NEW YORK — Geoffrey Beene, the mercurial designer who was committed to elevating the standards of American design, died at his home in Manhattan on Tuesday morning. He was 77.
The cause of death was complications from pneumonia, according to Helen O’Hagan, a longtime friend and the former vice president of corporate public relations at Saks Fifth Avenue.
Few designers will be remembered for their originality and impact on American fashion as much as Beene, whose oeuvre ranged from timeless, minimalist designs that rivaled the Eiffel Tower in their architectural complexity to the playful examples of a designer’s folly, like his famous football jersey dresses stitched of colorful sequins. Nor will many be remembered quite so much for their temperamental nature, which in Beene’s case led to some of the fashion industry’s most colorful memories, including his longstanding feud with this newspaper.
Beene, a native of Haynesville, La., began his career on Seventh Avenue in the Fifties along other American greats like Donald Brooks and Bill Blass — together known as the three Bs of American fashion. He was a proud figure in the battle for designers to make their way out of the backrooms and onto the labels of the clothes they designed. He was so zealous in the campaign to elevate the status of the American designer to the level of the French couturier that he often came across as a contrarian to those who worked with him and, conversely, a hero to those who admired fashion as art.
“The beauty and the difficulty of Geoffrey Beene is that he set such a high standard for quality, for exploration, for technical precision, that he ruined you for other designers,” said Laura Jacobs, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, who wrote a book with Beene called “Beauty and the Beene.”
He rejected the conventions and commercialism of Seventh Avenue in a career that lasted more than five decades, refusing to compromise his vision or alter his designs to make them more “salable.” Beene wanted to always move his collections forward with new fabrics and techniques and loathed the idea of reprising the bestsellers of a previous season.
“He took from no one but his own head,” said O’Hagan.
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