Several years ago, the well-respected fashion historian and The Business of Fashion columnist Colin McDowell, asked Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford who they felt was the most celebrated Amerian designer of the 20th century. A figure who could stand alongside the caliber of a Chanel or Balenciaga. Independent of one another, they both said, “Geoffrey Beene.”
Yet, for an entire generation, the name Geoffrey Beene is known for his ties, men’s dress shirts, and fragrance. How could that be? The only thing that seems to matter in this country is the bottom line. Such disrespect for a great designer would never happen in France – a country that is devoted to honoring great fashion.
Geoffrey Beene (1927-2004) was a quintessential American designer, a true original. During his 40-year career, Mr. Beene produced a stunning array of work that combined structural and formal innovation with a uniquely American sense of play and humor. I was fortunate to have Geoffrey Beene in the stable of designers I covered as a fashion editor for Harper’s Bazaar. Beene was always my favorite collection.
In 1964, after just one year of designing under his label, Geoffrey won the first of 8 Coty fashion critic awards (the equivalent of the CFDA Awards). That is the most ever given to one designer. Geoffrey was always ahead of his time. In 1976 he was the first American designer invited to show in Milan. Beene emphasized the body and glorified movement. He was one of the first designers to use dancers to show his collections.
Beene introduced gray flannel, jersey fabrics, houndstooth, and dresses without side seams. He created the curving zipper, a technological breakthrough in design, showed ball gowns inspired by football jerseys, denim, and strapless evening dresses. He mixed elements of day and evening long before it became the norm. Among Beene’s signatures are the bolero, the jumpsuit, love of geometry, combining fabrics, and the use of black and white. Geoffrey never copied others, but he is widely copied. I once asked Geoffrey if he minded. “Only when they deny it!” was his reply.
“Geoffrey Beene was very influential for younger designers, showing you can design what you believe in. He showed you don’t have to be so commercial as Seventh Avenue to survive” – Einar Holilokk.
The day after Geoffrey Beene passed away, his longtime assistant, Einar Holilokk, was named head designer. Geoffrey left instructions in his will for Holilokk to succeed him in the business. The Norwegian born designer wanted to continue the Beene legacy. He understood Geoffrey’s distinct artistic sensibilities. It looked promising.
What went wrong?
This past week I spoke with Russell Nardozza, the former senior vice president and CEO of Geoffrey Beene. He explained that Mr. Beene left his estate to Tom Hutton, an attorney and executor of the estate, who became head of Geoffrey Beene Inc. The plan was to continue their custom order business, but after a year and a half, Mr. Hutton decided to pull the plug and focus on charitable interests.
The Geoffrey Beene Foundation, founded in 2006, established the Geoffrey Beene Cancer Research Center at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. In honor of Beene’s fashion legacy, the CFDA created The Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award.
“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”- Geoffrey Beene.
In 2018, PVH Corp, who owned the Beene licensees, bought Geoffrey Beene LLC. It is in their Heritage Brands portfolio along with Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein. In February 2019, the Beene archives (about 1500 pieces) were sold at the Hindman Auction House in Chicago. Like Calvin Klein, Geoffrey Beene has fallen into fashion oblivion.
This should not have happened. Geoffrey’s talent holds up with the “best of the best” in Europe. His designs are so beautiful, individual, and uniquely American, they should continue. If the Geoffrey Beene company had been purchased by LVMH, Kering, or another French luxury conglomerate, his collections might well have continued.
Respected fashion insiders weigh in:
“Frankly, I am not a huge fan of bringing dead brands back to life. I prefer them to have had a good life, and when they were gone, let the brand die too”- Diane Pernet.
Diane Pernet, a Paris-based American-born fashion designer and fashion blogger, has another take. She does not see the necessity of a brand to continue when it identifies so strongly with the original. Diane puts Beene in the same category as Gianfranco Ferre, a company that did not survive well without the original designer. “Take Isabel Toledo, for instance. Can you imagine someone else designing her brand? I cannot. It represented her in the same way that Geoffrey Beene was a strong reflection of himself” said Pernet.
