We look forward to the Met Gala every year and can't wait to see how celebrities interpret the theme of the exhibition. This year, many seem to have ignored “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” altogether and others wore kitschy versions of it. I find it funny to listen to the many red carpet goers trying to explain how their Italian or French dress somehow fits into the American ideal. Some of the connections were sketchy at best. But sometimes, someone gets it right. Enter..Ciara.
Ciara wore her husband Russell Wilson's football jersey number to the Met Gala this year. Her brilliant nod to America included a reference to not only the most American game, but American fashion and most importantly, it paid respect to perhaps the most quintessential American designer, Geoffrey Beene.
Geoffrey Beene fall/winter 1967–68 - Metropolitan Museum of Art
He has been called, the "dean of American design," and the "architect of American fashion,"but if you ask the average American today who they believe were the most influential pioneers of American fashion, his name might not even be mentioned. But to fashion designers and industry professionals, Geoffrey Beene was perhaps the greatest American designer of all.
"A few years back, I happened to be with Tom Ford and Mark Jacobs — separately, but within a few days of each other — and I asked them both who they felt was the greatest designer produced by the United States in the 20th century, a figure who could be placed alongside couturiers of the calibre of Chanel and Balenciaga. There was not a flicker of doubt in either man’s mind. 'Geoffrey Beene,' they both said." Colin McDowell, The Business of Fashion.
He was born Samuel Albert Bozeman, Jr. on August 30, 1927 in Haynesville, Louisiana. Following in the footsteps of other men in his family, Beene went to medical school at Tulane University. After three years, when he realized he was spending more time sketching Gilbert Adrian gowns that studying, and when cadaver work began, he dropped out of Tulane and decided to embark on a career in fashion design. He spent the early days of his education and career in California, New York, and Paris.
But it was perhaps his training in medical school that gave Beene the keen insight into the human body that he transferred to his designs. His pieces were defined by architectural cuts, unique seams, and unusual fabric combinations. He emphasized fluidity of movement and the definition of the body.
Geoffrey Beene was the first American designer invited to show his collection in Milan, he received an honorary doctorate from the Rhode Island School of Design, he has been designated an “American Original” by the Smithsonian in Washington, DC., he was the winner of eight Coty Awards, the first of which was only 1 year after he started his own label, the Neiman Marcus award, and three CFDA Awards.
In order to fully appreciate the brilliance of Geoffrey Beene, one has to actually touch his garments. We are so fortunate to have been able to acquire a collection of his pieces that includes a representation of his most iconic design elements. Beene used the fabric itself as an inspiration for his designs. The fabric spoke to him and inspired his collections. He was known for using wool jersey because of its versatility and movement, and for combining fabrics with contrasting textures and colors in one garment. A dress might have a combination of taffeta and wool or linen and silk. His color combinations were also uniquely Beene. The above evening dress has a black wool bodice, green and black check taffeta skirt, and his signature bolero jacket in a rich purple wool.
“A collection is only as good as the fabrics you work with.” Geoffrey Beene.
One of my top 10 favorite dresses is one we have in our inventory that was designed by Mr. Beene in the late 1960's or early 1970's. Every part of this floral evening dress is perfect, from the sheer billowing sleeves and wide waist belt, to the rounded wide collar. The beautiful pink flowers contrast perfectly against the navy blue background. It can't be appreciated in photos because the magic of the dress is how it moves and feels.
Geoffrey Beene developed many techniques to highlight the shape of the body. He used unique cut outs to bring attention to specific areas and used panels of fabric to break up monotony.
Beene used unique seams and wide waistbands often to define the silhouette. The above dress has an empire wide waistline and an upper bodice of black wool. The dress has another of Beene's iconic bolero jackets in the same black wool and a contrasting taffeta print skirt.
“Simplification is one of the most difficult things in the world. As you get older, it gets more difficult. You can never start out being a minimalist. You’ve got to design to minimize”- Geoffrey Beene.
So, if he inspired some of the world's greatest designers and designed for some of the most famous American women, why did the genius of Geoffrey Beene fade from popularity after his death? Most people agree that the answer is simple: Geoffrey Beene wouldn’t play the game. Not only did he not play the game, he often spoke freely and openly to and about the most influential players. That kind of brutal honesty caused a riff between Beene and many of the fashion elite.
“Anna is a difficult woman, I haven’t been in Vogue for over four years. She cares more for trends I’m not in step with." Beene on Anna Wintour. And, when once asked why he never invited Ms Wintour to his shows, he replied; “Why would I? She knows nothing about American fashion.”
"Ms. Tilberis, should be more independent and not listen to the people around her so much.” Geoffrey Beene on Elizabeth Tilberis, editor of Harper's Bazaar.
Beene also supposedly had a long-running feud with Women's Wear Daily, that started when he refused to provide the requested advance details of Lynda Bird Johnson's wedding dress, but he later said that his designs were absent from WWD because he could not afford the expensive advertising space in W.
After seeing Greta Garbo’s "Queen Christina" one night on television, Diana Vreeland called Geoffrey Beene and asked him to create a "Queen Christina" inspired outfit for the model Verushka to wear in a Vogue photo shoot. The intricate design ended up costing him $2,000, some of which he had to borrow. When Mr. Beene brought the dress to the Vogue headquarters, he was told Mrs. Vreeland liked it, but she had decided to not go ahead with the Christina theme. "What did she do? See another movie last night? I never spoke to her again,” Mr. Beene said.
Some might say that those comments made Geoffrey Beene seem difficult, but we believe they are good examples of someone who expected other people to respect the standards and principles of decorum that he himself worked so hard to uphold. One has to admire that kind of ethical code of behavior.
"In America, it’s more that there is a tendency amongst designers and amongst women to dress more alike than as individuals. I respect individuals but even amongst the masses there are certain things that you want to one’s own fit - they have to be - that’s looking in a mirror and recognizing what’s great about you and what’s not so great and dressing accordingly." Geoffrey Beene
Several fashion designers worked for Geoffrey Beene in the early days of their careers including Kay Unger, Alber Elbaz,Doo Ri Chung, Issey Miyake and Maria Pinto. When asked if Geoffrey had left him anything when he died, Alber Elbaz replied, “He left me everything I have; everything I know, everything I learned. He taught me his world.”
We admire the kind of bold, honest independence that made Geoffrey Beene an American original. He wasn't owned by the powerful fashion machine that decides who and what will be the next "in" thing. He refused to compromise his own vision and design ethos. Katie and I want Modig to represent fashion as boldly as Mr. Beene did. Fashion that empowers women and encourages them to find their own personal style, regardless of trends. Geoffrey Beene embodied the essence of that thinking and we hope that he will be re-discovered and honored as a truly American, (and more importantly), a truly original fashion designer.
“If I had the power to do it over again I would simply do more of it.”Geoffrey Beene.
We wish you had been able to do more of it! RIP Mr. Beene.
You can browse through our entire Geoffrey Beene collection here.
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Geoffrey Beene, Cultured Visionary by COLIN MCDOWELL