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Green with Envy

Geoffrey Beene: Legacy of a Fashion Icon
From Timothy Hagy

PARIS, September 28, 2004 - Obituaries can be both poignant and terse: died of pneumonia aged 77, survived by one sister of Conroe, Texas. But the real legacy of an artist is expansive; lingering long after the last breath is drawn. Fashion, like life, is part of one large, unbroken circle that joins the past with the future - ideas and inspiration, tradition and technique - old blueprints that fuel an endless continuum of creation. And so the death of Geoffrey Beene announced today in New York, catches the fashion world right in the middle of a new season.

What timing! Just as the first American designer to show a label in his own name, and to present a catwalk presentation in Europe passed quietly away in his Upper East Side apartment, the Milan shows for Spring 2005 are bursting into full bloom.

And perhaps that is how it should be, for Beene continues to shape and influence designers both in America and abroad.

"It was Geoffrey Beene who taught me technique - how to work with material," Alber Elbaz reflected over lunch last April. "But most of all, he was the person that made it possible for my dream to come true."

Alber joined Beene in New York and 1998 and remained with him for seven years before accepting the nomination of Artistic Director of Guy Laroche in Paris. It was Beene, and later Yves Saint Laurent, that shaped Alber into the artist he is today - his love of fabric, of dressmaking, of balancing contrasting forces of lightness and volume. Alber, in turn, passes on his knowledge to young designers.

Southern gentleman, fashion icon, consummate artist, Geoffrey Beene succeeded in cementing his heritage - his love of design, his gift of creation, his meticulous attention to detail will continue to be reborn on the runways of tomorrow.

See Fashionlines' Tribute to Geoffrey Beene

Indeed it has. Geoffrey Beene, the award winning fashion designer, has been designing under his own label since November 1963, which means that he will be celebrating his 40th year in business this coming year. Talk about longevity! By the way, when I asked him if the delightful scent he was wearing happened to be 'Grey Flannel,' he replied that it was his new fragrance, 'Domino Red.' The day I was scheduled to interview Geoffrey Beene for Fashionlines, we were on the brink of war, so it was hard not to think about world events and politics.
When I asked if he felt we should boycott the French, he said, "Absolutely not! And he added, "I've learned so much from the French." But then he simply stated, "I won't get into politics - I'm so against what's going on." According to this legendary American design icon- whom I have known since my years as an editor at Harper's Bazaar - "I think my whole point of view is functionality. It's the fun of creating something that's going to be used." Why is the combination of form and function so perfect? Because, as he puts it, "it works." "The influence of blue jeans and sportswear is still affecting the world- and will- because it's so functional. Underneath all these elaborate descriptions of collections, there's nothing more important than functionality! It will become more pronounced."

When I asked if there is something that as a designer, he has always wanted to put his name on that he hasn't, he said "there are some things I started that I wished I were continuing- like my furniture, for example". He stated that his furniture collection was rendered mainly in black lacquer, which at that time (15 to 20 years ago) was considered too "risqué because it chipped". Then he went on to describe a table, which had "little legs and the legs had some silver booties." (A very 'Beene' whimsical touch). As he put it, "I hate anything so serious."
Geoffrey Beene, of course, is not 'just about' the practical, but is also about being consistent, and having a consistent vision. I couldn't resist asking how he felt about designers who purposely 'go against' what they previously did, just for the sake of change. As he put it, "This change of seasons, change of silhouettes, it's so dumb to me because a woman's wardrobe should be just like a man's- you keep adding to it good pieces. If you change every season, it simply implies that the last season you didn't have much faith in, so you leave it and go on to something else. It's a very discouraging thing. There should be something you can build on. I'm totally against this trend. That's the reason I called my last collection, 'No Name'."

"There should be good enough writers that don't need a 'lead in'- and there are those writers, who if they don't have a key word, you don't get a story. And that's pathetic, really pathetic! Because there's not that much to write about in fashion. And anyway, it's a mess at the moment and it needs clarifying. To do something you've always believed in, and then to try and change, can be disastrous."

