Meredith Etherington-Smith, photographed by Karl Lagerfeld. Photo © Karl Lagerfeld

‘Always leave them while you’re looking good’ — Meredith Etherington-Smith (1946-2020)

A tribute to a creative powerhouse and one of Christie’s great characters, who passed away this week

Meredith Etherington-Smith was a highly respected and much-loved figure at Christie’s, where she served variously as Global Chief Marketing Officer, Editor-in-Chief on Christie’s Magazine and as a creative contributor to many of the highest profile auctions of the last 30 years.

Before joining Christie’s, Meredith worked as a fashion journalist and editor for such titles as the New York Times Magazine, Town & Country, GQ, Art Review, Women’s Wear Daily, Vogue and Harper’s & Queen. She went on to write books on everyone from Salvador Dalí to Axel Vervoordt, as well as researching and writing several TV documentaries, including the three-part Story of Fashion  for C4 and HBO.

Meredith had style, vision and a formidable presence. Never one for introversion, her smoky, commanding voice often announced her impending arrival at King Street. ‘That’s 50 years of smoking I’m afraid,’ she once explained of her distinctive baritone.

Her love of fashion, especially vintage fashion, was evident in the outfits she wore to work. These frequently incorporated amazing hats, dramatic fabrics, and striking accessories. ‘I used to see all the other fashion editors at the couture shows in Paris, wearing their little white gloves,’ she recalled in later life. ‘I met Carmel Snow and Mrs Vreeland and their set. But that was never for me. I was a ’60s kind of babe.’

This passion for vintage began in 1962 when she bought a black-beaded Chanel evening dress from the 1920s. ‘Nobody was doing vintage in those days,’ she said, ‘but I loved that old dress, and I left a trail of beads wherever I went!’

Video: Meredith Etherington-Smith offers insights into the Collection of Elizabeth Taylor, one of the landmark sales she was instrumental in organising

Meredith would think nothing of calling designers — many of whom she was friends with — and demanding something from them, usually ‘a big hat, with lots of feathers! Now!’

Cat Manson, Christie’s Global Head of PR and Communications, was one of many to be taken under Meredith’s wing, and has fond memories of a shopping trip to mark a promotion: ‘Meredith felt it was an opportunity to elevate my look. We had a delicious lunch with plenty of wine, and then whizzed off to her favourite vintage shop in Chelsea, where clothes had been laid out for me to try.’

For many years, Amy Wexler, Christie’s Global Chief Marketing Officer, posted bundles of Meredith’s favourite pens to London, so she could ‘properly work’. These black Pentel felt sign pens, made in Japan and bought uptown at Venture Stationers on Madison at 86th Street, were used to catalogue by hand the dresses belonging to Diana, Princess of Wales, which were sold by Christie’s for charity.

Those same pens were employed on catalogues for the Rudolf Nureyev Collection, Elizabeth Taylor’s wardrobe, The Collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, and dresses belonging to Marilyn Monroe, among countless others. Some of Meredith’s handwritten notebooks from the Marilyn Monroe auction, with an accompanying Polaroid of each item, are kept in Christie’s archives.

Video: Meredith Etherington-Smith providing expert commentary on the Marilyn Monroe auction at Christie’s in New York 1999

During the 1990s, Meredith was instrumental in reinventing how Christie’s presented itself and the objects in its care. She used her skills as a journalist and communicator to turn auctions into major, newsworthy moments, and to cement Christie’s reputation as the premier destination for private collectors.

On a personal level, she was someone who encouraged experimentation and self-expression. By turns, she could be intimidating, brutally honest and direct, and infinitely kind, generous and funny. A champion of talent, she could always be relied on to give the right advice at the right time. As such, she became a great mentor to younger colleagues, a valued sounding board for her peers, and a true friend to many.

When told they were out of Krug, Meredith took a beat and replied, ‘How chic to be out of Krug at 10 in the morning!’

Meredith liked to remind her team that ‘style and manners are both memorable and free, so stock up.’ One former colleague tells a story of how Meredith took him to a wine bar when he was leaving Christie’s, so he could have a proper send off. She ordered them Krug. When told they had none left, Meredith took a beat and replied, ‘How chic to be out of Krug at 10 in the morning!’

The photograph of Meredith at the top of this obituary was taken by Karl Lagerfeld, for whom she wrote a wonderful tribute after the designer’s death in February 2019. Right up until the end of her life, her Antenna column on offered a window into her enduring curiosity and her passion for artistry and beauty, wherever she found it.

For Meredith, beauty was a nuanced, endlessly fascinating thing. Among her countless bon mots, this one perhaps best captures her unique sensibility and wicked sense of humour: ‘You know that sensation you get when you arrive someplace new and the scent of frangipani mixes with animal dung, and then suddenly you’re wildly in love?’

It is fitting that Meredith should have the final word: ‘Always leave them while you’re looking good.’