Dr. Valerie Steele is on the same page as Pernet. During a recent phone call, the director of the Museum of the FIT talked about the difficulty of reviving brands, specifically Beene. “You need big pockets, a long vision, and more of a cultural capital. Chanel and Dior are just bigger than Beene,” Dr. Steele surmised. Also, American businesses expect to make more money faster on their investments. The European companies realize that it takes a while to gear up.
Also, Dr. Steele strongly believes in bringing attention to new creative talent. When a young designer is brought in as a guest worker in another designer’s house, she feels their talent is being masked. Dr. Steele emphasized the rarity of Karl Lagerfeld. Karl successfully headed up the house of Chanel, made himself synonymous with Chanel, and made a name for himself that was as strong as Chanel.
Dr. Steele believes there should be more attention paid to Beene’s brilliant designs. She cited Beene’s “extraordinarily sophisticated body-conscious dressing that glorified the body from the ’80s on”. “By all means, get the Geoffrey Beene name out there and use it as inspiration.” In 1994, Beene was honored as a master of American design with a retrospective at the Museum at FIT. I believe it’s time for another.
Dr. Steele explained fashion museums could not survive without dedicated collectors like Amy Fine Collins and Patsy Tarr. They treat fashion as art and have both done their share to keep Geoffrey’s name and designs in the spotlight. Upon Beene’s death in 2004, Patsy Tarr published a book, “Geoffrey Beene: A Design Tribute,” in collaboration with Abbott Miller, art director of Tarr’s dance magazine 2wice. Patsy says that when she wore Geoffrey’s clothes, she felt like “the best-dressed person in the room.”
In 2009, Ms. Tarr lent 40 of her most whimsical pieces to The Phoenix Art Museum. The resulting exhibition, “Geoffrey Beene: Trapeze,” was an exuberant celebration of his work and his love of the circus. In February, Ms. Tarr gifted the museum with about 350 pieces from her vast collection.
As I have previously mentioned, Amy Fine Collins gets dressed every day since the pandemic, in an ensemble from her vast Beene archives, and posts it on Instagram. The IBDL Hall of Famer was Mr. Beene’s muse for about a decade and a half up until his passing in 2004.
Ms. Fine Collins observed that it’s not often designers do their best work late in their career, but that’s what happened as a result of their “kismet” relationship. “Mr. Beene’s work was singular and extraordinary at that period, and unlike anything else that was happening at that time. He was able to continue to work and pare down exactly as he wanted to,” said Amy. “Wearing his world-class and extraordinary clothes was like an international passport.” What is Amy’s favorite piece? The “Mercury” dress from the ’90s exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Anna Wintour Costume Center.
Amy thinks that taking the Beene label forward has its challenges. As she put it, “Geoffrey Beene was not a brand but a person, much like Jimmy Galanos. But then again, so was Chanel,” she continues: “Maybe the problem is that here in the U.S. when they try to continue a brand, it’s always the “suits” that take charge. They are interested in making money rather than aesthetics and beauty. When it’s only about money, you can’t resurrect a brand,” Amy noted.
Ms. Fine Collins opined that in Europe, revered designer labels become like religions. There is a culture of continuing family brands (Gucci, Hermes, Chanel, etc.). Continuity is not built into the business model in the U.S. Of course, Amy also observed, “Claire McCardell, James Galanos, Norman Norell, Halston, and Bonnie Cashin are Gods to certain people. Certainly, Geoffrey Beene is a God. But, it’s to a smaller inner circle. Not that you can’t take that inner circle and build it out and make it something wider and with greater appeal. But, nobody has done that, and that is the question. Why hasn’t that been done?” Precisely! That is what I would like to know!
“When it’s only about money, you can’t resurrect a brand” – Amy Fine Collins
Nobody needs new clothes, especially now, but there will always be a market for unique, beautifully made designs. Short of resurrecting the label, why not produce a capsule collection derived from the Beene archives? Start by introducing 5 or 6 styles online and see where it goes from there? The way Jeffrey Banks sees it, all you need is a company willing to pay a royalty for the archives, patterns, and name that can produce in small lots and is not required to make a significant capital investment.
It could be a phenomenal business! Why not do the same with Stephen Burrows, Stephen Sprouse, Halston, Blass, Bonnie Cashin, Norell, and Galanos? It would be an excellent way of building recognition for revered American labels.