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.
Beene remained a force of his own, in recent years trying out different formats of presentations in the similar exploratory manner in which he approached design — his goal was to make clothes as weightless as possible as he experimented with seams and inserts.
“What I’m trying to do are clothes that look effortless without any degree of calculation — on the part of the wearer — but plenty of calculation on my part,” he said in WWD in 1964.
In many ways, he was the ultimate designer’s designer.
“He was a true spirit,” said Richard Lambertson who, with his partner John Truex, designs Lambertson Truex, the luxury accessories and handbag line. Lambertson worked for Beene in the Eighties until he went to work for Gucci in 1990, and maintained a friendship with the designer.
“He really just believed in design,” Lambertson said. “He didn’t play the game. He didn’t do the social thing, which he probably should have done. He had his issues with the fashion world, but he really loved fashion and loved strong women. He wanted to make their lives and the world more beautiful.”
Beene was shy and private, as hard on himself as he was on his friends. “He was so peculiar about certain things,” said Lambertson, recalling the lists Beene kept of people he would speak to and people he would not speak to. “He was an absolute genius and with that came a personality that was unrivaled. He was quite a mentor to me.”
Despite his frequent reticence to be quoted, Beene was one of the most articulate spokespersons for fashion and a defender of creativity in the field, as well as a constant supporter of young designers whom he championed early on in their careers. The designers he mentored included Alber Elbaz, Issey Miyake, William Calvert and Bill Blass designer Michael Vollbracht.
“He was great at taking young designers under his wing if he liked them,” said Ellin Saltzman, who worked with Beene when she was fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman.
With his delicate drawl and boyish face, from outward appearances he cut the figure of a Southern gentleman, but as Harold Koda, curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said, “He didn’t suffer fools. If he felt someone did something that was not appropriate, then they simply weren’t in his world anymore.”
Beene often referred to his youth in Louisiana and the pressures he faced to pursue a career in medicine. As the grandson and nephew of doctors, he was enrolled in pre-med studies at Tulane University in New Orleans, but after three years, he decided the field was not for him. Yet his mastery of the human form was proficient enough to have practical applications in his future career.
“Cadavers were the moment of truth,” Beene once said.
He moved to California and began working in window display at the former I. Magnin department store in Los Angeles, a job he enjoyed enough to take up the study of fashion at the Traphagen School of Fashion in New York and then the L’Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale in Paris, where he apprenticed with a local tailor. When he returned to the U.S. in 1950, Beene settled in New York and took up several jobs on Seventh Avenue, which was then in the midst of a bustling expansion after World War II. One of his first jobs was for Teal Traina, a young entrepreneur who had joined his uncle’s ready-to-wear business, where Beene worked from 1954 to 1963.
When he left to start his own line in 1963 for A. Fetterman Ltd., Beene had already established several of the looks that would become signatures of his work — the architectural construction and elaborate seams, graphic black-and-white motifs, clinging silhouettes cut on the bias and a certain playfulness in his personality that he expressed with offbeat designs such as a sportsman’s argyle sweater that was recut into an evening gown of sparkling paillettes, which sold hundreds of units at Altman’s in 1960.
Beene left Traina and joined Fetterman for a reason that became another hallmark of his career: his thirst for absolute creative freedom, answering to no one. Abe Fetterman, a Seventh Avenue production pro, handled all the business matters, while Beene focused on design.
“Up ’til now, it’s been the manufacturer’s image, with limitations and restrictions imposed on the designer,” Beene said in a WWD article at the time. Asked what it meant to him, he said, “Greater freedom, no design limitations whatsoever, no such thing as repeating last season’s best dress — which I loathe.”
Throughout his career, Beene was uncompromising on his positions, resulting in many challenges with other designers. He quibbled with Halston over the originality of his designs one year, then quit the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 1975 in a tiff with the late Eleanor Lambert. He frequently challenged the way magazines published his fashions, claiming he was personally insulted, and when Beene was the only one of four living designers who were inducted into the Fashion Center Walk of Fame on Seventh Avenue in 2000 to show up for a ceremony, he snapped, “I wasn’t just surprised, I was shocked. I think that when anybody is given an award by the industry, that is meaningful and should take precedence over everything else.”
CFDA president Stan Herman knew Beene for more than 40 years and they often crossed paths: “He was a designer who composed his own music and had a very specific arc to his craft. He was a poet who sometimes boxed himself in a corner, but he always found a way out. In a commercial world where designers really have to make sure they meet the numbers to be able to do the next collection, for some reason he was able to sustain his business without worrying about the winds and the trends.”
“The last time I saw him about a year ago was after I said something nice about him in New York magazine. He took me out to lunch to find out why I said something nice about him.”
Then there was the famous feud with this newspaper, which spanned so many years that at many times, none of those involved could remember what started it all. One of the most famous clashes, however, was when Lynda Bird Johnson chose Beene to design her wedding gown in 1967, and the designer refused to give WWD a sketch. Another feud began when Beene declined to see a junior reporter whom WWD had sent up to interview him.
