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Beene: Design for Masses

NEW YORK — Not one to mince words, Geoffrey Beene and a few friends, who also like to turn the tables, managed to take the woodenness out of a potentially yawn-inducing panel discussion Tuesday morning.<br><br>True to form, the architecturally...

NEW YORK — Not one to mince words, Geoffrey Beene and a few friends, who also like to turn the tables, managed to take the woodenness out of a potentially yawn-inducing panel discussion Tuesday morning.

This story first appeared in the October 31, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

True to form, the architecturally inclined designer, the recipient of this year’s American Original National Design Award, did not dwell on his accolades, even though the breakfast at the New York Athletic Club was billed as a reflection on his career. Grace Mirabella, Paper magazine’s Kim Hastreiter and Marylou Luther of the International Fashion Syndicate kept him in check, peppering him for his views on runway shows, uniforms, mass-market stores and licensing, and offering some of their own.

When a malfunctioning microphone failed to relay Beene’s opening remarks, Mirabella set the wisecracking tone: “Nobody won the mechanical award.”

“They’re really here to grill me to see if I’m up for the award,” Beene replied in his raspy southern drawl.

Truth be told, his own “moment of fashion truth” transpired at the White House this summer. After passing through security checkpoints and being shuffled from one room to the next, Beene was glad to pick up his National Design Award from First Lady Laura Bush. Despite knowing some shortcuts at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue from his days of dressing Lady Bird Johnson and her daughters, he said he was “so relieved to see the iron gates beyond the Rose Garden open. I thought, ‘Christ, look, we’ll be free.’”

But when a Marine on guard asked if he was Geoffrey Beene, the possibility of an arrest crossed his mind. After Beene confirmed his identity “meekly,” the guard piped up, “Oh boy, do I love them shirts!”

Beene urged attendees to design for the masses, something he did in the Seventies with Beene Bag, his secondary line that routinely borrowed silhouettes from his couture line. Panelists agreed that the modern woman needs a uniform, Beene replied: “Women today do have uniforms — T-shirts and blue jeans. Most women have given up skirts in favor of pants. I miss legs, for one thing.”

“Years ago on Seventh Avenue, there was talent at every price point. At this time, there’s not,” Mirabella said. “Lower prices seem to get you no design talent. But unfortunately, a higher price doesn’t necessarily get you good talent.”

Hastreiter applauded Stephen Sprouse and Todd Oldham for diving into design for Target, and noted how they had helped strengthen the retailer’s image. Oldham has even designed a boat that will be docked at Chelsea Piers next month to shuttle New Yorkers across the Hudson so they can shop at Target in New Jersey.

Beene wondered why more designers aren’t working with contemporary artists, as was the case when Schiaparelli had Salvador Dali design a fragrance bottle. For his part, Beene broke away from the doldrums of runway shows and enlisted the help of ballerinas from the American Ballet Theater to model his clothes in a $250,000 affair at the Equitable Building.

“Models walk more like they’re horses. The test of a good model is she must look like the clothes she’s wearing belong to her,” he said. “That stopped with the supermodels who were selling themselves, not the clothes. That’s when I withdrew.”

Mirabella added that fashion shows are hype to present the labels to licensees. “Whenever you see a handbag, you think, ‘They must have a new license.’”

Hastreiter recalled how one of her columnists, Mickey Boardman, captured designer licensing fever upon meeting Pierre Cardin and her for lunch this summer. “He said, ‘Oh Mr. Cardin, I just love your clock radios.’ That kind of says it all,” she said.