Review: ‘Calendar Girl,’ starring Ruth Finley

November 12, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ruth Finley in “Calendar Girl” (Photo by Christian D. Bruun)

“Calendar Girl”

Directed by Christian D. Bruun

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the documentary “Calendar Girl” features a group of predominantly middle-aged and senior citizen white people (with a few Asians and African Americans) discussing Fashion Calendar founder Ruth Finley, who also participated into the documentary.

Culture Clash: Finley was very resistant to new technology and refused for years to sell Fashion Calendar.

Culture Audience: “Calendar Girl” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in the American fashion industry and New York Fashion Week.

Steven Kolb and Ruth Finley in “Calendar Girl” (Photo by Christian D. Bruun)

Long before software spreadsheets and the Internet existed, the schedules of the U.S. fashion industry in New York City were and still are largely influenced by the subscription publication Fashion Calendar, which launched in 1941. Ruth Finley was the founder of Fashion Calendar, which is still considered the most influential scheduling “bible” for people in American fashion, especially those who attend New York Fashion Week. Finley’s name might not be as famous as longtime Vogue (U.S.) editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, but Finley holds a place in fashion media as an underrated pioneer. The engaging documentary “Calendar Girl” tells Finley’s story.

Directed by Christian D. Bruun, “Calendar Girl” (which had its world premiere at DOC NYC in 2020) was filmed over the course of several years in the 2010s. Finley passed away in 2018, at the age of 98, but she fully participated in the film, which includes interviews with numerous colleagues and family members of Finley. A few of the interviewees have also since passed away, such as photographer Bill Cunningham and former Bloomingdale’s executive Joseph “Joe” Siegel, who was Finley’s beau toward their end of their lives. Therefore, “Calendar Girl” looks dated in some ways, but the inspiring message of the movie is timeless.

Rather than giving a boring and predictable chronological telling of Finley’s story, “Calendar Girl” gives a non-chronological but insightful overview of Finley as a businessperson, mother and beloved influencer, as well as how she fits into the larger cultural context of the fashion industry. The movie begins with footage of her being honored at a 2014 Hall of Fame Tribute to celebrate Fashion Calendar, an event presented by Citymeals on Wheels. Later in the documentary, there’s footage of Finley getting the Board of Directors’ Tribute at the 2014 Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Awards, as well as Finley receiving the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) President’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016.

Through Finley’s own words and the words of her colleagues and her three sons (Joe Green, Jim Green and Larry Lein), a story emerges of a dedicated and sassy woman who went against society norms to start Fashion Calendar during an era when women were expected to not have careers. She was a single, working mother for most of her career, long before it was common or even acceptable to be a mother who worked outside of the home. Finley also kept working well past the age when most people are expected to retire. 

And her passion for fashion is almost unparalleled, as she kept up her rigorous work schedule for decades. She was tirelessly attending fashion shows well into her 90s. “Calendar Girl” includes footage of her attending some of these shows. In the documentary, Finley says, “Sometimes I do as many as 12 shows a day.” She also mentions that her personal career record for going to fashion shows was attending 150 shows in one week.

Fashion Calendar had a very simple concept that worked extremely well: Publish a calendar schedule of all the major fashion events happening in New York City. For years, before Fashion Calendar had office space, Finley worked out of her home. Fun fact: Before Emmy-winning actress Doris Roberts was famous, she worked as a teenage typist for Fashion Calendar in the publication’s early years.

The Fashion Calendar newsletter eventually grew into a booklet-styled publication years later. CFDA founder Eleanor Lambert, who started out as a fashion publicist, rose to prominence at around the same time that Finley did. Lambert, Finley and former Vogue (U.S.) editor Diana Vreeland are mentioned by several people as the three most influential women in fashion in the 1950s and 1960s.

Fashion Calendar, which was published weekly and then bi-weekly, was typewritten or mimeographed on pink paper for years, before computer technology existed. Finley and her small staff also kept files and Rolodexes that they still used until CFDA purchased Fashion Calendar in 2014 and Finley took on the role of consultant. At the time Fashion Calendar was sold to CFDA in 2014, the publication had only three full-time employees, including Finley and longtime Fashion Calendar editor Mary Hackle.

