How L.A. designer Rudi Gernreich shifted fashion politics
Wander the new exhibition “Fearless Fashion: Rudi Gernreich” at Skirball Cultural Center in Brentwood and you’ll quickly see how Rudi Gernreich, a gay, Jewish dancer-turned-designer and an activist, was ahead of his time in terms of the scope of his designs and how he saw the future and humanity evolving.
The retrospective, which runs through Sept. 1, celebrates the work of an innovative designer who challenged thoughts on gender, sexuality and diversity, particularly during the 1960s and ’70s, and who once said, “You are what you decide you want to be.”
Gernreich, who died of lung cancer in 1985, predicted that people wouldn’t distinguish between masculine and feminine in the future and instead would seek comfortable, utilitarian clothes that weren’t overly frilly or ornate. Sound familiar?
Among the 80-plus looks and pieces in the exhibition — which also includes oral histories, letters and other artifacts — are styles that immediately recall the ’60s and ’70s: the loud colors, the geometric designs, the bold cuts. But there are also fashion game-changers that speak to the ideal that people should be free of self-imposed or societal restrictions, including unisex caftans, thong bathing suits and swimsuit tops free of underwire.
One afternoon earlier this week, former model Renée Holt, who later worked in movie animation and special effects, strolled through the Gernreich exhibition remembering her days with the designer. The 72-year-old Glendale resident, who also appears on video in “Fearless Fashion” in an oral history, briefly modeled for Gernreich during the early 1970s when he was promoting his unisex fashion. Together, they took work trips to Chicago; Osaka, Japan; and elsewhere.
Back then, Holt said, she was close to giving up on modeling when her agent called her about Gernreich. Despite being shy, Holt shaved her head and body and posed nude for Gernreich’s projects. She also appeared in a photo with a shaved head wearing one of Gernreich’s unisex black catsuits.
“I felt a lot less repressed as a woman after being with Rudi and hanging around him and [his partner] Oreste,” she said, adding that the experience of working with Gernreich forever changed her as a person, especially after growing up in a conservative family.
Standing at a display of a mannequin wearing the unisex catsuit, its pose mimicking the bent-leg, bent-back pose that she struck during the photo shoot decades ago, Holt said: “This was me. I don’t remember bending that way. Then again, it was 50 years ago. … I was bendy back then. I tried to do it the other day and ended up in bed for two days.”
Gernreich immigrated to Pasadena in 1938 after fleeing Nazi-occupied Austria. His first job was at a morgue. Later, Gernreich, a founding member of the Mattachine Society, one of the first LGBTQ organizations in the U.S., moved from dance into fashion during the 1940s and ’50s. He worked with the likes of entrepreneur Hattie Carnegie and Hollywood costume designer Edith Head and eventually had a deal with retailer Montgomery Ward. (Toward the end of his life, Gernreich mostly abandoned fashion and got into making gourmet soups and housewares.)
Through his fashion career, Gernreich used his clothes to shift thought and raise awareness. For example, he created thong swimwear for women and men, which is on display in “Fearless Fashion,” to protest the city of Los Angeles prohibiting nude sunbathing in 1974.
Another of Gernreich’s groundbreaking pieces on display is the monokini, a topless swimsuit style he created for Look magazine after he told Women’s Wear Daily in 1962 that “bosoms will be uncovered in five years.”
A back-view photo of the monokini appeared in Look, and a front-facing photo appeared in WWD in 1964 worn by the designer’s collaborator and muse, model Peggy Moffitt. (Moffitt co-authored a 1991 book about Gernreich and his work and loaned many of the pieces in this exhibition.) About 3,000 monokinis were sold, and according to his 1985 obituary in The Times, Gernreich, who had a studio in West Hollywood, received praise for his design at the time but was “denounced by the Vatican, the Kremlin and many American clergymen. He received hundreds of letters, many threatening violence.”
Included in the mix on display are pieces from Gernreich’s statement-making 1970-’71 resort collection, which featured military-inspired pieces outfitted with dog tags and rifles. The pieces were shown after the Kent State shootings in 1970.
Also featured in “Fearless Fashion” is a controversial design — a women’s pantsuit, named after gender-bending actress and singer Marlene Dietrich, from the 1960s. Coming before Yves Saint Laurent’s iconic Le Smoking suit, Gernreich’s suit was banned from appearing at the Coty fashion awards.
It was one of the Gernreich pieces that stopped designer Humberto Leon, co-creator of Opening Ceremony and co-designer of French label Kenzo, in his tracks during a recent visit to the “Fearless Fashion” exhibition for which Leon was a consultant.
“Rudi was so much more than a fashion designer,” said Leon, who became involved in the exhibition about two years ago. “He was a political commentator. He was really reacting to the world, and I think [he was] globally influential. His approach to design and the way he used clothing as commentary on the times is something that was super-inspiring.
“I think there’s a timelessness to all of this,” he said, adding that Gernreich’s work easily could be part of fashion in 2019. (The Gernreich label was relaunched in 2018, and pieces are sold at retailers including Ssense and Farfetch.) “That’s because he was beyond fashion. He was making statements. He was freeing women. He was liberating.”
Zigzagging through the exhibition, Leon said visitors to “Fearless Fashion” should remember to take a closer look at the Gernreich pieces on display and consider the mores of the time and the news of the day.
“He really challenged all of those ideas,” Leon said, adding that people today would less likely be outraged by a thong or pantsuit. “The definition of masculinity and femininity were very blurred [in Gernreich’s work], and I think that’s so modern today.”
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