LONDON, United Kingdom — A few years back, I happened to be with Tom Ford and Marc 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.
Troublingly, the name of Geoffrey Beene is virtually unknown to students and young designers today and even academics know very little, if anything at all, about him. How can such a thing happen with a designer, who, after just one year of designing his own label, won the first of eight Coty Fashion Critic Awards (precursor to the CFDA awards today), was the very first American designer invited to show his collection in Milan, and – less than five years after his first show in 1963 – was chosen to design the wedding dress of President Lyndon Johnson’s daughter in 1968?
He had the knowledge that brings wisdom and judgement based on the ability to step back from our current culture and call up other times when making decisions for today.
Geoffrey Beene was born in Haynesville, Louisiana in 1924 into a comfortable middle class family, and christened Samuel Albert Bozeman, Jr. His father was a doctor and Geoffrey’s education and upbringing were predicated on following in his father's footsteps. He enrolled in the medical school of Tulane University, but it soon became apparent that he was not cut out for a medical career, not only because of the cadavers (which he found unsettling) but also because he was far too engrossed in sketching Adrian gowns than attending class.
He left the course and went to Los Angeles, where he worked on fashion displays and windows in I. Magnin, a now-defunct luxury goods store. From there, he enrolled in a course at the Traphagen School of Fashion in New York and then, in 1948, he moved to Paris, where haute couture designers were just beginning to regroup and re-organise themselves after World War II. He found a job with the British designer Edward Molyneux whilst studying at L’École de la Syndicate d’Haute Couture. He once told me that being in Paris in the difficult but exciting years immediately after the war was seminal to his entire life, as was his exposure to the work of Elsa Schiaparelli, the outrageous and witty Italian couturière whose joie de vivre absolutely fitted with his young, iconoclastic attitudes, not only in fashion but also in lifestyle. Along with the Folies Bergère, Édith Piaf, Josephine Baker, Jean Cocteau, Dior and Balenciaga, all of whom he met, Schiaparelli opened Geoffrey’s eyes to a world of sophistication and creative assurance that marked him as different from his fellow American designers throughout his career.
I first met Geoffrey in the Eighties when, having read a review of the New York shows that I had written, he invited me to lunch. At that time, I didn’t realise that ‘lunch’ was for him a pivotal point in a day which began at 7:30 each morning when he arrived at his office with the sketches he had worked on even earlier in the morning at home, which he shared with his assistants. For a time, these assistants included, for a six-month period, Issey Miyake, and, for much longer, Alber Elbaz. When asked if Geoffrey had left him anything when he died, Elbaz replied, “He left me everything I have; everything I knew, everything I learned. He taught me his world.”
Although Geoffrey was a stickler for correct behaviour — I once infuriated him so much by being ten minutes late for lunch, he could barely speak out of fury and he made me feel like a naughty schoolboy — he was creatively totally generous and open. But his manners and attitudes were distinctly old school — surprisingly so for one who in every other way was youthful and open-minded until the day he died. But he could be prickly and difficult and you watched your step with him. He hated the vulgarity of Seventh Avenue and did all he could to undermine the arrogance of the really big designer companies. I soon realised that although the atmosphere in his company was serious and, indeed, dignified (he was always referred to as Mister Beene) there was always humour.
You felt the atmosphere the moment you stepped into the lobby. No marble, no mirrors, no impossibly chic disdainful women in black. Instead, a fun wallpaper by the artist and friend Joe Eula, whose work, along with that of another of his favourites, the illustrator Gladys Perint Palmer, amused him. And of course his receptionist Joyce, whom he adored for her quick-witted élan (people crossed oceans to pop in a say hello to her and enjoy her 500 syllables per second delivery over the phone). I loved everything about that atmosphere, kept calm with the greatest tact by the business manager Russel Nardoza, who was the perfect counterbalance to Joyce's marvellous personality. At the centre of it all was Geoffrey Beene himself. He did not hide in boardrooms. He was a hands-on, day-to-day designer who was technically savvy and had a clear and consistent view of how the Beene customer wished to be dressed. His customers did not always find it easy to get into his world, but once there they rarely left, and they kept their Beene creations for life.
