The Brilliance of Geoffrey Beene

Posted on August 04 2018

“There is a certain sense of style that one finds, season after season, at Geoffrey Beene… It’s a sense of style that’s been finely honed: the constant evolution of shapes, the disarming simplicity of line, the ultimate luxury of the fabricsall specifically designedcombined with an element of fantasy, playful ornamentation. And inherent throughout, a way of looking and feeling in clothes that’s different… An extraordinary sense of movement, color, a softness, an indescribable ease.”
            Vogue, September 1983

Louisiana-native Geoffrey Beene can be considered one of fashion’s greatest “overnight sensations.” Within a year of launching his own collection in 1963 he had won American fashion’s highest award, the Coty, and sold half a million dollars in his first season. As with any seeming sudden success, there were many years of toil and learning preceding Beene’s rise to the top of the fashion industrya place the respected designer held, due to his unshakable ability to design flattering and feminine clothes, until his death in 2004.

 A very early ad for Harmay designed by Geoffrey Beene, spring 1953.

Born into a family of doctors in small-town Louisiana, Beene was raised to follow in their footstepsleading him to a rather miserable three years of pre-med and one year of med school at Tulane. As he was spending far more time in class sketching Adrian’s costumes than studying he dropped out, and his family sent him to California to “recuperate” and transfer to UCLA. In LA he became enchanted with the windows at I. Magnin’s luxury specialty store and wangled his way into a job in the display department. After a year there his sketches came to the notice of the store manager, who advised Beene to study fashion design. After a six-week summer program at Traphagen School of Fashion in NYC, Geoffrey Beene traveled to Paris where he studied at the Academie Julien, sketching and design, and apprenticed 3 hours an evening with a retired tailor from Molyneux. On returning to New York in 1949, he became assistant designer at Harmay; later taking on the role of head designer in 1955. Though for several years he was content to produce pretty and not innovative designs, in 1958 he was fired from Harmay for attempting to introduce into the collection the very fashion forward chemise dress. An opportunity arose to become head designer for then in-development Teal Traina, which launched in 1959. Beene’s name and image was included in all of the publicity and the line was a success, yet he still found it constricting to his creative vision.


Jean Shrimpton in a Geoffrey Beene evening dress on the cover of Vogue, September 1963. Photo by Bert Stern.


With the help of Ben Shaw (who also backed Bill Blass, among others), in 1963 Geoffrey Beene launched his own collectionas he told the New York Times in 1964, “I felt I wanted to assert myself more in my designs. Other manufacturers did not necessarily want this assertion.” His goal was a well-priced line with a couture appearance and that used a mixture of “comfort and simplicity to achieve a contemporary look… each season, I try to achieve a greater simplicity. The more you learn about clothes, the more realize what has to be left off. Cut and line become increasingly important. Simplification becomes a very complicated procedure.” He was immediately described by the press as a “vital fashion force” and within the year had won his first Coty. Though often anachronistically described in the mid-1960s as an “avant-garde designer,” Beene’s designs were very much in line with the current high fashion look of simple refinement. They easily won over women due to their ease of wear and uncomplicated silhouettesa modernity he believed so passionately in: “Clothes must be today. I’m not so impatient I can’t wait for tomorrow. I see today’s clothes as comfortable, casual, moving and feminine.” In 1965 he won both the Neiman Marcus and National Cotton Institute awards, and it was a $4 million business by 1966 ($30 million in today’s money).


Beene's sequinned football jersey dresses for A/W 1967. Photo by Russell Salmon for the Philadelphia Inquirer's Sunday Today magazine, October 29th, 1967.


Geoffrey Beene was classed as one of America’s Big Three fashion designers alongside Donald Brooks and Bill Blass. The legendary fashion PR Eleanor Lambert described the three as “The Portrait Painters. These men are like Sargent. They make fashionable portraits of elegant women.” While journalists often remarked on his emotionless stare and aloof presencealways dressed in a suit and black horn-rimmed glassesBeene’s collections often had an element of humor to them. For the finale of his autumn/winter 1967 he showed three floor-length, full sequined football jersey gowns. Instantly iconic, they were featured across all of the print media and are now highly prized by museum collections. Playing off the ridiculousness of this sport-fashion mash-up, the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote: “We’ve found the perfect dress for receiving passes. Any girl could go on to score a fashion touchdown in Geoffrey Beene’s sequined evening gowns that are translated from football jerseys… A girl will be sure to attract the attention of the opposite sex in a dress that combines the best of two favorite male pastimes – girl watching and football.” He similarly repeated the comedy sequin sheath style for spring/summer 1971 with cartoon characters.

 A Beene silk redingote-style dress with his classic tight bodice, high waist, voluminous skirt and slim sleeves. Photo by Bill Silano for Harper's Bazaar, May 1969.


Marking his placement in the firmament of American fashion, Beene was chosen to design the wedding gown of President Lyndon Johnson’s daughter, Lynda, in 1967. For her wedding at the White House he designed a traditionally elegant, high-necked princess-line dress. As fashion took on a multi-cultural vision over the next few years, Beene too began to incorporate exotic influences. Even when drawing clear inspiration from other cultures his designs were always marked by their uncluttered good tastea less costumey approach to the luxe hippie look than that taken by his fellow designers. For autumn/winter 1968 he was inspired by Russia, England and Morocco. Throughout his collections he refined and reworked silhouettes, allowing them to evolve; Geoffrey was not interested in jarring his clientele with completely new shapes. Often his designs featured a taut little bodice with a skirt pleated or flared from just under the bust; long, snug sleeves and a high collar; variations on this silhouette appear in collections for almost a decade. While highly successful, there was a certain stiffness to these early designsthe body was completely hidden underneath the sculpted shape of the garment.