When I asked how he defines the term, "elegance" or rather, "modern elegance" (which is a catch phrase that keeps coming up these days), he said, "It's never changed. It's simplicity". And he pointed to his favorite dress- graphic black and white (the top is nothing more than a sweater and the bottom is a long skirt) as if to illustrate. "Clothes are beginning to look more comfortable and not so rigid- and not so DARN sexy. I make sensuous clothes but there's a distinction between sexy and sensuality and I'm well aware of it."

When I ask Geoffrey if it becomes easier to simplify as one gets older, he shakes his head and says, "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 minimalize. I've never understood how 'they' (referring to designers) can start a career being simple. You have to work to that point. You have to design a hell of a lot in order to simplify. I'd never call myself a minimalist just because I like simple things, but in the end it's the most gratifying thing because you made it so explicit and simplistic. There's no confusion." What is he most proud of? "It's thrilling to see what I did 25 years ago look good today." And he most loves it when a woman wearing one of his designs will point to it and say, "Oh, you know, this is 10 years old."

"I am most proud to hear that or if I see it on Ebay I buy it back myself. I paid $3000 for a jacket I did for my 'Circus' Collection and had forgotten about it. Sometimes you make special things, and I did that for the Circus Collection. It was a Bengel Tiger on double- faced wool embroidered by Lesage and the tail is here (he points to the place on his jacket where that is) and it springs across the back and it's so good looking. Well, I paid 3,000 bucks to get that back."

"One of my bathing suits is on (Ebay) and I had forgotten about it- it's so great looking and this customer (who he tells me has more than 900 dresses- more than he has) faxes me and tells me it's on". He explains how this woman watches the prices and bids for him. "I'm so thrilled to buy that bathing suit because I'm going back into bathing suits." Although he won't divulge whom the manufacturer is just yet, he recalls gleefully how he designed swimsuits in the 60's, which he says is something he loved and enjoyed doing, and points out, "if you look at my clothes, they've had bathing suit tops. It's the influence of sportswear". And then he quickly points out that sportswear references were also found in the designs of Coco Chanel, and I, of course, couldn't help but think how Nicolas Guesquiere recently made the comment that "sports clothes are the most modern." They are indeed, Nicolas, and Geoffrey was there first!

Looking around his atelier, he points to another simply beautiful diamante studded gray jersey elongated t-shirt dress studded with Austrian crystals, that he explains was originally made in black for the Truman Capote Black and White Ball in the 60's. "We are still making it. That makes me proud!" When I ask if he considers gray flannel his favorite color and fabric, he says it is because it is so neutral, you can do so much with it, and it goes with everything. It also happens to be the name of his 35- year- old fragrance 'Grey Flannel', which has just gotten an award for being the "longest lasting American designer cologne". Talk about longevity!

Seeming to reflect back on the idea of simplicity, he shakes his head with disdain, "This effort to over- create" and then trails off. "But the press needs that because they don't have a story otherwise. It's totally their fault and I fault them for it."

Speaking about the press, whom he has never been shy about criticizing, I ask: "Are there any fashion publications you have on your desk or read other than 'Paper'?" (I know that he is an avid fan). "None. The reason I like 'Paper' is I don't know who the audience is. I know Kim (Hastreiter, its editor and founder) very well and I respect her. She's probably the most open- minded editor- whatever her magazine is. It's the only one I advertise in, and Kim knows that. I've just taken out a double page for May and I haven't advertised a dress in years. I don't know who her audience is and that sort of fascinates me."

Continuing on with the idea of fashion magazines, he reflects, "Fashion magazines? Well, there's no fashion today. Fashion magazines are so centered in copying Paris or copying this…trendy this, or trendy that and I'm totally against that. It's artificial and it's not modern. They're full of advertising- controlled …."

When I asked if there are any current designers whose work he admires, he said he had recently watched about 50 or 60 fall/winter 2003 fashion shows on MetroChannel's Full Frontal Fashion (while sidelined at home recuperating from dental work), and admitted, "It's important that I know what's going on out there".