With Geoffrey, you were always conscious that you were dealing with a visionary who has set his standards and refused to budge — socially, intellectually and, of course, creatively. It was this intransigence that caused him to quarrel with major influential figures in the New York fashion world — quarrels that in some cases actually affected his career. The outstanding one was his contretemps with John Fairchild, the editor-in-chief of Women’s Wear Daily. Geoffrey had been chosen to design the wedding dress for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s daughter’s betrothal in 1968 and, of course, he knew that no details could be leaked before the event. Fairchild demanded a sketch, which would be front page on WWD on the morning of the ceremony. Geoffrey refused and continued to do so, as he said to me, "My loyalty was to my president, not a journalist." Fairchild’s revenge was to ban all references to and photographs of Beene's clothes and even the society women wearing them in all Fairchild publications. It affected the Beene business, as it was intended to, but merely strengthened Geoffrey’s determination to run his company and his life as he wished.
To gain Geoffrey Beene’s approval and co-operation was not always easy and he was particularly stringent in his dealings with the press. He had contempt for many, and little time for most. Those who, like the late Amy Spindler of The New York Times, ‘got’ him were few. I once asked him why he never invited Anna Wintour to his shows. He looked at me with genuine bewilderment. “Why would I?” he asked. I replied that she was editor-in-chief of American Vogue. His reaction was sharp. “She knows nothing about American fashion.” With that, the conversation ended.
Yet Geoffrey was a kind and gentle man who was not only helpful to young designers and journalists but worked with filmmakers and dancers in his constant search for ways to help clothes have more relevance to us all. He delighted in the company of the young and iconoclastic and was never pompous, even in situations in which being so would have been understandable. His approach to people was a laissez faire one and it reflected his immense confidence in who he was and what he was about.
I remember once in London we had dinner in a famous but very affected private members' club of the sort that are sterile depositaries of attitudes a hundred years out of date. It was late in Geoffrey’s life, by which time he had perfected his own style of dress, which consisted of chic, super-modern collarless shirts made in London of his design and a loose, unstructured coat based on those traditionally worn by French butchers. The effect was elegant, sophisticated and confidently dégagé. To my horror, when I arrived I found that the maitre’d had insisted that Geoffrey wear a tie provided by the establishment. I was furious at what to me was a humiliation of a guest but Geoffrey ignored the ignominy and gave every sign of enjoying the excellent food even with a rather greasy looking tie around his bare neck.
Geoffrey was a connoisseur of more than food. He had an excellent eye for fine art and sculpture. A visit to his house in Oyster Bay was a treat. He had a fine collection of 20th century art, including many works by Keith Vaughan, Pavel Tchelitchew, Duncan Grant and Man Ray. His house in Hawaii, hanging over the ocean like a liner, with every window facing the water, was equally exciting for his collection of Wiener Werkstätte art and early 20th century Austrian furniture, a testimony to him as the one of the only American designer with a knowledge and appreciation of European culture that I have ever met.
And yet, the man who enjoyed all this was happy to subvert the rules by making sequinned evening dresses based on American football jerseys and once created a collection based on cartoon characters, shown to a soundtrack of Looney Tunes music. For him, creativity was all about changing parameters, finding new ways to say old things and modernise the eternal verities of style and creativity. Looking back, he seems to me to have so much more in common with industrial designers such as Charles and Ray Eames or Eileen Gray than his fellow New York fashion designers. But perhaps he has the most in common with another great fashion designer known for his quarrels as much as his creations. I refer to Charles James, whose current show at the Metropolitan Museum makes me hope that we won’t have to wait too long for such a tribute to be made to Geoffrey Beene, who died ten years ago this year.
As a coda to the remarkable career of a man who personified the philosophy that small is beautiful and whisper is better than shout, it is good for us to be reminded that the Geoffrey Beene Design Scholarship Award set up in 2007 in conjunction with the CFDA with an endowment of $2.5 million from the Geoffrey Beene Foundation; each year, winners receive $25,000. In very Geoffrey terms, its remit is to challenge students to ‘look beyond conforming trends, and practicality of business’.
Alber Elbaz is quoted as saying “Mr Beene was a visionary,” and he is right. But we must always remember that he was that because he had the knowledge that brings wisdom and judgement based on the ability to step back from our current culture and call up other times when making decisions for today. That is why I know that the spirit and wisdom of this man — not to mention the amazing clothes he designed — are needed today (when a flourishing fashion career can be based on something as trivial as a design for a t-shirt) more than ever before.