NEW YORK — Donald Brooks, who helped create the “American Look” in fashion in the Fifties and Sixties along with designers such as Bill Blass and Geoffrey Beene, and then became a costume designer for theater and film, died Monday night at Stony Brook University Hospital in Stony Brook, N.Y. He was 77.
Brooks had been hospitalized after suffering a heart attack last month while vacationing in the Hamptons, said Gerald Blum, a close friend of the designer and a former executive vice president and director of marketing and sales promotion for Lord & Taylor. He lived in Manhattan.
“I adored him….He was such a genius,” Isaac Mizrahi said. “He was so inventive about color and all of that smart wit. He did all those great movies. About a month ago, I bought a little green chiffon dress of his from about 1968. I was thinking, ‘I can’t wait to run into him to tell him that I bought a dress from him.'”
Among American fashion’s famous three Bs, Brooks wasn’t as recognized for his impact, even though he ran his own Seventh Avenue ready-to-wear business, as well as 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 the situation 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 back rooms to be celebrated in their own right, designing glamorous starlet dresses and matching coats in crepe de chine and heavy black wool.
Brooks dressed celebrities such as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Claudette Colbert, Sharon Tate, Faye Dunaway, Ethel Merman and Carol Channing. He was 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.
Brooks, who was born in New Haven, Conn., had come out of Parsons in the late Forties. He worked for Lord & Taylor doing window displays and then took over for Claire McCardell designing Townley Frocks in 1958. He was a client of public relations pioneer Eleanor Lambert and 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.
He won a New York Drama Critics’ Award for the costumes in the 1963 production of “No Strings,” starring Diahann Carroll. He also designed costumes for Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park,” “Fade In Fade Out” with Carol Burnett and “Flora, the Red Menace” starring 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 designed under his own label from 1965 to 1973, the period around which the 2003 Parsons 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 a 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 and 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 reveal a print of chickens with beaks and pointy feet.
“Donald was one of the first group of American designers who truly was an American designer,” Blum said. “His feeling for design was a very personal one, always in the way he thought women should look. He really was so specific in a sense that anyone who was aware of fashion could pick out a Donald dress or suit.
“He was a very good-natured, sincere kind of person who always made himself available to other people,” Blum said. “He had very strong beliefs on architecture and decorating and anything else that his eye saw.”
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 of 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.
“He was the most talented of all of us, particularly in costume design,” Mary McFadden said.
When presented with the proposal for the Parsons exhibition, curator Kathleen Maggio said Brooks immediately wrote a list of all the women who had his clothes in their closets. All of the pieces that were displayed were personal loans.
“Even though they maybe couldn’t fit into them anymore, they couldn’t bear to part with them,” she said. “But the thing that impressed me most was that he was an all-around artist. He was not just a fashion designer. He was an artist, an art historian, a costume designer and an interior decorator. Some of the prints he designed are on the walls of his apartment and in his beautiful Long Island home.”
Oleg Cassini said Pat Lawford and Julie Andrews were among Brooks’ loyal fans.
“Those girls were very strong in their belief in him,” Cassini said. “He was popular, he was a good designer, he was well-liked and he circulated with the top echelon of society.”
Adolfo said Brooks was affable as ever when they would run into each other every once in while at a Midtown Irish pub. The pair first met in 1959, when Adolfo was still an aspiring designer working as Bergdorf Goodman’s in-house milliner. Adolfo made hats for his collection. Brooks would stop by Bergdorf’s fourth-floor hat salon and favored Chinese coolie hats “that looked right with his clothes.” Adolfo said.
“I admired him very much and think he had great style,” Adolfo said. “He had a very appealing way of making clothes. They were sleek, chic American clothes. Now everyone wants to make clothes that are so exciting and exaggerated. That may be good for photographs, but wearing those designs is not as successful.”
Russell Nardozza, chief operating officer of Geoffrey Beene, noted that Brooks’ collection was produced under the Geoffrey Beene Inc. umbrella for several years in the Sixties. The two designers shared a certain sensibility, along with the third B: Bill Blass.
“They all went to a similar school of thought and had great interest in American fashion, whether their education was in America or in Europe, as Mr. Beene’s was, but they all took different roads in their design,” Nardozza said.
Stan Herman had lunch with Brooks and Blum on Long Island three weeks ago, and they discussed the future of Brooks’ extensive fashion archive, which spans 50 years of design. “Donald had his own style, his own way of maneuvering prints into clothing,” Herman said. “The construction of his clothing was pristine, very accurate and he had a palette that was very much his own. He loved neutrals.”
A longtime Brooks customer and friend, Skitch Henderson’s wife, Ruth, said that several friends on Monday were admiring the 1967 Life magazine shot of her in Donald Brooks’ yellow and beige walking shorts and a coat. “He is the only designer where I purchased three or four of his pieces at every show. I was happiest all my life in his clothes.”
She provided some of the designs for the 2003 exhibition, which was viewed by insiders such as Marvin Traub, former chairman of Bloomingdale’s, and designers such as Jeffrey Banks, Mary Ann Restivo, Yeohlee and Tilley. Maggio, the curator, wore a simple black dress Brooks designed with a gold DB belt.
Tilley said Tuesday, “He was one of the leaders who started the recognition of American fashion worldwide.”
“It really defines a period in fashion so inherently,” Yeohlee said at the 2003 exhibition. “I love what he does, especially the vegetables.”
The “vegetables” were actually a senior class project at Parsons in 1993, as Brooks remained actively involved at the school and served as a critic for many years. One of his assignments was for a class to create gowns inspired by vegetables such as peas, cabbage, artichokes and string beans. The resulting sketches filled one gallery, conceived by students — Margie Tsai, Fiona Walker and Bruce’s Daphne Gutierrez — who went on to careers on Seventh Avenue.
“When I was at Parsons, he was my critic,” Jeff Mahshie, the Chaiken designer, recalled in 2003. “I’ll never forget going to his town house on 79th Street, where he had the entire facade taken off so that he could install four long panels of seamless black glass that he built into his dining room. I don’t think people know how long he truly worked. He’s not studied as much as he should be.”
In a 1971 interview with WWD, Brooks said, “Not only do I think Seventh Avenue will survive, I think it will flourish. But only in cases where manufacturers and designers are able to swing with new clothes, with young clothes, with sensible merchandising plans and with a clarity of their own point of view.”
Brooks is survived by his sister, Kay Blick.
A memorial service is expected to be held next month in Manhattan.