The idea of making Fashion Calendar pink ended up being one of the best ideas for the publication, not only because it made Fashion Calendar stand out from other fashion publications, but also, as Finley says, “The reason why we kept this color is so people would find it on a messy desk.” It’s why Fashion Calendar ended up being nicknamed “The Pink Bible.”

Finley (who was born in 1920, in Haverhill, Massachusetts) launched Fashion Calendar while she was still a student at Simmons College in Boston, where she majored in journalism and minored in nutrition. After graduating from college in 1941, she moved to New York City and devoted herself full-time to Fashion Calendar, which included listings for movie premieres and Broadway shows in the publication’s early years. Under her ownership, Fashion Calendar never had ads or took sponsorship money, which is unusual for any print-media publication.

Finley’s youngest son Larry Lein comments in the documentary: “She realized all along that she could’ve taken ads and she could’ve made more money, but she thought it would ruin the integrity of what she was doing and ruin her credibility. It never occurred to her that her business should be anything but an impartial listing service.” He also says that his mother’s business success could be attributed to her frugality, because she learned early on to keep overhead costs low.

While her Fashion Calendar business was thriving, Finley experienced major heartaches and tragedies. Her first marriage to businessman Hank Green ended in divorce in 1954, at a time when being divorced was considered somewhat scandalous, especially for women. Finley’s sons Joe and Jim Green were born from that marriage.

In the documentary, Finley says that her first marriage was a mistake that happened because she wanted to rebel against her domineering housewife mother, who didn’t approve of Hank Green and thought that women should not have careers. Finley and her mother didn’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of issues, but their relationship is described as close, despite any ongoing tensions.

Not long after her divorce from Hank Green, Finley married second husband Irving Lein, who owned a women’s designer sportswear company. Her third and youngest son Larry was born from that marriage. However, Irving tragically died of a heart attack at the age of 44 on January 14, 1959, which also happened to be Finley’s 39th birthday.

The widowed Finley told people at the funeral that she never wanted to get married again. And she never did. Finley says in the documentary that her way of dealing with tragedy and setbacks was to try to be as positive as possible: “I always believed in looking at the happy side. And too many people don’t know how to do that.”

That optimistic outlook on life served her well in an industry that tends to be very fickle and not well-suited for people who are sensitive to criticism. As the fashion industry grew in America (especially in New York City, the fashion capital of the United States), so too did Fashion Calendar’s influence. Finley found herself not just publishing the fashion schedules of the industry but also becoming a power broker who could decide who and what could be scheduled where and when. It was also a job that required a lot of negotiating skills to deal with the huge egos and histrionics in the fashion industry.

Her clout had a major effect not just with big-name designers but also with up-and-coming designers. Several people in the documentary, including fashion designers Betsey Johnson and Jeffrey Banks, have nice things to say about how Finley have them big breaks in their careers. And her Fashion Calendar work also affected the careers of countless other industry people besides designers, such as buyers, media, retailers and wholesalers. Ellin Saltzman, a former Saks Fifth Avenue buyer, says of Finley: “Without Ruth, I couldn’t do my job.”

Fashion designer Nicole Miller says in the documentary that for Miller’s first New York Fashion Week show in 1991, Finley was “tough” in insisting that then-newcomer Miller get a less-than-desirable time slot: 9 a.m. on a Tuesday. Miller says, through a lot of heated discussions with Finley, she was able to negotiate for a better time slot at 12 noon. Miller says that these negotiations weren’t easy because Finley was considered an industry powerhouse that a lot of upcoming designers did not want to alienate.

Fashion designer Nanette Lepore comments in the documentary that although Finley was no pushover, she still brought a sense of decorum and politeness to her job, in an industry where screaming tantrums and rudeness are very common: “She was constantly smoothing over egos, negotiating for someone … There was a gentlemanliness about how people approached fashion and Fashion Week, mostly because of how Ruth’s gentlewomanliness was managing it.”

Because she conducted most of her business over the phone, Fashion Calendar had a personal touch that many other fashion media executives lost as computer technology took over many businesses and people used email or social media to communicate with each other. In the documentary, Finley says that as long as she owned Fashion Calendar, she made sure that she and her small number of employees were always accessible through phone calls. 

