintour left the top job at British Vogue and recommended Tilberis, then her fashion director, to succeed her. "Of course there's competition, but that's how it should be," says Tilberis, who calls Wintour a brilliant editor. While the two maintain a cordial air-kissing relationship in public, Tilberis admits that since she arrived at Bazaar, she has been too busy to sit down and chat with her former boss.

Though both editors favor Chanel wardrobes, they have little else in common. The silver-haired Tilberis, a size 10, calls herself "a bit dull, really." The size 4 Wintour, by contrast, is so cool that she wears dark glasses, even indoors.

By the same token, the two magazines take different approaches to fashion. "Vogue appeals to younger readers and has a faster feel," critiques Tilberis. "What I'd like to bring to Bazaar is a calmness. I see it very clean and beautifully designed." On her first cover, she put model Linda Evangelista in a glamorous beaded Donna Karan body suit, along with large type proclaiming ENTER THE ERA OF ELEGANCE.

Such style is in Tilberis's blood. "I liked to draw girls in 18th-century costume by the time I was 8," she recalls. Growing up in Bath, the oldest of three children of Thomas Kelly, an eye surgeon, and Jane, a cartographer, she took piano, riding and ballet lessons. And though she suspects her parents "would have liked it if I were a mathematician," she finished Malvern Girls' College boarding school in 1964 and headed on to the Jacob Kramer College of Art in Leeds. There she met Andrew, who was her tutor. They married in 1971.

Tilberis's career direction was set in 1969, when she won second place in a writing and design contest and was offered a job as a gofer at British Vogue. She rose through the ranks, quitting once briefly, to work for Ralph Lauren in 1987. She never made it to New York City, however, because British Vogue lured her back as editor before she could even pack her bags. When the offer came from Bazaar, though, nothing could deter her from the challenge. Chosen after an international search to replace editor Anthony Mazzola, 69, Tilberis last March moved with her husband and two sons, Robert, 11, and Christopher, 7, to a four-bedroom town house on Manhattan's Upper East Side. While Andrew, who works at home, watches the kids with the help of a nanny, Tilberis logs nine-hour days in her flower-filled Broadway office, shaking up an industry that, like many others, is trying to fight its way out of recession. "We really needed a jolt, and she is it," says designer Anna Sui. "The competition between the magazines will put everyone on their toes."

ELIZABETH SPORKIN
DAVID HUTCHINGS in New York City

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