Fifteen years after his death, Geoffrey Beene’s influence can still be seen in fashion.
The independent thinker had a reputation for being an outlier in the fashion world, despite winning eight Coty awards — more than any other designer. His reputation for exquisite tailoring stemmed from his understanding of the human body. As a medical student, Beene’s career path was rerouted after seeing a Life magazine cover of Christian Dior’s New Look and determining that fashion was more enthralling than medicine.
After attending the Traphagen School of Fashion and the École de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, Beene had a stint at Molyneux before returning to New York in 1949. During his studies in Paris, he met Dior, followed the designer’s work and studied his designs. After exploring a Dior exhibition at the Louvre multiple times, Beene realized that Dior “only designed from the waistband up. Below the waist, he was lost. It never moved. It was simply implied.” So Beene decided that he would design for the entire body, he said in 2000. “The body beautiful is a constant. You can never get away from it and that’s what I design for,” Beene said at that time.
On Seventh Avenue, he paid his dues at Harmay and then Teal Traina before venturing out on his own. Beene was among the first to take the sportif seriously, using sweatshirt materials and denim for eveningwear and reimagining a football jersey as a silk and sequined dress in the Sixties. Beene spoke of its origins in 2000, “One day I was walking up 47th Street, and I saw a football jersey, thought it was great and thought, ‘Why should it stay on the football field? So I went into the store, bought it and copied it.”
Soon designers and devotees will be able to get a closer look at Beene’s work when Hindman Auctions sells property from the Geoffrey Beene Archive on Nov. 20 in Chicago. Beene oversaw his archives — garments, accessories, illustrations, photographs, business records and other belongings — during his lifetime. After the designer’s death in 2004 and multiple attempts to restart the label, the Geoffrey Beene Foundation and Memorial Sloan Kettering have teamed up for the sale, according to Hindman Auctions specialist Timothy Long. The 250 lots span the early Sixties up until Beene’s last collection in 2004. Approximately 400 garments will be sold — essentially all of the clothing from what was Beene’s personal archives, Long said. Hindman Auctions expects the sale to tally between $200,000 and $300,000 with all net proceeds from the sale benefiting the Geoffrey Beene Cancer Research Center at Memorial Sloan Kettering. In 2006, Beene’s estate initially donated $44 million for the creation of the cancer research facility.
Long said he was most surprised by the way that the fashion press wrote about Beene from the time when he first started. “I think he sat slightly outside of fashion in terms of where his business was, his presentation style and his design aesthetic. He really was someone who marched to his own drummer so to speak. I found that really refreshing and exciting,” Long said. “It was just really exciting opportunity to look at a designer’s work from inside the designer’s archives to see what a designer keeps of their own work — amongst all of the pieces that they produce.”
Lots will include pieces that predate Beene launching his label in 1963 such as designs from his days at Harmay and Teal Traina. A sleeveless top from Beene’s first collection that was featured on a Vogue cover will go under the gavel, as well as creations from his secondary lines Beene Bazaar and Beene Bag. There are also pieces from a 1976 collection that was shown in Milan — a first for an American designer. Historians or accountants may be drawn to the business records that detail pricing and manufacturing. There are also fabric samples from the house of Lesage.
Having worked as a curator at the Museum of London and Chicago History Museum, Long wanted to tell a more narrative story using some of the photographs and illustrations — some by former Geoffrey Beene employees Issey Miyake and Michael Vollbracht. ”It was a real joy to go through and see if we could do more than just sell some Geoffrey Beene clothing. With my curatorial background, I really wanted to tell his biography through the items selected.”
Estimates vary with 1976 sequined tops at $2,000 to $3,000, a 1988 embroidered dress and bolero at $1,200 to $1,600 and three 1992 dresses at $2,000 to $3,000. Long is banking on “beautifully embroidered pieces” from the Eighties, as well as garments from Alber Ebaz’s years (the late Nineties until the early 2000s) at Geoffrey Beene and Miyake’s illustrations to attract attention. The upcoming sale will represent part of the archives with the foundation holding on to 10,000-plus illustrations, business records and other items.
Since the Geoffrey Beene Cancer Research Center at Memorial Sloan Kettering was established in 2006, 130 research projects have been funded through the $175 million given by the Geoffrey Beene Foundation and Geoffrey Beene LLC.