Born: Haynesville, Louisiana, 30 August 1927. Education: Studied medicine, Tulane University, New Orleans, 1943-46, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, 1946; studied fashion, Traphagen School, New York, 1947-48, Chambre Syndicale d'Haute Couture and Académie Julien, Paris, 1948. Career: Display assistant, I. Magnin, Los Angeles, 1946; apprentice tailor, Molyneux, 1948-50; assistant to Mildred O'Quinn, Samuel Winston, Harmay, and other New York fashion houses, 1950-51; assistant designer, Harmony
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"Among the fashion cognoscenti, [Geoffrey] Beene has long been acknowledged as an artist who chooses to work in cloth," reported Carrie Donovan in the New York Times in May 1993. "Every season his work astounds as he ingeniously shapes the most modern and wearable of clothes." For some, the designation of fashion as art is simply a way of saying "the best," and Geoffrey Beene is certainly one of the best designers of the 20th century and still around in the 21st century. His art resides in certain principles and preoccupations— reversibility, superbly clean cutting, and a fluidity of cloth to body in the manner of Vionnet; an origami-like three-dimensionality that approaches sculpture; a propensity for cubism, piecing the garment from regular forms in a new tangency and relationship one to another; and a modernist indulgence in the medium, relishing the textiles of both tradition and of advanced technology.
Such abiding elements of art in his work do not mitigate other elements. History may be seized, as in a remarkable Confederate dress inspired by the gray uniform of the Southern army in the American Civil War. Sensuous appreciation of the body is ever present in Beene's work (he initially went to medical school and always demonstrates his interest in the body and ergonomics). His lace dresses expose the body in underwear—defying gyres of inset lace, a tour de force of the body's exposure and of the security of the wearer in the dress's perfect and stable proportions. He shifts, conceals, and maneuvers the waist as no other designer has since Balenciaga.
Born in the South, Beene's personal style is of utmost charm, and his clothes betray his sense of good taste, though often with gentility's piquant notes. His 1967 long sequined football jersey was sportswear with a new goal in the evening and played with the anomaly of simple style with liquid elegance. Sweatshirt fabric and denim would be carried into eveningwear by Beene, upsetting convention. A brash gentility combined leather and lace; a charming wit provided for circus motifs. In particular, Beene loved the genteel impropriety of stealing from menswear textiles (shirting fabrics and gray flannel) for women's clothing.
The designer has been careful to surprise, rather than shock, the viewer when dressing the female form. He attributes his respect for women to his Southern upbringing and aims for the sensuous rather than the sexy in his creations. Clothing from Beene is made for movement and never restricts or binds the wearer. He uses color well but sparingly and believed too much color overwhelmed the individual.
Beene had a profound affinity with his contemporary Southerner Jasper Johns, who practiced consummate good taste in art but with the startling possibilities of popular-culture appropriations, new dispositions to familiar elements, and a strong sense of modern cultural pastiche. Like Johns, Beene was fascinated by trompe l'oeil and played with illusion. Specific illusions of a tie and collar on a dress were the most obvious, but other wondrous tricks of illusion in clothing were found in three-dimensional patterns replicated in textile and vice versa. His bolero jackets so effectively complemented the simplicity of his dresses that jacket and dress became an indistinguishable ensemble. Even his preoccupation with double-faced fabrics and reversible abstract designs were sophisticated illusionism.
Optically, Beene demands both near-sightedness and far-sightedness. Even before his most fluid forms emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, he had been influenced by op art to create graphically striking apparel. His frequent use of black and white was a treatment that could be read across a room and acted as sign. But one can approach a Beene composition in black and white close up with the same scrutiny of a Frank Stella black painting: there is a fascination up close even more gratifying than the sign from afar. In Beene's case, texture is an important element, and the distant reading of graphic clarity became far more complex when disparate textures were mingled. Like reversibility, the near-far dialectic in Beene was provocative: utter simplicity from a distance became infinite technicality up close. Since the 1990s, Beene has often eschewed the catwalk showing of new collections, preferring to display garments on static dress forms, allowing viewers to examine the garment attentively and immediately, as one might appreciate painting or sculpture.
Contributing to the aura of Beene is his unapologetic individuality. He has never cared to please the critics or celebrities, preferring instead to dress the average person. Beene also dislikes runway shows; in 1993, he replaced his supermodels with dancers, highlighting the fluidity of his designs. In 2000 he announced he would no longer be presenting his clothing via runway shows but would instead look to presentation through film, television, or the Internet.
But despite, or perhaps in part because of Beene's eccentricities, he continues to draw acclaim from those in the fashion world who best know great design. He was one of only four living designers to be included in the initial induction of New York City's Fashion Center Walk of Fame (á la Hollywood's Walk of Fame) in 2000. His plaque reads, "A designer's designer, Geoffrey Beene is one of the most artistic and individual of fashion's creators. He is known for his surgically clean cutting and his fluid use of materials. His designs display a sensuous appreciation of the body and always permit movement. Beene blends masterful construction techniques with seemingly disparate elements, such as whimsically patterned fabrics. The end results are spirited garments, like his famous sequined football jersey evening gown."
Art, to describe Beene's clothing, is not vacuous or striving to compliment. Rather, art recognizes a process and suite of objectives inherent in the work. In a discipline of commercial fulfillment, Beene displays the artist's absolute primacy and self-confidence of design exploration.
updated by CarrieSnyder