NEW YORK — Donald Brooks, who helped create the “American Look” in fashion in the Fifties and Sixties along with deisgners such as Bill Blass and Geoffrey Beene, died Monday night at Stony Brook University Hospital. He was 77.
Brooks suffered a heart attack last month and had been hospitalized since then at the hospital in Long Island, N.Y., said his friend, Gerald Blum, former executive vice president of Lord & Taylor.
“He was known for being truly American,” Blum said. “Everything was truly of his thinking..very easy, simple designs that have stood up to the test of time.”
Of American fashion’s famous three ‘B’s, Brooks wasn’t as recognized for his impact on the fashion world, even though he was a powerhouse, running his own Seventh Avenue ready-to-wear business, also designing swimwear, lingerie, rainwear, furs, wigs, home furnishings and men’s wear.
In October 2003, Parsons School of Design in Manhattan, his alma mater, moved to rectify that omission with proper acknowledgement of “an unsung hero of American fashion.”
The exhibit, “Donald Brooks: Designer For All Seasons,” paid tribute to Brooks’ impact during that Hollywood moment of fashion at the cusp of the Sixties, when designers were making their way out of backrooms to be celebrated in their own right, designing glamorous 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 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 designed for Broadway and Hollywood productions.
Brooks designed under his own label from 1965 to 1973, the period around which the exhibit was largely centered. One gallery was 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 was 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.
In one of the legendary stories of the evolution of American fashion, Brooks, Blass, Beene, Oscar de la Renta and Pauline Trigère were called to the office Adam Gimbel at Saks Fifth Avenue in 1966 and were told that for the first time, the store would carry their collections under their own signature labels.
Jeanne Eddy, a retired buyer who studied under Shaver and had been recruited by Gimbel to establish the store’s Park Avenue Room, recalled at the time of the exhibit 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 was what I called the middle of my yardstick. 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 Broadway production of “No Strings” with Diahann Carroll, for which he won a New York Drama Critics’ Awards. 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.
Brooks dressed celebrities and well-known figures such as Mrs. Kennedy, Claudette Colbert and Faye Dunaway. He was also a contemporary of designers James Galanos, Norman Norell, Ceil Chapman, Adele Simpson, Charles James, John Weitz, Bill Atkinson, Shannon Rodgers, Patrick Porter and Herbert Kasper.
For more, see tomorrow’s WWD.