Awarded for a Lifetime of Merging Simple Comfort with Good Taste, Geoffrey Beene Became an American Icon
American designer Geoffrey Beene was always a bit of a rebel, which might surprise those who know him only as a favorite designer of society ladies who lunch. But as a kid born in 1927 to a family of doctors, Beene spent his time at medical school sketching the dresses he saw on Hollywood starlets, all while absorbing knowledge about the structure of the human body and how the figure moves and bends. So he quit after three years and followed his distraction, moving to New York and climbing the fashion ladder from window dresser to designer. When the National Arts Club presented the designer with its first Medal of Honor for Lifetime Achievement in Fashion on this day in 2003, Beene was a 40-plus year veteran of the industry, and already a recipient of eight Coty Awards and three CFDA awards. The designer smiled for pictures though he cared little for ceremonious acclaim, often stating that his only motive was self-expression. And yet throughout his career, Beene was always at the top of critics’ lists despite his disregard for trends. “I hate clothes that look saleable,” he said. “I love when they look desirable.” Beene was a designer who knew how to cut a dress to fit a woman’s curves without sacrificing comfort, who understood that no matter what fashion editors say, women want comfort first and style second.
Before there was Geoffrey Beene, Inc., the designer earned praise working for Seventh Avenue clothiers Harmay and Teal Traina. In 1963, he founded his own company and gained the freedom to assert his own viewpoint. From the beginning, Beene’s design tenets were simplicity and wearability. His clothes, however, only looked simple at first glance. Beneath the clean cuts and classic shapes was innovative construction. He continually experimented with styles and materials—even including rubber, plastic tubing and yak’s wool in his designs—until his death from cancer in 2004. “There are no rules to the designs,” Beene said. “There are standards, and my standard is taste.” Beene caused a stir in 1966 when he ignored the major fall trends: While other designers made full, swinging coats, he made slim ones; instead of the ubiquitous beaded shift of that season, he showed long satin dresses with bows. The next year he broke convention again by making eveningwear from casual fabrics, such as gray flannel and wool jersey, and embellished them with feathered hems and rhinestone obis. His sequined “football jersey” gowns earned the most press, but innovative fabric choices became his signature. Beene sculpted stretchy materials normally reserved for sweatshirts and cabaret costumes into glamorous figure hugging pieces that were easy to move in. Other designers looked down on mixing top-dollar fabrics with inexpensive ones, but Beene cared about what looked good and, more importantly, what a woman felt good wearing.
Beene’s distinctly American viewpoint was bred out of a belief that American designers should never look to their European contemporaries for inspiration. By doing so, he earned respect overseas, becoming the first American designer to show in Milan, an achievement he followed up with shows in Rome, Paris, Brussels and Vienna. In a 1998 interview with the New York Observer, Beene described the work of stalwart houses, such as Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior (then newly helmed by John Galliano) as “old-fashioned drag.” He did appreciate the work of at least two European designers—Elsa Schiaparelli, who also playfully ignored the edicts of the fashion elite, and Madame Grès, whose interest in sculpture gave her a special understanding of the female form. Like Grès, Beene saw a woman’s body not as a list of measurements but as three dimensional. Applying his own knowledge of the human figure from med school, Beene used inventive tricks such as spiraled seams or released pleats to create garments that moved like the body did. “Designing is an architectural problem,” he told the New York Times in 1991. “You are faced with a piece of crepe or wool, the flattest thing in the world, and you have to mold it to the shape you want. Clothing is nothing until it hits the body. The body gives it shape.” —Rachel Chambers
Photos: Top: The designer Geoffrey Beene. Bottom: Two dresses from the collections of the MET Costume Institute (left) 1980–82 silk ensemble; (right) 1976 rayon, silk and plastic “football” evening dress.