John B. Fairchild, former chairman and editorial director of WWD parent Fairchild Publications, recalled Beene on Tuesday as “a leader of American fashion.”
“He created clothes that weren’t influenced by the rest of the world or outside trends,” Fairchild said. “He was his own man, which is very unusual in fashion. He was a very strong personality. However, I’m not qualified really to say because I’ve never seen a Geoffrey Beene collection because I was never invited. But from the pictures and everything I saw, he was one of America’s great designers, like Norman Norell.”
Beene, when asked about the conflict several years ago, remarked that he was more concerned with his customers’ opinions.
“The press is fickle, but I’m always grateful when they appreciate what I’m doing,” he said. “But as always, the customer will have the last word.”
Some colleagues of Beene felt that the feud badly impacted the designer’s career, as the business was never substantial until he began to pursue licenses in shoes, gloves, eyewear, furniture and men’s shirts, as well as his well-known men’s fragrance, Grey Flannel. The stable of products bearing the designer’s name blossomed into a $100 million business in the early Eighties, one of the biggest branded businesses at the time, but its broad exposure into less-expensive lines ultimately impacted the prestige of his ready to wear, a point of frustration for a designer who wanted strict control over his image.
If he didn’t like the way his clothes were displayed in a window of Saks or Bergdorf’s he would dash off a nasty fax to the window designer saying things such as ‘“I hate the windows” or “Never cross my doorstep again,” according to Saltzman.
Many designers respected Beene all the more for that attitude and his reverence for fashion as an art form. “I met with Geoffrey Beene in Mexico in 1963 when we did a show together,” said Valentino. “After that date I never managed to see him again but I always admired his famous and elaborate special cuts.”
William Calvert, now a designer for a new Perry Ellis outerwear license, said he was surprised to hear from the designer out of the blue when he launched his own label in the Nineties. Beene had seen one of Calvert’s dresses in a Barneys New York window and sent the designer a note, leading to their unlikely friendship.
“He was a big fan of many young designers who were trying to do something a little different,” Calvert said. “People knew him to be demanding and uncompromising and that reads as tough sometimes, but I knew him as a warm and very supportive friend.”
Similarly, Beene has influenced a range of designers around the world, from his contemporaries to young upstarts.
Vollbracht, creative director of Bill Blass, was pulled out of school by Beene to work for him when he was 19 years old.
“I lasted two years for Mr. Beene, and you always called him Mr. Beene,” Vollbracht recalled. “And, boy, did I get spoiled, spoiled for life. My first day I walked over foxes and the most incredible fabrics. He was generous, not in the sense of his personality, but if you watched and took lessons, you learned quite a bit.
“He was not a personal man, and he kept his private life very private. He was not like Bill [Blass], who was a social man. Mr. Beene was an introspective man who had close friends that he kept to.”
Adolfo, a confidant of Blass and Beene who started his career as a milliner, said he would routinely pass by Beene’s Fifth Avenue windows at the store he formerly operated near the Sherry-Netherland to admire the work, recalling the sequined dress that looked like a football jersey and black wool jersey jumpsuits among his favorites.
“I admired him immensely,” Adolfo said. “He was a great designer and technician who impacted fashion all over the U.S. and the world really. His individuality made him totally different than everyone else.”
Mary McFadden said Beene “was the last dressmaker — no one has an atelier like that anymore. It’s a thing of the past. His art was a form of architectural dressmaking.”
Koda agreed. “He was among a handful of designers who understood that to have their work in the context of an art museum is appropriate, and he donated a large number of his personal archive to the museum several years ago. Before many designers were thinking of museums as a context for their art, he had a show at the National Design Museum and he used mannequins that were covered in couture fabrics that were in pattern mixes that played off the dresses and it was transformative.”
Koda said that Beene had a “wildly theatrical flair” reflecting his ongoing interest in the circus. Kim Hastreiter, co-founder of Paper magazine, said Beene liked clowns, color, dancers and “was into the 21st century before it was here” with his interest in new technologies.
While working as an art critic in 1989, the writer Amy Fine Collins, a muse to the designer, said she first became acquainted with Beene’s work when she went to review the National Academy of Design exhibit, which capped his 25th year in business.
“There is so much depth and intelligence and quality to his work, and an understanding of the human anatomy, femininity and material,” she said. “He didn’t care about publicity or society. He cared about inventing and creating and perfecting. He was not in it for the fame, for the money or for social climbing, but he got all that anyway. Sometimes he got more recognition from the art world than the fashion world. In the art world, you don’t need to be an advertiser or a walker to do what you do.”
Beene is survived by his sister, Barbara Ann Wellman. No memorial is planned, but noting his fondness for dachshunds, O’Hagan said that donations can be made to the Animal Medical Center in New York and the ASPCA.