It was a very traditional mindset that people in the documentary say was both an asset and a detriment. Even though Crafting Beauty CEO François Damide says in the documentary of Finley, “I really think she’s the Steve Jobs of our industry,” that comment might be overstating her influence. Even Finley herself admits that she was far from a technology pioneer, and she didn’t really invent anything. She just provided a particular news service for the fashion industry before anyone else did.

Finley’s resistance to new technology would ultimately lead to her decision to sell Fashion Calendar. For decades, Finley turned down offers from other companies to buy Fashion Calendar. One of the reasons why Finley’s family convinced her to sell Fashion Calendar was that the American fashion industry and New York Fashion Week were just too big for Finley and her small staff to handle just by their old-fashioned methods of Rolodexes and hand-written drafts of schedules.

The Fashion Calendar staff eventually used computers, but former CFDA executive director Fern Mallis says, “Ruth was very late to get to the technology. People begged her to be online. She resisted.”

In 2014, CFDA president/CEO Steven Kolb and then-CFA chairperson Diane von Furstenberg approached Finley to sell Fashion Calendar to CFDA. Kolb says in the documentary that CFDA had been considering launching a rival fashion calendar business, but approached Finley to sell Fashion Calendar to CFDA, out of respect for Finley and with the promise that they would keep her core integrity for the business intact. The CFDA took over Fashion Calendar in October 2014. Fashion Calendar’s last print edition was published in December 2014.

Kolb comments in the documentary, “Technology, whether we like it or not, whether we accept it or not, it forces us to move forward in a way, because if we don’t, then we become irrelevant.” Kolb adds that Finley was also convinced to sell Fashion Calendar because he told her that stepping away from day-to-day managerial duties “frees her up … and lets her focus on the fun stuff.”

The documentary also gives a great overview of the priceless contributions that Finley made to the fashion industry, in terms of historical significance. She meticulously kept all of the Fashion Calendar issues, which she donated to the FIT Museum for posterity. These archives are incredible resources for research and for examining what was going on in fashion at the time. There are no other archives like it in the world.

Fashion Calendar wasn’t a flashy publication and there was “not a lot of production value,” comments independent archivist David Benjamin, who helped transfer Fashion Calendar archives to the FIT Museum. “But it’s important, in terms of the information it contains.”

Because “Calendar Girl” was filmed over several years, there are many other people who were interviewed for the documentary. Fashion designers who offer their glowing commentary on Finley include Carolina Herrera; Mark Badgley and James Mischka of Badgley Mischka; Tadashi Soji; Thom Browne; Ralph Rucci; Dennis Basso; and Steve Herman, a former CFDA president.

Other “Calendar Girl” interviewees include FIT Museum director/chief curator Valerie Steele; FIT Library head of special collections and college archives Karen Trivette; former Costume Institute/Metropolitan Museum of Art curator-in-charge Harold Koda; Costume Institute/Metropolitan Museum of Art communications officer Nancy Chilton; Fashion Group International creative director Marylou Luther; Cushnie et Ochs CEO Peter Arnold; Paper magazine editorial director Mickey Boardman; The Ground Crew CEO Audrey Smaltz; Victoria Royal president Alan Sealove; KCD co-chair Julie Mannion; and InStyle magazine editor-at-large Eric Wilson. 

Even though all of these talking heads in the movie are very laudatory of Finley, “Calendar Girl” does an admirable job of not placing her too high on a pedestal, since it includes some constructive criticism of how Finley’s technophobia affected her business. “Calendar Girl” director Bruun was also the film’s cinematographer, and he brings an unpretentious intimacy to this fashion documentary, in contrast to so many other documentaries about fashion influencers that tend to lean into “larger than life” pomp and circumstance. Most of all, “Calendar Girl” is a noteworthy tribute to Finley, by showing that her name might not be well-known outside of the fashion industry because she remained humble and cared more about her work than she cared about being famous.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Sublime’

April 29, 2019

by Carla Hay

Sublime members Eric Wilson, Bradley Nowell and Bud Gaugh in “Sublime” (Photo by Greg Abramson)

“Sublime”

Directed by Bill Guttentag

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.

