Sixties-era mono-kini designer and political provocateur Rudi Gernreich will be the subject of the first fashion exhibition organized by the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, an educational institution open since 1996 that is dedicated to sustaining Jewish heritage and democratic ideas.
“Fearless Fashion: Rudi Gernreich” will run May 9 to Sept. 1, with more than 60 ensembles by the late L.A. designer, a Viennese-born Jewish refugee who was ahead of his time in more ways than one. Starting as a dancer for the Lester Horton Dance Theatre, and later becoming a founding member of gay rights organization the Mattachine Society, he was also a fashion pioneer in body-freeing, feminist-leaning sportswear, transparent clothing and unisex style.
“There is no better time than now to tell this story because of Rudi Gernreich’s emphasis on inclusion, diversity and freedom,” exhibition curator Bethany Montagano told WWD. “This is not a retrospective, it’s about how he used fashion as a vehicle for social change.”
“At the opening of the show, we have a really wonderful loan from the University of North Texas, a topless bathing suit donated by Rudi himself with a bandeau that has the word ‘censored’ written across it,” said curatorial assistant Dani Killam, adding that there are also pieces from the designer’s 1971 military-inspired collection, created in reaction to the Vietnam War and presented on models toting guns just weeks after the Kent State University shooting; pantsuits designed to be worn by men and women, and bathing suits and undergarments marketed with the tag line “Rudi sets you free.” Adding back story are oral histories from models who worked with Gernreich.
Coming mostly from L.A. lenders, including collections at the L.A. County Museum of Art, the University of Southern California and Gernreich’s own archives at UCLA, the exhibition was compiled with the help of creative adviser Humberto Leon of Opening Ceremony and Kenzo, whom Montagano explained is “endlessly” inspired by the designer. Exhibition pieces will be featured on custom mannequins in kinetic poses, paying homage to Gernreich model and muse Peggy Moffitt. (Vintage dealer Cameron Silver staged an exhibition about their creative collaboration in 2012 at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art.)
Focusing on the designer’s heyday in the Sixties and Seventies, the Skirball show will be organized thematically, putting the designer’s work in historical context of the tumultuous times then and now. (In 2018, the Rudi Gernreich fashion label was relaunched, with knitwear and swimwear offerings, by chief executive officer Matthias Kind, who has a background in the arts and entertainment.)
“Taking the bra and boning out of the bathing suit, and cutting away until he got to the mono-kini was about allowing women to swim unfettered, but it was also about body positivity,” Montagano said of Gernreich’s most controversial design, which was actually banned by Pope Paul VI. “We are taking a chance to stop and reflect on these revolutionary moments in fashion that hit on the beat of freedom.”