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Fashion: The Poetics Of Style

3 minute read
Ginia Bellafante

To enter into Geoffrey Beene’s one and only shop, located on a relatively unhurried patch of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, is to experience one man’s extraordinary sense of rebellion and restraint. A small fraction of the size of the grand retail showplaces that line Madison Avenue one block to the east (Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani), Beene’s store, which he visits daily, isn’t meant to stand as a monument to its creator. At 70, Beene, unlike his peers, offers no secondary, lower-priced line (his clothes range from $1,500 to more than $10,000), no logoed handbags or housewares. Visit Beene’s shop, and you realize there is no small piece of his world to take home.

But then there is no Beene world for sale. In the four decades he has designed womenswear, Beene, who will receive a lifetime-achievement award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America next week, has refrained from becoming a purveyor of life-style. He doesn’t sell gimmicks or trends or, remarkably, given fashion’s celebrity culture, himself. Each of his meticulously cut dresses, gowns and jackets stands as part of a technical, ongoing treatise on line, fabric, demure sensuality. Notes former Vogue editor Grace Mirabella: “He is the finest and purest designer we have.”

A Louisiana native, Beene gave up studying medicine at 19, believing that he could best express himself through design. He started his own label in 1963. Perhaps because his garments are so refined, it is easy to overlook Beene as fashion’s pioneer in elevating the everyday. In 1970 he created evening wear out of materials like sweatshirt fabric and denim, an aesthetic later executed far less tastefully, albeit to greater splash, by Gianni Versace. Today Beene often buys shoes for his fashion shows along one of Manhattan’s seedier discount shopping blocks. “There are jewels,” he enthuses, “everywhere.”

Beene has managed to stay in business through the support of intensely devoted clients who care little about looking like someone else. Journalist Amy Fine Collins, Beene’s muse, has worn his clothes exclusively for the past 10 years because the design is “so strong, so graphic, so precise.” Beene dresses women of means but not, as he puts it, “the bonbon and Pekingese type.”

A generally reticent creature, Beene nevertheless reserves a vocal distaste for the followers and creators of fad. “I’d rather look at some of the horrible things you see on the street than some of the horrible things you see coming from Paris at the moment,” he says, referring to the theatrics of John Galliano and Alexander McQueen. On the impact of grunge: “It was stronger than anyone wishes to admit.” Beene believes the look led to an unceasing fascination with clunky, cumbersome footwear. “The one thing that could define this decade is those ugly shoes,” he says. “I can only hope they disappear.” And the rest of us can only hope that Beene’s vision of chic never does.

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