The history of ska-rock band Sublime is tied to the tragic string of rock-star deaths in the 1990s, when several lead singers of famous bands died too young, with each singer leaving behind an infant/toddler child to grow up without their father. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, INXS’s Michael Hutchence, Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon and Sublime’s Bradley Nowell all share this deadly legacy. The documentary “Sublime” is a fairly conventional but well-made telling of the band’s story, with new commentary from the surviving members of Sublime, their associates and several of Nowell’s family members.

Since most people who see this movie already know what happened to Nowell (he died of a heroin overdose in 1996, at the age of 28), the documentary is essentially a ticking clock to what we know is going to happen at the end of the film. Is it depressing? Yes, in some ways. But under director Bill Guttentag’s storytelling style, he makes sure that there are plenty of happy memories told without glossing over the dark pattern of behavior that led to Nowell’s death.

We’ve all heard this story before: Band struggles for years in the local music scene. Band slowly builds a following. Band gets a record deal. Band gets a big hit and becomes famous. Band struggles with fame, egos and drugs. Band burns out and either breaks up or goes on a downward spiral.

In the case of Sublime (whose band name came from Nowell’s then-girlfriend picking it out of a dictionary), the band’s breakup was an unexpected occurrence caused by Nowell’s death, but Sublime had already been headed down the “burnout” path even before Nowell’s untimely passing. Sublime—formed in 1988 in Long Beach, California—was part of a music scene in Southern California that blended influences from punk, ska, reggae, hip-hop and rock. It was a scene that was also racially integrated, as Fishbone’s Angelo Moore, former Sublime drummer Marshall Goodman (also known as Ras MG) and Sublime friend Opie Ortiz remember in the documentary. Goodman was eventually replaced on drums by Floyd “Bud” Gaugh, but he continued to work with Sublime as a songwriter. Singer/guitarist Nowell, drummer Gaugh and bass player Eric Wilson were Sublime’s trio lineup that recorded all three of the band’s studio albums.

Although Nowell came from a comfortably upper-middle-class family, he and the rest of the members of Sublime lived a fairly scrappy existence in their road to stardom. At one point, drummer Gaugh was homeless. One scene in the documentary includes archival footage of Sublime on stage at a club in the band’s early days, with Nowell announcing that the band needed a place to sleep, and asking if anyone in the audience had a lawn to spare.

No Doubt was also part of the late ’80s/early ’90s music scene in the Long Beach/Orange County area of California, and the band did several concerts with Sublime before and after they had their first big hits. Both bands had respect for each other and they both released music on indie labels before signing to major record companies. But the two bands were very different from each other. The documentary mentions several times that Sublime was the counterpoint to No Doubt.

No Doubt’s lead singer Gwen Stefani, bassist Tony Kanal and guitarist Tom Dumont are all interviewed in the film. They all tell stories of the differences between both bands when they toured together. Backstage before a show, the members of No Doubt would be most likely doing vocal warmups or working out, whereas Sublime would be doing hard drugs like meth, cocaine or heroin. No Doubt was the kind of band that would show up on time, whereas Sublime would be the type of band that was constantly late, if they showed up at all. No Doubt was inoffensive. Sublime was controversial. The No Doubt comparison in the movie is important because it makes people wonder how far Sublime would have gone and how long Sublime would have lasted if the band members’ hardcore drug addictions hadn’t derailed their momentum.

Stefani, who says she used to have a crush on Nowell in Sublime’s early days, describes him in a way that is consistent with what everyone else in the film says about him. He was very intelligent, charismatic and authentic, but (like a lot of rock stars) he was very troubled. It wasn’t unusual for him to get into fights, and he had unpredictable mood swings. His longtime drug addiction, which went back to his teen years, certainly didn’t help. Nowell had been to rehab multiple times in his short life, and it was noted in the documentary that people could tell how deep he was in his drug addiction by his weight gain or weight loss. When he was skinny, he was at the worst of his addiction; when he was chubby, things weren’t so bad and he was trying to stay sober.

