She spends more money on clothes than any other woman in the world—some $350 million a year. But Ellin Saltzman, 41, is no ordinary clothes-horse. She’s the fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue and thus the style-setter for the mother store and its 32 nationwide branches. Says Calvin Klein, one of Ellin’s two favorite designers (the other is Yves Saint Laurent): “She has more fashion knowledge than anyone. I adore her.” He’d better. “Ellin can make or break a designer,” observes Seventh Avenue veteran Mollie Parnis.
Ellin’s job is to keep a thumb on fashion’s pulse in couture showrooms and twice-yearly European jaunts. (She’s just back from checking out the spring ’79 collections.) “I think what works for me this year,” she says, “will work for most women next year.” So far Ellin’s decisions (made last spring) about what women would like this fall have been on the button. “It will be the year of the cloth coat,” she prophesied, and even the mink set is into cloth too. “All those loose things we’ve been wearing look a thousand times better pulled in,” she also declared, as belt sales boomed. This year’s little black dress, Ellin divined correctly, is really pants of black silk, narrow at the ankle. She advises accompanying them “with a pair of the sexiest, strappiest shoes you can find.” As for last year’s old silk dresses, just throw them over trousers, like a tunic. “I wear them,” she says, “because I have big hips.”
A self-described conservative, Ellin treasures her college kilts and sweaters, wears gowns of early-’60s vintage (Donald Brooks and Gus Tassell) and collects Saint Laurent separates, she says, like an investment. “There are lots of fashionable women,” remarks her hairstylist, Kenneth, “but there are few women with real taste.” Then he cites two: Jacqueline Onassis and Ellin. Indeed, she’s made the industry’s best-dressed list six times. Ellin has one natural advantage: Most everything looks good on her 5’8″ frame, but she has to diet relentlessly to stay at 114 pounds. “I’ve eaten next to her,” cracks Bernadine Morris, New York Times fashion writer and a luncheon pal, “but never with her.”
Ellin imbibed fashion from babyhood, when her mother, Sylvia Sadowsky, worked as a designer for her husband, David, a Seventh Avenue manufacturer. “She was a terrifically chic lady with more style than I’ll ever have,” remembers Ellin. In rebellion she became “fat, deliberately frumpy and uninterested in clothes.” But not for long.
After graduating from Smith in 1958 (and working summers as a salesgirl at Saks), Ellin worked successively at Charm, Mademoiselle and Glamour before setting up her own fashion consulting business at $150 a day. In 1975 Saks put her on staff, and after three short months working on displays in the boiler room, Ellin moved upstairs as fashion director. Now she is a vice-president and earns over $50,000.
For 18 years she’s been married to interior designer Renny Saltzman, who at first didn’t want her to work. With son David, 16, and daughter Elizabeth, 13, they share the Manhattan apartment she grew up in (both her parents died shortly before her marriage). Her recreations are reading and tennis but not shopping. “Basically, I hate it,” says Ellin—except as a voyeur. “I get totally turned on,” she admits, “watching people buy clothes.”