NEW YORK — Of American fashion’s famous three ‘B’s, Donald Brooks is probably the least appreciated of the bunch.
Geoffrey Beene and Bill Blass have long been celebrated for their roles in Seventh Avenue history, while Brooks held an equally visible position in the Fifties and Sixties with his dramatic ready-to-wear collections and his designs for theater and cinema, though his work has been far less frequently referenced. A new exhibit that opened Wednesday at the Parsons School of Design in Manhattan is attempting to rectify that omission with proper acknowledgement of “an unsung hero of American fashion.”
As evidenced by the collection, Brooks clearly made an impact during that Hollywood moment of fashion at the cusp of the Sixties, when designers were making their way out of back rooms to be celebrated in their own right, designing glamourous starlet dresses and matching coats in crepe de chine and heavy black wool.
Brooks had come out of Parsons in the late Forties, worked for Lord & Taylor doing window displays and then took over for Claire McCardell designing Townley Frocks in 1958. He was a client of Eleanor Lambert’s and among the founding members of the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 1962, becoming a popular figure who won three Coty Awards in that decade and designing for Broadway and Hollywood productions.
Brooks designed his own label from 1965 to 1973, the period around which the exhibit is largely centered. Although his allegiance to the stage over Seventh Avenue may be why he was eventually osctracized from the fashion set.
One gallery is dedicated to his eveningwear — a black dress made of tiers of wool crepe, a halter dress trimmed with braids of gold thread, a gunmetal ballgown skirt with sparkling beaded shell and a toga of thick black and white stripes that Cher once modeled in a Richard Avedon shoot for Vogue.
Brooks’ skill in fabric design is also evident in a Navajo-print gown and scarf from 1970 or a 1965 example of crepe de chine pajamas that appear to feature an illustration of white clouds on a blue sky from a distance, but up close reveals a print of chickens with beaks and pointy feet.
“He was known for being truly American,” said Gerald Blum, a former executive vice president and director of marketing and sales promotion for L&T, where Brooks had been discovered by the legendary Dorothy Shaver. Blum remains a close friend of the designer, who was unable to attend Wednesday’s opening because of a recent injury.“He never took things from other people,” Blum said. “Everything you see came out of Donald’s head. Everything was truly of his thinking and you can see that so many people had kept his clothing because they are very easy, simple designs that have stood up to the test of time.”
In 1966, Brooks, Blass, Beene, Oscar de la Renta and Pauline Trigère were called to the office of Adam Gimbel at Saks Fifth Avenue and told that for the first time, the store would carry their collections under their own signature labels in its Park Avenue room.
Jeanne Eddy, a retired buyer who studied under Shaver and had been recruited by Gimbel to establish the department, recalled that Brooks was one of the most important resources for the retailer. She rattled off the names of Vanderbilts and Auchinclosses, women who regularly dressed in Brooks’ designs, and described perfectly a dress worn by Jackie Kennedy on a trip to Italy: a three-tone silk and linen dress in shocking pink, aquamarine and a “purply blue.”
“It was a smashing dress,” Eddy said. “Donald’s feeling about clothes is that the woman should be most prominent. He felt that style is always more important than fashion, per se. He was what I called the middle of my yard stick. There was someone at the bottom with dumb dresses and there was Rudi Gernreich at the top with his over-the-top designs that were very avant-garde. Donald was always in the middle. He was a designer for all seasons.”
Brooks’ talent was widely acknowledged for his work on the 1963 production of “No Strings” with Diahann Carroll, for which he won a New York Drama Critics’ Award. He also designed costumes for performances of “Barefoot in the Park,” “Fade In Fade Out” with Carol Burnett and “Flora, the Red Menace” with Liza Minnelli. He was nominated for three Academy Awards for “The Cardinal” in 1963, “Star” in 1968 and “Darling Lili” in 1970. He won an Emmy for the 1982 TV film, “The Letter,” with Lee Remick.
Marvin Traub, the former chairman of Bloomingdale’s, and designers including Jeffrey Banks, Mary Ann Restivo and Monika Tilley made their way through the galleries at the exhibition, each evoking a different impression of Brooks. Kathleen Maggio, its curator, wore a simple black dress Brooks designed with a gold DB belt.“It really defines a period in fashion so inherently,” Yeohlee said. “I love what he does, especially the vegetables.”
The “vegetables” were actually a senior class project at Parsons in 1993, as Brooks remains actively involved at the school and served as a critic for many years. One of his assignments was for a class to create gowns inspired by vegetables such as peas, cabbage, artichokes and string beans, the sketches from which fill one gallery, conceived by students whose names mean something today — Margie Tsai, Fiona Walker and Bruce’s Daphne Gutierrez.
“When I was at Parsons, he was my critic,” said Jeff Mahshie, the Chaiken designer. “I’ll never forget going to his town house on 79th Street, where he had the entire facade taken off so that he could install four long panels of seamless black glass that he built into his dining room. I don’t think people know how long he truly worked. He’s not studied as much as he should be.”
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