With the economy and the climate demanding that we all start to think about fashion more pragmatically, it's an interesting time to remember Geoffrey Beene, the fine American designer who elevated the everyday, translating common fabrics such as flannel and denim into evening wear, even making a sequined sports jersey gown. A consummate rule-breaker, he bucked tradition by showing his body-conscious clothes on dancers instead of models, then later on dress forms instead of on the runway.
The more graphic, sculptural direction fashion is taking for spring is perfectly in tune with Beene's style, with designers such as Francisco Costa and Narciso Rodriguez picking up where he left off when he died in 2004.
Paper magazine editor Kim Hastreiter's new coffee table book, "Geoffrey Beene: An American Fashion Rebel" (Assouline), celebrates the American designer with anecdotes from those who knew and admired him.
Hastreiter met Beene after her magazine ran an article on him in 1986. She remembers Beene picking her up at her apartment in Tribeca in his chauffeur-driven Mercedes and taking her uptown for lunch with his society friends. It was a lofty circle -- in 1967, he'd designed the wedding dress for Lynda Bird Johnson, the daughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Other clients included first ladies Pat Nixon and Nancy Reagan.
On the outside, the bespectacled, bow-tied Southerner appeared uptight and WASPy, but he was an enthusiastic early adapter of cheap chic (launching his lower-priced Beene Bag sportswear collection in 1971) and the promise of the Internet. A former premed student who doodled Hollywood costumes designer's Adrian's gowns in class before dropping out, Beene was always a pioneer. He headed west first instead of east to work as a window dresser for I. Magnin in Los Angeles, then to Paris for couture training with master Edward Molyneux before settling in New York.
Beene started his eponymous women's line in 1963, later licensing his name for men's shirts, ties and cologne. His former assistants are a who's who of fashion today: Lanvin's Alber Elbaz cut his teeth assisting Beene, so did Richard Lambertson of Lambertson Truex, Doo-Ri Chung and Gene Meyer.
Hastreiter was in town recently, and she talked with us about the man she knew for nearly two decades.
How did you meet Geoffrey, or Mr. Beene, as he liked to be called?
When I started Paper in 1984, the perception of Beene was that he was this fancy Park Avenue designer. This avant-garde designer Andre Walker wrote an article [for Paper] and borrowed a dress from Geoffrey Beene and styled it really crazy on a young model. Mr. Beene wrote me this letter saying, 'Oh my God, I love Paper. I've never seen it before.' We were punk rock artists downtown, and this really fancy designer wrote us a letter and we got a kick out of it.
Did he get a kick out of having you as a friend?
Definitely, he liked to shock people. He liked Paper because it was the "anti" Vogue.
The book has an unusual format with sketches, photos and tributes from friends and admirers. Why did you do it this way?
To highlight his work and influence. It's not a biography. I wanted to give more of a taste of who he was.
Was he a fashion outsider? He seemed like an establishment figure.
If red was the "in" color he didn't want to make red dresses -- that was not in his vocabulary. But the fashion business is very trend-oriented. The editors would ask him, why don't you make a red dress? And that would drive him crazy, and he would yell at them.
Did he have any favorite sayings?
He would always call John Fairchild "John 'Un' Fairchild," [referring to the former Women's Wear Daily publisher with whom he had a long-standing feud]. When [veteran fashion critic] Marylou Luther made soup, he would say that's "super." He was corny. He called me his poet laureate.
What's the one thing we should know about Beene's legacy in fashion?
That he was fiercely independent. The thing about the fashion business that I hate is that there are so many great designers, but because they're not new or young or sexy, they are really not given the time of day. If there's a group of boys doing something mediocre, but they're really cute and trendy, then they'll win a $200,000 award. So I understand his frustration with that world. How can you be a genius one year and then the next year you're not? You don't become an "un" genius.