While he couldn't necessarily single out any one collection, and admitted he was unfamiliar with some of the newer names, he diplomatically and graciously noted, "I do find there are beautiful pieces in almost every collection where someone made an effort to make a collection. And I have seen some very interesting clothes, which I never see the press take. I mean, if you have one unique dress out of a bad collection, that is still a unique dress." (Talking another jab at the press), "There is no appreciation of individuality, there's always got to be something 'mass'- a lot of it. There's a lot of talent out there, a lot, and it's not even being recognized. Some of the worst things are coming from so- called 'big designers'. I still try to help young people as much as I can- it's important to see their portfolios because they're our future."

When I brought up the name Olivier Theyskens for the house of Rochas, whose critically acclaimed and elegant collection, which was recently shown in Paris, seemed to hark back to Geoffrey's own aesthetic, he admitted, "Olivier Theyskens is very good. I met him once in Barneys when were were all doing special dresses and I said, 'You can bring the House of Rochas back.' I knew Marcel Rochas- I was in Paris then. I do believe he's the best thing in Paris now. He's very talented and Nicolas Guesquiere WAS talented in the beginning when things looked more 'like' Balenciaga. But Balenciaga would turn in his grave now. Those rugs!" (Mr. Beene was referring to the white, shaggy, loopy, mop like creations Guesquiere designed for his past fall/winter 2002 collection). They're so stupid on some of those programs saying 'Oh, he's bringing Balenciaga back to the big sales that Balenciaga once had'. Balenciaga never cared for big sales, he did individual, custom made work- that's what made him and they're saying 'Balenciaga was a big seller'. They are trying to rewrite history every day and you can't do it. And if I hear the word, 'redefine' something… there are so many beautiful things that don't need redefining."

When I mentioned that I constantly see Mr. Beene's designs being referenced on runways, I asked how he feels about being copied or reinterpreted. "I don't mind people copying me. It's when they deny it that makes me angry."

He made the decision quite a while ago, to pull out of stores, ("I don't think retail is that successful"). And he believes merchants are "screwing up the program" with their rigid focus on seasons, pointing out "the winter was practically over" and they still had their entire stock of winter clothes sitting on the shelves. But I couldn't resist asking if there were shops anyplace in the world that he thinks do a good job. His reply was, "I don't really care. I'm in the process of buying a building, a wonderful building", where he will be centralizing his business. He wouldn't elaborate more, but said the "divine" 5- story building is located on the East Side.

Geoffrey mentioned that he has a book scheduled to launch in September (in time for Christmas) called 'Identity'. It is so named because in his opinion, "That is what fashion is about as a designer. Getting a woman to identity with herself and develop her own personal style. When she does that it makes everything easier." The book is about fashion, which is visual, so there will be very little print, and it will be "up to date" on everything he's done including his inspirations- countries such as Spain and Turkey- and menswear. But he's quick to add, "It's nothing about me. I refuse to do an 'I' book."

When I asked who the publisher is, he tells me he has cancelled three publishers thus far because they've all insisted that a dress graces the cover, and Geoffrey wants the cover to be the silhouette of the side of a naked woman, which he sketches for me.

Geoffrey admitted that his 'No Name' collection, which was shown in February, would probably be his last. As someone, for whom designing is such a joyful and evolutionary process, he therefore abhors the idea of set seasons. And having to wait until 'show time' in order to present something you love so much, which you have just put so much energy into, seems so passé. Now, when he creates something, he simply puts it out on one of his forms, and lets his customers see it.

"You know, if 'they' (referring to the press) say, "What's new?" I think, "Who the hell cares? What's GOOD is what matters, and I'll let my clients decide what's good. Not the press, not the buyers, but my clients- the people who buy. I just put it out and they'll either buy it or not!"

When I asked if his biggest motivation nowadays is his customers and their feedback he said, "Yes. It's actually always been that, except I was never this close to it, and it's a joy to see."