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Beene, Geoffrey

fashion designers award american

B. August 30, 1927

Birthplace: Haynesville, Louisiana

Awards: National Cotton Council Award, 1964, 1969
         Coty American Fashion Critics Award, 1964, 1966, 1968, 1974, 1975, 1977, 1981, 1982
         Neiman Marcus Award, 1965
         Ethel Traphagen Award, 1966
         Council of Fashion Designers of America Award, 1986, 1987, 1989
         Council of Fashion Designers of America, Lifetime Achievement Award, 1988

Geoffrey Beene graduated from high school in Haynesville, Louisiana, when he was sixteen. In 1943 he enrolled in Tulane University to study medicine but soon found himself sketching dress designs in his Gray’s Anatomy text. Realizing that medicine was not his true calling, Beene moved to Los Angeles in 1946, where he enrolled at the University of Southern California and worked as a display assistant at I. Magnin department store. While at I. Magnin, Beene continued sketching his design ideas and was encouraged by the store president to pursue a career in fashion design. In 1947 Beene moved to New York to study fashion at the Traphagen School. One year later, in 1948, he decided to move to Paris to study at the Chambre Syndicale d’Haute Couture and the Academie Julien. In Paris, Beene worked as an apprentice tailor for Molyneux from 1948 to 1950 before moving back to New York. After he returned to New York, Beene worked for a series of fashion companies including Mildred O’Quinn, Samuel Win- ston, and Harmony between 1950 and 1958 before landing a position as a designer at Teal Traina in 1958. Beene remained at Traina until he founded his own house in 1963.

Beene’s first fashion show in 1964 met with critical acclaim. His designs were original, not interpretations of current trends. When other designers in the 1960s were showing “space-age” fashions, Beene was showing sequined football jersey evening dresses. By 1970 Beene’s whimsical, elaborate fashions were applauded by the fashion press and coveted by women; however, a review which appeared in the New Yorker in 1972 changed the entire direction of Beene’s work. According to the New Yorker , Beene was “indulging fancifully in styles that women have never dreamed of simply because they have no earthly use for them” (Cocks, p. 97). This one review made Beene change his entire approach to design; he would now emphasize structure and function, not embellishment, in his designs.

This new approach to design led Beene to explore texture, pattern, and construction. He began to experiment with fabrics that were not typically found in couture fashions. Beene combined fleece, denim, mattress ticking, Hudson Bay blankets, and industrial zippers with lace, satin, and wool for evening wear, suits, and coats. He was also one of the few couture designers to experiment with synthetic fabrics. Beene executes his unusual fabrications into sensuous architectural structures which conceal, reveal, and envelop the body, often creating trompe l’oeil illusions, but always permitting movement.

Many designers rely on bridge lines and licensing agreements to support their couture business financially. Over the course of his career, Beene has attempted to introduce two secondary lines, Mr. Beene and Beene Bag, both of which failed. Beene was not able to translate his unusual fabrications and constructions into lines that could be manufactured inexpensively. However, Beene has been very successful with licensing, especially in menswear. He has licenses with Phillips-VanHeusen for men’s dress shirts; Randa for men’s neckwear; Hampshire Designers, Inc., for sweaters; Lanier for men’s tailored clothing, sports coats, dress slacks, and suits; and Bedford Capital Financial, Inc., for men’s fragrances Grey Flannel and Bowling Green and women’s fragrance Chance. He also has various other licensing agreements for shoes, bags, hosiery, eyeglasses, loungewear, bedding, and towels.

Geoffrey Beene is not like any other American designer. He does not follow fashion trends; in fact, he verbalizes his dislike for designers who create fads and for patrons who follow them. Beene, unlike Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, does not promote a lifestyle image. Beene is the rebel of the American fashion industry, something which earns him both punishment and praise. Beene has repeatedly renounced the ritual of the twice-yearly fashion show, occasionally opting to present his new collections on dress forms instead of runway models. In 1983 a dispute with John Fair-child caused Beene to be banned from all Fairchild publications ( Women’s Wear Daily, W, Daily News Record ). Not a single Fairchild fashion editor attended or reviewed any of his fashion shows until 2000. Coincidentally, shortly following that show, Beene announced it would be his last fashion show, ever. He decided he was bored with traditional fashion show presentations, and he will present future collections either on video or over the Internet.

Many consider Beene to be the greatest American designer. He has received more Coty awards than any other designer, as well as a lifetime achievement award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. In June 2000, Beene was among the first eight designers (Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Bill Blass, Rudi Gernreich, Halston, Claire McCardell, and Norman Norell) to be inducted into the Fashion Center Walk of Fame, a new walkway of plaques in New York honoring American fashion designers. Fashion rebel or hero, Beene provides the shape of modern, wearable, distinctly American clothing.

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