PHOENIX — The man behind the see-through shirt, unisex looks and the notorious topless bathing suit might posthumously have his second coming.
The revolutionary designs of Rudi Gernreich could very well be in production again within the year, announced Peggy Moffitt, the designer’s muse and tireless keeper of his legacy, at the opening Friday night of “Rudi Gernreich, Peggy Moffitt, William Claxton,” a new exhibition running through Sept. 14 at the Phoenix Art Museum spotlighting the trio’s groundbreaking collaboration.
“For 18 years I’ve been trying to get people interested in bringing Rudi’s clothes back,” Moffitt said following a lecture she and photographer-husband Claxton held prior to the gallery viewing. “And for 18 years, everyone told me ‘That’s a genius idea and now’s a perfect time.’ If for 18 years it’s the perfect time, there’s something there that’s eternal. It made me believe in the timelessness of Rudi’s designs. Now, it’s about to happen. I can’t say much more than that.”
Moffitt would confirm the talks, under way in recent weeks, are, indeed, serious. “This is going to happen — in a small way, but in a very prestigious way that I’m comfortable with. I think Rudi could go on and on.”
Asked whether the partners are American, European or Asian, after a coy pause Moffitt replied: “Some or all of the above. It will be a little while before I can announce who these people are.”
Moffitt has long held a trademark on Gernreich’s name, who died in 1985 at the age of 63. In 1991, she and Claxton released the Taschen-published tome, “The Rudi Gernreich Book.”
A reissued collection is an interesting next chapter for the endlessly forward-looking designer who once said: “To desire the past is to negate the present and the future as well.”
But as his most fervent champion, Moffitt remembers well her friend’s disillusionment with the industry, which went on to the next young thing as the Seventies began. “We believed fashion by nature is destroying the past,” she said.
In a year of the revival of the mini, cylinder visors and bold graphic prints, Dennita Sewell, fashion design curator for the museum, said of Moffitt’s plans that she hopes “people today realize how shocking they were at the time, how future-minded they were. Mr. Gernreich’s designs have become so much a part of the modern clothing vocabulary.”
His “No Bra,” a structureless transparent triangle bra that greets visitors to the show, resembles contemporary versions by vendors from The Gap to Calvin Klein.
Sewell, who actively stages four to six fashion exhibitions at the museum each year, said she aimed to showcase the trio’s collaboration, something she believed was lacking in previous showcases of Gernreich or Claxton. (Prior to joining the Phoenix Art Museum three years ago, Sewell managed the Gernreich collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art).
“This is not a retrospective or a comprehensive survey of the clothes or photographs,” she noted. “It presents their interaction together and how special a collaboration can be. Each one is an artist in his or her own right. Together they created something no one person could have done.”
Fourteen Gernreich looks, as well as the Pierre Cardin zip-up suit he wore for the 1967 cover of Time magazine (proclaiming “The mini skirt is here to stay —’til spring, anyway”), are on display, as are 50 Claxton-shot color and black and white portraits of Moffitt, arms, face and body projecting according to the spirit of the clothes.
“If you consider clothes as roles to play, Rudi produced the best goddamn roles for me,” Moffitt told the standing-room-only audience during the lecture, which also ran the award-winning short “Basic Black.” Featuring Moffitt and other Gernreich models and filmed and directed by Claxton, it informed future fashion and music videos.
The pair regaled the crowd with tales, sometimes irreverently recalled. Asked about her muse status, Moffitt even questioned the label. “It seems nowadays, if you walk across the street with a designer, you’re called a muse. I am not a-mused.”