NEW YORK — Bonnie August, whose stretch dancewear and wraparound skirts were among the first activewear looks to become adopted as mainstream fashion trends during the disco era, died on Saturday night at her Manhattan home after a long battle...
NEW YORK — Bonnie August, whose stretch dancewear and wraparound skirts were among the first activewear looks to become adopted as mainstream fashion trends during the disco era, died on Saturday night at her Manhattan home after a long battle with breast cancer. She was 56.
August, often in layers of fleece, with anklet socks under high-heel shoes and a flame of red hair, was a popular fixture within the garment industry and became known to the general public when the popularization of leotards as street wear made her a star in the Seventies and Eighties. She was heavily involved in fund-raising activities with the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the Fashion Group International and was familiar to many designers for always trying to get them out to go dancing or play tennis, being herself the personification of her active designs.
“She lived life to the fullest,” said Marylou Luther, editor of the International Fashion Syndicate, who recalled that when she worked for the Los Angeles Times, August called her during a visit because she couldn’t get onto any public tennis courts and needed an introduction to a local with a court. So Luther called Edith Head, the Hollywood costume designer, who let August use hers.
“She had a wonderful way of getting the most out of life,” Luther said. “She really experienced so many wonderful things.”
Fern Mallis, executive director of 7th on Sixth and a former executive of the Council of Fashion Directors of America, which inducted August as a member in 1986, recently said that August often invited her to the annual “Dancing at Lincoln Center” benefit and likened her spirit and style to that of cartwheeling designer Betsey Johnson, who publicly acknowledged her battle with breast cancer a few years ago.
“Bonnie was one of the designers I looked up to when I started my career,” Mallis said. “She’s a very clever and creative designer.”
A native of River Edge, N.J., August studied fabric design at Syracuse University, and landed a guest fashion editor spot at Mademoiselle after graduation, an experience that led her to try several different areas of design and to continue her education throughout her career. She later attended the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she studied knitwear designer, Parsons School of Design for computer graphics and the Craft Students League and Haystack School of Arts and Crafts for jewelry design, Luther said.In 1975, she became design director of Danskin Inc., where she was an early proponent of using Lycra spandex and developed fabrics and styles that became the defining look of the disco movement, which caught on so quickly that three years later, August was recognized with a Coty Award for fashion design excellence. In 1979, People carried a feature on the designer with the headline, “Danskin Designer Bonnie August Has Got Almost Everybody Going Around in Next to Nothing.”
But her collections were popular even in middle America not only because of the disco appeal, but also because August considered women’s natural shapes in her designs, and struggled to make them look thin — as the nation was just at the beginning of a fitness obsession driven by Jane Fonda’s aerobicizing and Olivia Newton John performing “Let’s Get Physical.”
In 1981, August published a book of 1,000 of her diagrams and sketches with Rawson, Wade called “The Complete Bonnie August Dress Thin System,” which Luther said illustrated August’s belief that fashion should complement real women’s bodies. August also once published a list of 57 shopping tips to “dress thin.” Among her suggestions were to “use the three-way mirror all three ways: check for bulges in profile and rear view,” “think twice [at least] before buying any kind of hairy or pile fabric — terry, velour, poodlecloth, mohair, etc. will add five pounds or more” and to use her “squint trick,” which is to look in a mirror while squinting to the point that only the general outlines of the silhouette are visible, making it easier to detect unpleasant bulges.
She left Danskin in 1984 to form her own company as a division of activewear licensee Jacques Moret Inc. called Bonnie August Activewear and Bodywear, where she was president and designer until 1993. Since then, she has been president and designer of Bonnie August Design Studio, a laboratory for fashion products ranging from outerwear to hosiery and graphic T-shirts. Through those companies, August introduced a range of activewear products, one of the first designer branded labels in that arena, for gymwear, bodywear, stretch sportswear and socks sold around the country at major department stores.Her collections have been displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum at FIT and the Rock ’n’ Roll Museum in Seattle, and some of her works are currently on display at the Experience Music Project in Seattle for a show called “Disco: A Decade of Saturday Nights.”
August was also active in encouraging designers to become involved in charities. She was a founding member of the CFDA’s scholarship committee and worked on FGI’s breast cancer fund-raising efforts. She was also a featured contributor to Fashion Targets Breast Cancer at Saks Fifth Avenue, and a volunteer at SHARE, the women’s cancer support organization, Luther said. Three years ago, she launched an e-commerce site that contributed 10 percent of sales to a number of charities devoted to cancer research and patient support services.
August, whose 1981 marriage to artist Carl Van Brunt ended in divorce, is survived by a son, Bryan Van Brunt; her father, Ralph August; a sister, Marilyn August; and a stepson, Nicholas Van Brunt.
Services are scheduled at 11:45 a.m. today at the Greenwich Village Funeral Home, 199 Bleecker Street.
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