Like his art world contemporary Andy Warhol, Rudi Gernreich was a modern visionary and shrewd press manipulator. He guaranteed himself media exposure with sound bites like “Fashion will go out of fashion,” “Beauty is always ugly at first,” and “Sex appeal is always austere.”
In his three-decade career (1952-1985), he released women from constructed clothing, threw stripes together with checks, unleashed a riot of colour combinations, and – most famously – invented the topless bathing suit.
He also helped found the Mattachine Society (forefather of America’s gay movement), created the first experimental fashion film, Basic Black, in 1966 and appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
Gernreich was born in 1922 in Vienna, where his father ran a hosiery business and his aunt owned a dress boutique. Gernreich fitted seamlessly into the fashion family by sketching gowns in his aunt’s shop.
Such was his precociousness that he was offered an apprenticeship in London at the age 12. His mother declined. At 16, he and his mother escaped the Nazis and moved to Los Angeles (his father had committed suicide).
Inspired by a performance by Martha Graham’s dance company, Gernreich decided that dance-theatre would be his calling. For six years he danced professionally and designed costumes, earning extra money as a freelance textile designer.
However, Gernreich realised that his capability as a dancer was limited and went full-time into fashion, doing double duty for Walter Bass sportswear and a lesser-known swimsuit manufacturer.
His dance background led Gernreich to believe that movement must be unencumbered, and that covering up the body and trying to change its shape prevented its natural beauty from being the primary focus of a woman’s appearance. This philosophy would last until his very last garment: “the pubikini,” a 1985 swimsuit that showed off the top portion of a woman’s pudenda.
When Walter Bass offered Gernreich an exclusive seven-year contract, the fledgeling designer baulked at the terms, claiming that one day he’d be more important than Mainbocher. It was not the first time his grandiloquence would ring true.
His first solo collection for Bass – loosely cut, tightly belted dresses in gingham and cotton tweeds – sold out in one hour after it was shipped to Jax, an influential Beverly Hills store.
One year into his stint with Bass, Gernreich saw Lauren Bacall wearing one of his looks in Life magazine – a cinched black tunic with checkered pants in red, orange and yellow. It was a modern, arty look that went against the fashion grain of structured suits and dresses coming out of Paris, which the majority of American designers at the time copied religiously.
In 1960, Gernreich struck out on his own. Within the year, the New York Times had dubbed him “California’s most successful export since the orange.”
At the time, Emilio Pucci was the only other major designer who was working with unstructured clothing, wild prints and bright colour combinations. But Pucci was all about the (yet-to-be-named) jet-set while Gernreich concerned himself with egalitarian notions of reasonably-priced clothing and comfort.
In 1964, Gernreich won a Coty for his own collection, but it wasn’t because the aging enfant terrible was mellowing. Though he kowtowed to the Coty establishment by not showing a women’s suit that people thought looked “too lesbian” in the catwalk portion of the awards show, he nonetheless enraged other designers with looks that were so aggressively futuristic they were considered gimmicky. Norman Norell returned his Coty in protest (he later softened up and reclaimed his statuette).
Norman Norell returned his Coty in protest. He later softened up and reclaimed his statuette.
Gernreich continued to generate headlines when he declared that nudity was the future of fashion. Pucci upped the ante by making similar claims.
So when the fashion editor of Look magazine egged Gernreich on to make the topless bathing suit he had been talking about, he had no choice but to agree. Look photographed the suit on a prostitute in the Bahamas and ran it in a 1964 issue – a shot seen (and heard) around the world.
The Pope himself denounced the “unikini,” several countries banned it, and stores were picketed and received bomb threats.
Gernreich was joined at the hip with his co-conspirator and muse, the model Peggy Moffitt, whose outlandish eye-makeup, helmet bob haircut and knack for “performing” the clothing as much as modelling it was instrumental in bringing his wild ideas to life.
In 1968, Gernreich withdrew from public view and travelled the world instead of producing collections. He returned to his West Hollywood studio still angry at the rag trade.
His 1971 comeback collection, presented while anti-war sentiment still ran high, included models in military attire wearing dog tags and carrying guns. “Women are on the warpath; they’re tired of being sex symbols,” he said at the time.
Gernreich again looked to the future, and proclaimed, “Tomorrow’s woman will divest herself of jewellery and cosmetics and dress exactly like tomorrow’s man.” He wasn’t too far off, but his presentation of this idea in 1974 was so ludicrously extreme that the fashion press shrugged.
Yet, in 1975, Gernreich turned around and designed a stunning collection of nylon jersey tube dresses fastened by sculptural jewellery.
He branched out into fragrance, furniture design, quilts, rugs and kitchen accessories and, although he grabbed fewer headlines than in the past, Gernreich continued to design and maintain his relationship with Moffitt right up until his death in 1985.
Gernreich predicted the future of fashion with alarming accuracy. One of the few prophecies Gernreich made that did not come true was that by the year 2000 it would be perfectly acceptable for women to go topless anywhere.
However, other ideas he pioneered did, in fact, become fashion standards, including unisex dressing, bodywear inspired by dance gear, hosiery printed with patterns, and the wireless “no-bra” bra