Designer Geoffrey Beene dies

Innovative, he has been called `architect of American fashion'


September 29, 2004|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Geoffrey Beene, one of fashion's most influential and imitated designers, died yesterday at his home in New York of complications of pneumonia. He was 77.

Called the "dean of American design," and the "architect of American fashion," Beene's signature was his talent in draping the female body, creating simple yet exquisitely cut clothes that became timeless classics.

Beene's clothes "were architecturally consistent," said Stan Herman, president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. "He worked on cut and the manipulation of the form on the body. Those are the things he'll be remembered for. More than his fabric, more than his colors, it was the way he used the body."

Although he also designed for men, what drew the raves of fashion editors and critics over the past half-century was his work in women's wear -- the slim and airy dresses, the sexy wrap tops and quilted cotton jackets that became his trademarks.

He also had a talent for making women look graceful in sequined football-jersey gowns and wool jersey jumpsuits.

His fans included such fashion-forward women as the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and actresses Glenn Close and Sigourney Weaver.

And no wonder, said writer Amy Fine Collins, a devotee of Beene's designs and the woman he considered his muse.

Beene's clothes made women feel more alive, she said.

Collins, a correspondent for Vanity Fair, has worn Geoffrey Beene fashions exclusively for the past 15 years. His death is the loss of a great designer and friend, she said.

"They were my identity," Collins said. "His clothing makes one be who you are."

Critics normally known for handing out compliments in small doses often found themselves using superlatives when describing Beene's designs.

In 1992, one New York Times critic remarked that Beene "vaults so nimbly from peak to higher peak in design that he makes the creative process seem effortless." Four years later, a fashion writer in San Francisco said Beene "perfected the art of cutting geometric pieces of fabric to fit just so against a woman's body, avoiding excess and following the beautiful female form."

Such compliments were no new pleasure for the hard-working designer who became internationally famous for the "quality, originality and surpassing elegance [of his] ready-to-wear fashions," one biographer said.

In 1976, Beene became the first American in fashion to open a manufacturing branch in Europe. He was also among the first to recognize the value of licensing products under his name that were made by other manufacturers -- a common practice today, but considered ingenious at the time.

And despite many tempting offers, one biographer said, Beene steadfastly refused to sell his company, Geoffrey Beene Inc., which he opened in 1963.

Over the years, Beene won innumerable awards and accolades, including eight Coty American Fashion Critics' Awards, one of the most prestigious awards in the industry. Aspects of his signature details have been spotted in the collections of such notable designers as Calvin Klein and Donna Karan. His work is exhibited in museums around the world.

Beene's secret for success was the religious way he approached his creations. Each piece, critics said, was centered on the fundamentals of design, not whim or fancy or the latest fleeting trend.

Beene's auspicious talent for working with the human body had much nobler beginnings.

After graduating from high school in Haynesville, La., at age 16, Beene started a pre-med program at Tulane University in New Orleans, hoping to please his parents and become a doctor.

Beene breezed through the classroom work, but the cadavers got the better of him.

He quit Tulane without a degree, and went on to the University of Southern California. Before classes began there, however, Beene took a job as an assistant in the display department of a fashionable clothing store in downtown Los Angeles. According to one biographer, an executive at the chain, I. Magnin, recognized Beene's potential and encouraged him to pursue a career in fashion.

In the mid-1940s, Beene moved to New York and studied at the Traphagen School of Fashion. He moved on to a training stint in Paris, and in 1954 began a job designing for Teal Traina, thus launching his decades-long career.

Herman, of the CFDA, said Beene's work has only recently been surpassed in the past two or three years, mainly because Beene had been ill and also had become even more "curmudgeonly" than usual.

But Collins said she can think of no contemporary designers who come close to matching Beene's artistry for making simple, comfortable, timeless designs.

"All of them are influenced by him; they're all his students," Collins said. "He was the master, and he was very much the designers' designers. He was the originator.

"His designs come purely out of the vacuum of imagination. ... It's pure creation, but all centered around the woman, the female body and his need to beautify her and give her freedom," she said.

That Beene's company lasted more than 40 years in such a volatile industry speaks to his artistry and his shrewd business sense. Beene's business was an instant success, showing beautiful, classic designs in a showroom on Seventh Avenue. Geoffrey Beene Inc. sold $500,000 worth of clothes in its first year, a figure that would quadruple in just two years.

"[Beene] was an intellectual designer who stuck to his own drum," Herman said. "He beat the same drum, but the drum was so extraordinary that he could make it work over a half century."

Beene is survived by a sister Barbara Ann Wellman, of Conroe, Texas.

Wire reports and Sun researcher Shelia Jackson contributed to this article.

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