The Forty Shades Of Beene
If you profess to any interest in fashion and are unfamiliar with the work of Geoffrey Beene, then shame on you. Among American designers, he is the most creative, the most innovative, the most exacting of all. He is also - although he rather baulks at this suggestion - the least internationally well-known of his peers. An exceptionally discriminating eye, plus a somewhat publicity-shy persona, probably helps to explain why he is so regularly described as one of the United States's best-kept fashion secrets.
He, on the other hand, prefers to hold continental differences in sensibility responsible for his relatively low profile on this side of the Atlantic. He is, for example, decidedly unenamoured of French fashion, describing Paris as "locked into its history which has entrapped design there". Having trained in France, he speaks from experience. After dropping out of medical school - "cadavers were the moment of truth" - he moved to Paris to enrol at L'Ecole de la Syndicate d'Haute Couture. Returning to the United States, he worked for a number of companies before opening his own business in 1963.
More than 30 years later, a sprightly 70-year old Beene still professes the same beliefs he espoused at the start of his career. Above all, he argues in favour of the essential "American-ness" of his work. "The premise is comfort," he explains. "Ease, comfort, versatility; they're what matter. If you've a black dress, you should be able to go everywhere during the day. It's even more important now than ever before. I'm always pushing the comfort of American things; you should be able to put on your clothes and then forget about them. That's pure American to me." Ease and comfort need not mean want of imagination. In 1968, Beene produced sequin dresses in the style of football jerseys. Two years later, he came up with the idea of sweatshirt fabric as well as denim for evening dresses. He took grey flannel out of men's suiting and made it feminine for a strapless gown. "To me, the great fault in Europe is making clothes for a single occasion. It's been years since I made a gown to the floor - if the dress is slightly shorter, then you can wear it on many occasions."
Beene has always "mixed the humble with the rich". On smart white suits, he put cuffs of foam rubber which was then used for necklaces and other pieces of jewellery. Fishing corks studded with rhinestones were also made into accessories for one of his shows. His preferred fabric is wool jersey "because it both tailors and drapes. Its stretch quality is forgiving, whereas in synthetics it's not always so." Jersey is used in his favourite dress, a black and white evening design which looks demure from the front but is cut dangerously low at the back - "it's what I call my saint and sinner style. I've always loved that dress."
Backless dresses have long been a feature in Beene's collections. "I think they're all a reaction to the films of Crawford, Hawlow and that generation that I watched. And then there's the sheer sensuality of the back." Despite the austerity of the work, Beene's clothes often ooze sensuality as well. There is nothing overtly sexual in the work, but - rather like the designs of Balenciaga, with whom he has much in common - a great deal is implied. Purity is the hallmark of his style. Each piece looks simple, even though its creation may have required an enormous amount of skill. "I make an effort in getting them to look well and attractive inside. For example, I save really fine scraps of silk to cover shoulder pads only the wearer will see. It's important to finish clothes beautifully."
His customers are devotedly loyal. He summarises a typical Beene fan as "successful women, not self-indulgent, not prima donnas. They're active, thinking people who contribute to society. They know who they are and they're confident. Most of them have good figures; those with less than ideal, I accomodate." These are the people who gave Beene a standing ovation at the end of his most recent show last month in New York. "I made an effort to make things truly American; keep it simple and with greater geometry and sensuality than ever before. But I'd no idea the response would be as great as it was. When I came back out for a second ovation, I wondered `what is this - have I achieved this by default?' "
Although he showed in Milan 21 years ago and began to develop a market in Germany and Italy, "I went with the wrong people and the company broke up". Geoffrey Beene's clothes are therefore today sold nowhere in Europe. That is our loss because he is unquestionably the finest American designer since Charles James. However, he does have his own shop in New York and this ought to be visited by anyone visiting the city. "I test some clothes out there, even before a collection. The most frustrating thing for me is designing a dress and then putting it away for three months until the next season. I'm proud of what I've done and want to share it."
The Geoffrey Beene shop can be found at 783 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.