Before the coronavirus clamped down in America, New Yorker Patsy Tarr donated her prized collection of Geoffrey Beene to the Phoenix Art Museum. Speaking from quarantine in Miami, Tarr, who’s traded her signature designer duds for ath-leisure these days, said a roof leak at her East Hampton home, where she meticulously stored more than 350 garments in her attic for decades, cinched the decision. Her connection to the southwestern museum dates to 2009, when it exhibited nearly 40 of her most whimsical custom pieces, particularly jumpsuits and boleros, in “Geoffrey Beene: Trapeze.”
“Dennita Sewell, the curator, did such a nice job that I felt I owed her,” Tarr said.
Her level of devotion to a single designer is a rarity in fashion’s current fast-paced cycle. Tarr said it was even atypical in her circles back then. Their relationship began in 1979 when, in her words, “she threw herself upon him,” to concoct a no-nonsense wardrobe that could take her from motherhood duties by day to glamorous philanthropist by night without fully changing. He identified her circumstances as ideal for jumpsuits, which she wore for 20-odd years in every fabric and style, from wool with long sleeves to seersucker halters. Sans collars, these versatile bases were layered with his designs for detachable collars, bibs and bras ornately adorned in velvet, mohair, embroidery and sequins.
“His cleverness helped me a lot, when my husband was busy, I was raising two children, and we were very social. I never had to figure out what to wear,” said Tarr, who never doubted Beene’s taste. “No one else’s opinion mattered, and in my heart, I always felt like the best-dressed person in the room.”
Though she and Beene never socialized, she gained enough insight and personal anecdotes to have published and coauthored the book “Geoffrey Beene: A Design Tribute.” His witty take on Madame Grès — a gray gown — for her to wear to the Met Gala is a well-known chestnut, so she shared another memory. Three decades after Beene had made U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson’s daughter’s wedding dress in 1967, he designed a wedding dress for Tarr’s daughter. They didn’t want to pester him but hadn’t heard a peep with the date fast-approaching. He couldn’t figure out how to cut a rose-patterned brocade without separating its blossoms and stems and came up with the solution, a skirt and bra top joined by a lace panel, at the 11th hour.
Tarr also commissioned several gowns from him during the height of Eighties-era galas. Many were inspired by art movements like Impressionism and Cubism with long-sleeved bodices as canvases and allover sequins as paint. The gowns’ full skirts in silk gazar picked up elements of the same print.
“He wasn’t thinking about the year’s color or type of sleeve but referencing art,’’ said Tarr, who always regarded them as more than fashion. “It didn’t feel like I was getting rid of clothes but donating my private art collection.”