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Fashion: Geoffrey Beene’s Amazing Grace

5 minute read
Jay Cocks

His house is miles from Manhattan, out in Oyster Bay, on the north shore of Long Island. From the large home to the rolling acreage and the bounteous orchid gardens, this is Gatsby territory, a place of retreat. But in his work Geoffrey Beene is not interested in insulating himself or in evoking a Pololand of faux nostalgia and privileged period froufrou. Since he began his own label in the spring of 1963, Beene has kept a pace and set a standard that has made him, gradually and quietly, one of the most intrepid of fashionmakers.

The lovingly assembled career retrospective of 138 garments, which opened last month at New York City’s National Academy of Design, is an eye-popper. The interplay of color and fabric is, as usual, dazzling. Heavy-duty industrial zippers are used with both leather and lace; effulgent Hudson’s Bay blankets from L.L. Bean are trimmed with satin and turned into evening coats; a snazzy sequined evening dress is shaped and decorated like a football jersey. Vintage cartoon characters such as Felix the Cat and the Little King undercut and complement the high seriousness of a swank evening gown. The revelation of the show, which combines work from his first collection to his very latest, is its restless response to convention, its adventurousness about shape. “I love standards,” says the designer, 61, “but I don’t mind breaking rules. The only standard that finally matters is taste.”

Beene can sculpt a dress with sensual simplicity or fill out a coat so that it seems to loft from the body. His rule breaking — like putting diamonds on a plastic bracelet — is focused, almost casual, and helps shatter stereotypes. In the fashion world, Beene has resisted and neatly refuted the caricature of Americans as the slightly slaphappy innovators of sportswear and merchandising trends. A long black wool coat from 1983, with flowing gold satin insets along its back and sleeves, constructed of curved seams, is a masterly combination of grand luxe and offhand invention, a subtle experiment in enlarging the possibilities of wearable form. Beene calls it “probably the single most significant piece of clothing I ever designed.”

Like all of Beene’s best work, this coat does not flout tradition, it teases it. Beene keeps rebellion firm but marginal, just as he did as a young medical student, when he sketched dresses on the page borders of his Gray’s Anatomy. The year after Geoffrey Beene, Inc., was launched, Beene won the first of an unprecedented eight Coty Awards, the industry’s Oscars, for his women’s fashions. By the early ’70s, he had made a wedding dress for Lynda Bird Johnson and had become one of the country’s best-known and most sought-after designers, specializing in a kind of overembellished chic. A New Yorker review of a 1972 collection nailed him for excesses of design that were “indulging fancifully in styles that women have never dreamed of simply because they have no earthly use for them.”

Beene took all this to heart. “It made me rethink clothing and change my career,” he says. He abandoned heavily structured clothes for looser, more accommodating shapes, knowing all the while that he was flirting with commercial disaster. “It was a rough period for me,” he recalls. “We could have gone under.” But Beene, who was raised in Louisiana and still speaks with a Southern lilt, has a certain flintiness to match his creativity. Says Issey Miyake, who apprenticed with Beene in 1969: “His design is clean and clear and strong, just the way he is in life. He always keeps creativity No. 1 and business No. 2. He never compromises.”

His experiments with looser, lighter forms gradually coincided with the radical incursions Miyake and others were making into the fashion mainstream, * and the Beene business soon flourished again. The designer is now cutting some of his clothes closer to the body — a few of his evening dresses for the current season will not forgive an extra pound — but ease and sensuality remain constant, as does his fixation on the future. He wants to remove the stigma of synthetics (“They work; they don’t wrinkle; they take less care”) and dreams of designing a whole couture collection of man-made fabric. “If it was appreciated,” he says slyly, “then I’d tell everyone what the material was. After the show.”

One of the best pieces in the National Academy exhibition is a simple dress of black wool and white hammered satin, draped and hung in back with trompe l’oeil suspenders that rise to the neck and form a small collar in front. It is from Beene’s current collection and shows that his hand is stronger than ever. “When you think of something as very American,” observes Miyake, “you think of something as very new.” By this definition, Beene continues to be the most American of designers and very likely the country’s best too.

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