The Ambassador years : four incredible decades at the service of the British textile industry

VA087_P0019EDambassador.inddMeeting Elsbeth Juda is a lesson in humility. The 101 year old worked as a photographer and later as an associate editor on the The Ambassador, the most original trade magazine that ever existed for the British textile and fashion industry from the early 1940’s until the mid 1960’s. Side by side with her husband, Hans Juda (the magazine’s brilliant publisher and editor) and a small team of passionate people, they invented a concept that was to revolutionise the way we look at glossy magazines today.

Mention to her how quirky and original her photos were for the time and she shrugs it off saying that necessity is the mother of invention (they had to work in order to live so they had to come up with decent ideas!). Compliment her on the fantastically avant garde pictures she took in mills in Lancashire-her model was draped in textile straight off the loom-and she will reply that Barbara Goalen (“the Kate Moss of her time”) was game for anything different and liked to work hard. Evoke the way the magazine made a connection between the textile industry and modern art, a concept unheard of at the time, and so much exploited today and she will simply say that it all came down to her husband’s equal passion for publishing, music and the arts.

Yet, chatting with her in her light and airy apartment, one cannot help think that all “the fortunate events” and “good people” she met along the way had a lot to do with her good-humoured persona.

So, let’s take a step back. We are in Berlin in 1933, Hans Juda and his wife have narrowly escaped death thanks to the warning of a friend who was also a member of the Nazi party. They are told that if they want to leave it is now or never. They travel to England with two small suitcases and a violin. Being given a small flat and managing to work temporarily at the London offices of Berliner Tageblatt contributes in no small part to their rapid integration to everyday British life. Their background and personality do the rest. In no time, they establish a network of friends amongst the little community of émigrés and their jobs are the best introduction to the artistic and political circles of the time.

EXPORT OR DIE

Hans Juda has already had experience working as a journalist for Berliner Tageblatt in Germany. In 1933, he launches the English bureau of International Textiles, a trade magazine promoting international textiles started in Amsterdam by two of his good friends, Ludwig Katz and László Moholy-Nagy from the Bauhaus School in Dessau who have also escaped Nazi Germany. It is agreed that if Germany invades Holland, Hans Juda will take over the magazine from his London office. In 1941, Juda takes the sole rein of International Textiles. He subsequently renames it The Ambassador and rebrands it as the trade magazine dedicated to the export of British textiles and fashion. His motto is “export or die”. Elsbeth Juda, having discovered that her true passion lies in photography, becomes a darkroom boy and signs all her pictures from then on as “Jay”. As the war years pass, she gets more involved with The Ambassador as a photographer cum writer.

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Once in charge, Hans Juda makes a few adjustments to the magazine. In doing so, not only does he set it apart, he also singlehandedly launches the foundations of fashion advertising as we know it. The idea is simple: the magazine will be subscription-based because Hans believes that people read and value more what they paid for. He makes a clear separation between advertising and editorial in a trade magazine which is very unusual at the time. Practically, that means that all text added to the illustrations are researched instead of being pure advertisements. Finally, he lets Elsbeth Juda’s imagination run wild.

Milling around

After the war, the need to raise Britain’s profile internationally becomes crucial to the country’s economy. Hans and Elsbeth Juda set out to do just that. They travel the world relentlessly meeting with importers, government representatives, and department stores. As early as 1945, Elsbeth Juda makes several trips to the US. She acknowledges that America was very good to her. Indeed, what better introduction to the running of a magazine than to sit through editorial meetings at Life and to meet professionals such as Carmel Snow? Elsbeth makes precious connections with Condé Nast and, on more than one occasion, they give her the insider’s view on professional shoots. Her fantastic memory combined with quick-wits helps her win over vital collaborations with American retailers such as Stanley Marcus from Neiman Marcus who becomes a lifelong friend.

YOU CAN PHOTOGRAPH ANYTHING AS LONG AS YOU ACCESSORISE IT AND AS LONG AS YOU CAN CHOOSE THE SETTING-Carmel Snow, American Harper’s Bazaar’s editor

The Judas consider their role to reach far beyond the simple promotion of the British texile and fashion industry. They never omit to feature, for example, innovations of the heavy industries of the time in the pages of the magazine. This is particularly true for Elsbeth’s photo shoots. At a time when they were usually indoors, Elsbeth’s natural inclination is to take her models on location in Britain or abroad. The Ambassador photographs reflect that stance: her models occupy the streets of London, Paris, Rio de Janeiro etc. They are framed with a backdrop of oil refineries, cars, planes, ocean liners and even mill engines!

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WHEN IT WAS REALLY ABSURD, IT ALWAYS TEMPTED ME

The “Milling around in Lancashire” photo shoot is exemplary in that respect. Elsbeth Juda embarks Barbara Goalen, her model of choice on a tour of the mills of Lancashire. The obvious purpose of this small expedition is to show every aspect of the British textile tradition but the way Elsbeth stages it is definitely extraordinary: shooting on location was not very common at the time but wrapping your model in huge swathes of unsewn cloth was definitely unheard of! To this day, Elsbeth Juda gives credits Barbara Goalen’s incredible enthusiasm and energy to experiment, for the success of “the Milling around Lancashire” episode.

Barbara standing

The heyday of The Ambassador was in the late 1950’s. By then, 90 countries subscribed to the magazine. However, the 1960’s were a time of political and social change that shook the foundations of the British textile industry. Elsbeth Juda has an opinion on the subject: she believes British manufacturers were not prepared to change. Faced with fast turn-around, cheap labour and harsh competition coming from the Far East, they did not rise up to the challenge. They were not proactive, not quick or determined to change their old ways. Export was the only way to exist but they gave up the fight. And what was once a world power became a moribund industry.

This demise signed the slow death of The Ambassador. In 1961, Thompson Publications, the multinational publisher, bought The Ambassador from the Judas and in 1964, Hans Juda retired. From then on, he dedicated his time to other projects close to his heart particularly in art education. As for Elsbeth “Jay” Juda, she had kept a hand on a regular stream of freelance jobs while getting more and more involved with The Ambassador as the in-house photographer. From then on, her unique eye for design is used in the industry.

Just before leaving the Grande Dame, I ask her how she feels about her wonderful and unique career and she replies in a genuinely humble way that she feels very fortunate to have met and worked with talented and generous people who helped her along the way. What is certain is with its modern approach to design and photography, The Ambassador magazine laid the foundations for glossy picture magazines as we know.

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All through their lives, the Judas cross-fertilized design, photography and industry, fostered and rewarded young British talent, furthered art education and finally, contributed to the promotion of music. The Ambassador is a testimony to their incredibly generous talent at creating and inventing but Elsbeth Juda would simply retort : “without capital, one has to be original”.

For further reading: The Ambassador Magazine: Promoting Post-War British Textiles and Fashion (V&A Publishing, Christopher Breward & Claire Wilcox, eds.), is available at the V&A Shop in store and online the special price of £20 (RRP £35). To order a copy go to the V&A Shop online.

Ambassador Magazine, The


One thought on “The Ambassador years : four incredible decades at the service of the British textile industry

  1. Wow, what an incredible woman — and an incredibly well-written story! So fascinating to learn about an artist and pioneer who was fearless about breaking free of expectations and expressing herself in this unique way. I am inspired. 🙂

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