Sublime had a breakthrough hit a couple of years before No Doubt went on to become a multiplatinum band. And in pure Sublime fashion, that first hit offended a lot of people. The song was 1992’s “Date Rape,” which was initially misunderstood as a song glorifying rape because the lyrics were from the perspective of a rapist. “Date Rape” is actually an anti-rape song, because if people listen to the lyrics from beginning to end, they would know that the rapist is incarcerated and is getting punished by other prisoners for his sex crimes. According to the documentary, “Date Rape” (which ended up on Sublime’s 1994 debut album, “40oz. to Freedom”) became one of the most-requested songs in the history of KROQ, the influential Los Angeles rock station that played a huge role in Sublime’s success.

It was during this breakthrough time that Nowell met Troy Dendekker, the woman who would eventually become his wife and the mother of their son, Jakob. Dendekker is interviewed in the film, and her memories are perhaps the most emotionally moving, since she knew a side of Nowell that was different from the drug-crazed rock star that became part of his image. She vividly describes their relationship as an instant connection, but their courtship had a few bumps in the road along the way to becoming a full-blown romance, since she started out as a devoted but platonic Sublime fan/friend. Dendekker and Nowell were married for just one week when he died, and Jakob was only 11 months old.

Although several of Nowell’s other family members are interviewed for the movie—father Jim, mother Nancy, sister Kellie and stepsister Katie Gibson—Jakob is not among them. However, Jakob did participate in the 2017 indie documentary “The Long Way Back,” which chronicles longtime Sublime associate Todd “Z-Man” Zalkins’ struggle to stay sober and how he tries to help Jakob overcome his own drug addiction.

The “Sublime” documentary is also a good history lesson in how the music business operated in the 1990s, when it came to “alternative” rock bands. Among those interviewed are Michael “Miguel” Happoldt, Sublime’s producer who would become the band’s manager; Epitaph Records founder Brett Gurewitz, who said he didn’t want to sign Sublime because the band members were smoking a lot of crack, and Gurewitz was newly sober at the time; guitarist Mike Einziger of Incubus, a band that was an opening act for Sublime in 1995; Butthole Surfers guitarist Paul Leary, who produced most of the 1996 “Sublime” album; and Randy Phillips, the CEO of Gasoline Alley Records, who would eventually sign Sublime.

In the documentary, Phillips says he found out about Sublime from his nephew, who was a fan of the band. But the band alienated Phillips when, as a prank, they put Sublime stickers all over Phillips’ brand-new BMW. According to Phillips, Lava Records founder Jason Flom (who had a Lava distribution deal with Atlantic Records) was also interested in signing Sublime. Nowell used this rival bid as leverage to not only get Phillips interested in the band again but also to offer a bigger, more lucrative contract than what Flom was offering.

Gasoline Alley was distributed by MCA Records, which Phillips said wasn’t considered as “hip” in the rock world as Atlantic Records. MCA was desperate to have a new hit “alternative” rock band at a time when every major label was looking for the next Nirvana. Nowell knew that MCA, with its deep pockets, might work harder for Sublime than a record company like Atlantic that had more rock bands on its roster than MCA did. He used all of that knowledge to win Phillips over and get him to sign Sublime.

After Nowell’s death, Phillips said that although there was some initial talk about not releasing Sublime’s recently completed, self-titled third album, in the end, he and almost everyone associated with the band thought it would be crazy not to release it. The “Sublime” album would go on to become the band’s biggest hit, selling 5 million copies in the U.S. alone, and spawning the hit songs “What I Got,” “Santeria” and “Wrong Way.”

The documentary includes some descriptions of Sublime in the recording studio (the band clashed with David Kahne, one of the “Sublime” album producers) and the band’s songwriting process (which was usually drug-fueled), but Sublime seemed happiest when performing live. Nowell’s Dalmation named Lou Dog (the band’s mascot) is a constant and adorable companion in the archival footage.

Even when Sublime messed up with bad behavior—including getting fired from the 1995 Vans Warped Tour after defying Warped’s rule of “no dogs and no friends” allowed on the tour—the band found a way to get many people to give them another chance. For example, after being temporarily booted from Warped, Sublime was allowed back on the tour. Nowadays, with entertainers more likely to be hit with lawsuits and social-media exposés, it’s harder for bands to get away with a lot of the antics that Sublime got away with in the ‘90s. In the documentary, No Doubt’s Kanal summed up the appeal of Sublime: “You never knew what you were going to get. There was beauty and also rawness.”