Princess Elizabeth of Toro in a silk gingham gown with sparkling bolero. Photo by Bill King for Harper's Bazaar, February 1970.


The socio-cultural changes of the 1960s led to an evolution in the way women lived and dressed by the early-1970swith Beene’s stiff designs feeling outdated. A harsh review provided Geoffrey Beene with the impetus to re-approach his vision of fashion and in 1973 his summer collection was hailed as “tomorrow’s look today.” No more linings and stiffenings, no tight waistlineall soft, easy, unfitted clothes. This collection started him on a process of simplification and search for weightlessness that he would experiment with throughout the rest of his career.


Geoffrey Beene for Swirl, spring/summer 1978. Photo by Duane Michals.


At the same time Geoffrey Beene was refining his aesthetic, he also was expanding his business into an empire. His first men’s collection for Eagle Clothes launched for spring 1970, at the same time he started his first diffusion lineBeene Bazaar. A sportier secondary line, Beene Bag followed in 1974, and by 1976 he had such a huge number of different licensing agreements that Bergdorf Goodman opened “The World of Geoffrey Beene” to showcase all of his products. The New York Times remarked in 1977 that a fan of his could awaken in her “Geoffrey Beene for Fieldcrest sheets, peel off her Geoffrey Beene for Swirl nightie and luxuriate in a tub scented with Geoffrey Beene bath oil. After an early game of tennis in her Beene for Coberknit tenniswear, she would spend the day in clothes from either his moderate-priced Beene Bag line or his high-priced line. She’d also wear Beene-designed tights from Bonnie Doon, shoes and handbag from Geller, scarf and belt from Jewel Case, fur from H.BA. and eyeglasses from Victory Optical.” His successboth financially and in terms of media acclaimled him to become the first America-based designer invited to show his collection in Europe, which he did in Milan for spring/summer 1976. Beene also set up his own showroom and manufacturing operation there.


Geoffrey Beene in an ad publicizing his new Italian venture. Vogue Italia, January 1977.


For Geoffrey Beene, fashion was about modernity and how women exist in the modern world. In 1977 he stated, “Simplicity has a new validity. These clothes aren’t meant to be dashing. They’re designed to make dressing easy… Fashion has to catch up with the rigorous demands of living. Clothes must move with the woman who’s wearing them. The pace of life has speeded up enormously. Fashion cannot, should not, must not, hold a woman back.” For him this meant weightless, seasonless designs in often-neutral colors. One remarkable matte jersey evening gown folded up into a small envelope that fit in the palm of one’s hand: “It’s a pound of dynamite as opposed to a ton of nonsensical peasant clothes that eat up precious closet or suitcase space.” The methods of handling fabric that he began honing in 1973 came to their apotheosis in the 1980s; a decade that took Beene to even greater heights of fame. Every show was raved about by the press (except by WWD, with whom he had a long-running feud). Of his fall/winter 1983 collection, the New York Times wrote: “His clothes are so light they look airborne. They float around the body easily, not restricting movement but enhancing it. The clothes taper from broad shoulders and fairly shimmer with glints of metal thread or the reflection from satin surfaces… They show US design at its best. Made for women who do not want to look or feel restricted, they have an originality in the use of materials and subtlety of details that are rare in any country. These are not clothes that carry echoes of other designers or other decades. They are low-key and totally original… They have a sense of freedom that is rare in this or any season of fashion.” These clothes appealed to all types of women, from career girls (who bought them in bulk from Beene Bag) to socialites.


Geoffrey Beene's weightless quilted wool-silk dress. Photo by Andrea Blanch for Vogue, June 1983.


Though intensely privateunlike his contemporaries Blass and Oscar de la Renta, he did not entertain and party with his rich clientele, nor appear on talk shows or in department stores (the company did not even have a PR person or advertising director)Beene was beloved by the industry. He received his eighth Coty Award in 1982the most awarded to any one designer. In honor of Beene's fashion legacy, the Council of Fashion Designers of America created the annual Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement award in 1984. In 1986, Beene was named the CFDA’s Designer of the Year. Two years later, the CFDA awarded Beene the Special Award for Fashion as Art. Unwilling to rest on these honors, he kept pushing forward into the 1990sseeking to create beautiful, modern clothes in a decade when many other designers were referencing the past. For several years he showed his collections on dancers in a fully choreographed performance, highlighting his imaginative approach to design and the technical genius of the clothes. In 1998 he was awarded the CFDA award for lifetime achievement, and in 1999, the New York Historic Landmarks Preservation Center named him a Cultural Laureate. The success of his licensing deals provided him with the largesse to afford four homes (a duplex on the Upper East Side, a weekend home on Long Island and houses in Palm Beach and Hawaii) where he entertained in the exquisite and private manner he preferredgood food and drink (often Southern), and classic movie screenings. Geoffrey Beene passed away in 2004 due to complications from cancerhe was 77 and had continued to design up until his illness. In his career of over 50 years, Beene evolved and distilled a vocabulary of fashion that was totally Americannot just a technical virtuoso, he fully understood what women needed and wanted from their clothes. For decades he produced wholly unique collections that made women feel beautiful, vibrant and modern.


Michaela Bercu in one of Beene's late 1980's signatures, the jumpsuit. Photo by Patrick Demarchelier for Vogue, December 1989.


Amber Valetta in a Geoffrey Beene silk-mix dress. Photo by Mario Testino for Harper's Bazaar, December 1994.


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