Geoffrey Beene

Godfather of minimalism in modern American fashion design

The Godfather of modern American minimalism, the fashion designer Geoffrey Beene was a lateral thinker, equal parts chemist and artist, who once said, "The more you learn about clothes, the more you realise what has to be left off. Simplification becomes a very complicated procedure."

Geoffrey Beene, designer: born Haynesville, Louisiana 30 August 1927; died New York 28 September 2004.

The Godfather of modern American minimalism, the fashion designer Geoffrey Beene was a lateral thinker, equal parts chemist and artist, who once said, "The more you learn about clothes, the more you realise what has to be left off. Simplification becomes a very complicated procedure."

Beene - or Mr Beene as he preferred to be called - was of a rare breed in the American fashion industry. A quietly spoken Southern gentleman with a rotund physique and a penchant for owlish glasses, he was a nonconformist, always more comfortable tending his collection of 2,000 orchids at his home in Oyster Bay rather than pressing the flesh on the New York fashion circuit.

Born in Haynesville, Louisiana, in 1927, "under the natal sign of Virgo", Beene was an asthmatic child who was a mere eight years old when he bought his first beach-pyjama pattern at the local five-and-dime store. With the help of his aunt, he made it into an Oriental floral of Bristol blue and orange. Despite this early foray into fashion, in 1943 Beene followed Southern middle-class convention and won a scholarship to Tulane University in New Orleans to study Medicine.

Three years later, bored by the uncreative nature of the studies, he was caught sketching in his anatomy sketchbook a collection of glamorous gowns the Hollywood costume designer Adrian had created for Joan Crawford in the film Humoresque. He consequently dropped out of Tulane, saying, "Cadavers were the moment of truth." He headed straight to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, then deciding to forgo USC to work in the display department of the Los Angeles store I. Magnin.

By 1947, Beene had relocated to New York to study design at the Traphagen School of Fashion. The following year he moved to Paris, enrolling at the Académie Julian. Blown away by the elegance of Parisian fashion, he attended his first French couture show, discovered the iconoclastic colours of Elsa Schiaparelli and decided to became an apprentice to a tailor who had worked for the respected couturier Captain Edward Molyneux.

In 1951, Beene returned to New York. He began work with Mildred O'Quinn, who had a small salon in the Sherry Netherland Hotel, but was fired for dripping mayonnaise from a sandwich on the green satin seat of a Louis XIV chair. He decided to switch his allegiance to the studios of Seventh Avenue, "where there were fewer Louis XIV chairs". In 1954 he became a designer for Teal Traina before launching his first label, Geoffrey Beene Inc, in a champagne-coloured showroom on Seventh Avenue in 1963.

Beene's distinctive signature style, which never wavered - a sophisticated blend of comfort, innovation and clever seamlines - drew instant press attention. The following year he was given the first of eight Coty awards.

This was the beginning of a journey in experimental, easy and aesthetically pleasing dressing which was to continue for 40 years. In the same way that Coco Chanel pushed the boundaries of acceptability, Beene became known for continually defying convention. In 1966 he brought grey flannel and wool jersey to the ballroom. Two years later, he designed a sequinned football gown. In 1970 he used sweatshirt fabric for an evening gown, the following year introducing his Beenebag Sportswear Collection. In 1976 Beene became the first American designer to show in Milan, prompting the top Italian glossy L'Uomo Vogue to declare, "Look out Italian designers. This is the future."

Despite the steady flow of awards and plaudits, Beene's career was not without its blips. He famously became embroiled in a long-running feud with the highly influential New York fashion paper Women's Wear Daily when he refused to give them insider information on the wedding dress he had designed in 1967 for Lynda Bird Johnson, later explaining, "I felt my allegiance was to the President." The ensuing lack of Beene collection coverage did not affect his reputation.

By then a favourite with the American and European élite, he showed at the American embassies in Rome, Paris, Brussels and Vienna. A decade later, he won the coveted Council of Fashion Designers of America Award. As if to underline his fame, Beene was proud to note his name had been institutionalised twice - in the New York Times and Newsday crossword puzzles.

Unusually for an American designer, Beene always put art before commerce. However, he kept pace with the trend for designer scent, launching his men's fragrance Bowling Green in 1987. It was not a success. The following year, he celebrated 25 years in the business with a fashion show, "25 Years of Discovery", to benefit an Aids project in Los Angeles, followed by an exhibition at the National Academy of Design in New York.

The exhibition charted Beene's extraordinary rise to international critical acclaim, showing 150 of his original garments and photographs of Beene originals by Horst, Irving Penn, Hiro, Richard Avedon, Bruce Weber and Guzman. Beene's legions of hard-core clients were also in attendance, including Fran Lebowitz, Lee Radziwill, Kathleen Hearst, Sigourney Weaver, Claudette Colbert, Raquel Welch, Isabella Rossellini, Diana Ross, Nancy Reagan, Gloria Steinem and Glenn Close. Beene summed up this eclectic band of high-profile personalities by saying, "They all put into society rather than take away from it."

Beene never tired of designing - he regularly rose at 3.30am, pencil in hand, ready to sketch - but in his later years he had applied his talents to a range of products and artistic projects. In 1999 he was invited by Twyla Tharp to work on the costumes for her new dance work Diabelli. In the same year he produced a book, Beauty and the Beene, an illustrated celebration of his most innovative designs.

By then Beene had changed the occupation on his passport from "fashion designer" to simply "designer". He was designing furniture, shirts for Van Heusen, shoes and accessories, and was an active presence on the board of the American Ballet Theatre. At the turn of the 21st century, Beene had become an elder statesman and probably the most internationally revered American designer of all time. Alber Elbaz and Issey Miyake were just two of his protégés, and Tom Ford among the many established designers who admired his talent.

Outspoken and opinionated, Beene foresaw the rise of the status handbag and decline of the amazingly executed dress. "Corporisation is responsible for the homogenisation of fashion," he said in 1999, despairing of the diluted nature of designer fashion. Beene's passion for experimentation, coupled with his incredible wealth of experience, made him the ultimate fashion visionary. "The ballgown is obsolete", "Most fashion books are boring", "Clothes must move", "The zipper is on its way to extinction" and "Dressing for success is something unsuccessful women do" were just some of the Beene bons mots which kept him at the forefront of the American fashion industry.

Beene believed fervently in the power of the individual, summing himself up in 1999 as "stubborn, rebel, autocrat, curmudgeon. I get called a crank, but I don't mind that."

Linda Watson

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