Fashion Doyenne Audrey Smaltz Lives Life Like It’s Golden
Written by Tina R. Wynn
She stands “72 inches long,” strikingly erect; poised. To witness a crowded room erupt in murmur when she enters — hands cupped over mouths to whisper in ears…” it’s her!” … “she’s so tall!” … “how old is she? She looks so amazing! “I want to meet her!” … is a testament to the fabric from which legends are cut. No pun intended but certainly when you’ve risen from the cultural epicenter of the world – aka Harlem USA – as a Phenom, a delectable ingénue, to a legendary doyenne, then darlin’, the world does sit up to pay attention and pay homage. Such is the life of the wonderfully unrestrained Audrey Lavinia Smaltz, the fashion worlds truest Queen.
At age 79 (and ½), Audrey lives a life as golden as her years, a lofty ataraxia with wife, Gail Marquis, who she married on 11/11/11/ at 11:11 a.m. next to the Central Park pool (actually a pond and one her favorite places on earth) in Manhattan. To ask Audrey about her beloved Gail, she will tell you that, “I was looking for a good man and found me a good woman!”Audrey delighted in life from inception and emerged as a commanding presence in the fashion industry and beyond, right through to present day.
As a child growing up in the Harlem River Houses, her height and infectious personality consistently brought her unsuspecting attention. While attending the New York City High School of Music and Arts (M&A), Audrey was offered her first professional modeling job from baseball’s New York Giants as the ‘Say Hey’ girl for another legend – Willie Mays. Before graduating high school, she was named Miss Harlem Transit of 1954 and posed for a leggy photo that even by today’s standards is… well… hot! She continued her modeling and emerged as a fashion commentator while studying art at the City College of New York.
By 1962, her place in fashion was considerably taking shape. She modeled and served as salesperson and assistant fashion coordinator for Bloomingdales. Lane Bryant snatched her up in 1965, finding the perfect model in the statuesque Audrey along with appointing her as a buyer and fashion coordinator for the zaftig brand. Chicago called in 1969 and Audrey was off to discover new adventures and a husband – a handsome, single Dad doctor with a baby girl named, Nancy. Audrey quickly embraced motherhood and her loving Nancy blessed her with two beautiful grandchildren along the way and stood by her side as her Maid of Honor in her marriage to Gail.When Ebony came calling in 1970, Audrey would catapult her status in the fashion industry as the eloquent commentator of its illustrious Fashion Fair, the traveling fashion show featuring African American models showcasing the couture designs of the hottest designers in the world.
Audrey’s superior diction and flirtatious yet sophisticated manner garnered her love, respect and admiration worldwide. She would perfect the language of the French and made a second home in one of its most elite arrondissements. Givenchy crowned her his muse and this Harlem girl went on to travel the world befriending everyone from civil rights leaders (including her dear friend, the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) to wealthy socialites, supermodels, and the most sought after bachelors from entertainment and sports. Each encounter formed lifelong friendships.
By 1977, Audrey took her leave from the Ebony Fashion Fair and established The Ground Crew, the behind the scenes team that makes a runway show possible. The name of her company was conceived from a speech delivered by Dr. King in the mid- 1960s at the Convent Avenue Baptist Church in Harlem. It resonated all those years with Audrey. She sat in the front row of the church the day he spoke about how the ground crew works at an airport to ensure the airplane safely lifts off. The Ground Crew would staff shows for Vera Wang, Giorgio Armani, Donna Karan, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Adrienne Vittadini, Michael Kors, Nike, Vogue, VH1, Victoria’s Secret, Kanye West and countless others.
Forty years later, Audrey maintains a quiet reign over The Ground Crew, which continues to serve as a relevant and necessary addition to enabling the success of Fashion Week’s couture shows. Through the decades, Audrey has graced the covers of magazines, served as a contributing editor to Vogue, Mirabella and Mode magazines, and is a member of the Board of Directors for the Black Fashion Museum, Dress for Success, the Gracie Mansion Conservancy and Fashion Group International. She toils tirelessly for her favorite charities, the Hight School of Fashion Industries and the Dance Theater of Harlem. She is a never-ending favorite as a speaker or host of high-end events and added the role of auctioneer to her repertoire. Audrey can truly sell the hell out of anything!
On her 79th birthday, Audrey contacted a gaggle of friends, inviting each to meet her at Ashford and Simpson’s Sugar Bar for a meal or cocktail in celebration of her birthday. One friend flew in from Europe just because she called. Another reminisced about their Harlem days at the Cotton Club, hanging out with Count Basie and other great jazz artists from that era. Fabulous fashion designer B Michael gifted her with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot and owner Valerie Simpson serenaded Audrey with the birthday song. Presently, Audrey is planning a very special birthday celebration for her 80th this June. The plans are nearly finalized and soon those well-known and unknown dearest friends will receive their invite to hop on a jet and meet her for the next destination extravaganza as only Audrey can give. She is also finalizing her memoirs and baby, there are so many juicy, juicy stories to be told. Indeed, ‘mother has lived!’ Audrey shall forever maintain her sense of style, gifted oration, and love of life.
“Never nipped, tucked, or ’toxed”, she says. “Every day is new and different. It’s the best thing that could ever happen to a person, a woman, I don’t know… to me. I’ve been doing it my whole life.”
Tina Wynn is one of the Principals of The Brown Wynn Agency, an events production and planning agency. Tina manages all produced programs for the agency’s clients including script writing, stage management and run of show.She and Audrey Smaltz met in 1986, when Tina and her late husband, Charles Johnson would pick up Audrey and her then partner, the late, great Lionel Hampton for church each Sunday. They instantly developed a friendship and 31 years later maintain a loving relationship, are prayer partners and travel buddies.