Although he dropped out from designing almost 15 years ago, Rudi Gernreich, who died of cancer of the adrenal glands last week in California at age 62, was the frontrunner in most things we consider modern in clothing. He was a champion of easy, untricky clothes, from spare knit dresses and miniskirts to patterned tights and mixed prints to topless swimwear, for which he is perhaps best known. His unisex styles included boxer shorts for women, and he even proposed skirts for men.
"There were three giants in modern fashion," the distinguished fashion photographer George Hoyningen-Huene once observed, "Poiret, Chanel and Gernreich."
When Gernreich's new designs were introduced, they were considered revolutionary and even outrageous. But usually, before the kicking and screaming was over, his ideas were not only accepted by the fashion adventurous but co-opted by other designers. He was the first American designer to become known nationally and internationally at a time when only Paris designer Christian Dior was a household name, and after his topless swimsuit was introduced in 1964 everyone knew of him.
Long before it became stylish to care about fitness, Gernreich made body-conscious, second-skin clothes in knits and revealing swimwear that required a healthy, toned body. He had been a dancer, and understood, as he once said, "that clothes were something more than what covered the body from the neck to the knee."
"He started realizing that the body, the arms, the legs, was a part of it all, and I responded to that in his work," said Peggy Moffitt, the striking actress and dancer turned model whose sharply cut hair and dark eyes became almost a signature element of the Gernreich look.
It was Moffitt who modeled the topless suit -- her husband, William Claxton, took the photographs. "It was important less as a swimsuit than as the reflection of the maturity of our society at the time," she recalled. "It was so anti the tease and the idea of push-up bosoms to sell a tube of toothpaste. He was saying that women have breasts just like they have elbows."
The topless suit was never a commercial success, but its impact changed attitudes toward swimwear -- and all intimate apparel. In fact, Gernreich designed the first soft-cup bra, called the "No Bra" bra, moving women from rigid brassieres into a far more natural shape.
"After the topless suit, the bikini became a staple," Gernreich observed accurately several years later. "The bikini had been the most daring attire, but once the topless appeared, the bikini was like a watered-down tank suit." He changed the look of the tank as well, with deep side cutouts and high-cut legs, and his thong style was the forerunner of the many high-cut, bared styles worn today.
Gernreich's small collection for Harmon Knitwear in 1972, accessorized with rifles, cartridge belts and ID tags in place of the usual shoulder bags, wide belts and pearls, antagonized almost as many people as did his topless swimsuits. In sync with young people who were adapting military surplus garb, he called the collection a salute to women who served in their country's army, as in Israel.
"Paris and New York designers who are doing garden party and Scarlett O'Hara clothes are insulting women who are becoming equal to men," Gernreich said at the time.
He found ingenious, high-tech ways to decorate clothes, replacing jewelry with hardware-store fixtures, dog-leash clasps, screen-door springs on matte jersey dresses. Sometimes he incorporated a necklace into the design of a dress. But he always cautioned himself and others: "Designers beware. If it is too invented, it will be resented."
Gernreich stopped designing collections in 1972, when nostalgia replaced the contemporary styles he had pioneered. The fashion business had boomed in the early 1960s, with Mary Quant in London, Andre' Courre ges in Paris, and Gernreich and Jacques Tiffeau in New York all getting into short, clean-cut modern clothing. Then there was the historic Apollo 11 flight and our first look at the moon.
"We were expecting to see a staggering thing when we went to the moon," Gernreich said in a lecture at the Smithsonian Institution in 1979. "We were expecting a whole new source of something. But then we discovered a dead, completely dead planet. And in our disappointment, we went back to the old, the romantic."
He added, "Fashion is escaping reality. Women who seriously wish to be free do not want to escape into the past with retrospective clothes."
Rudi Gernreich was born in Vienna. He came to the United States in 1938 and five years later, at 21, became an American citizen. He settled in Los Angeles, where for six years he danced with the Lester Horton Modern Dance Troupe and also designed its costumes.
After jobs designing textiles and ads he moved to New York, but Seventh Avenue then was hooked on the beautiful but proper styles of Balenciaga and Dior. So he returned to California, where he could focus on the kinds of clothes he felt were freer -- knits, swimsuits, uncomplicated styles -- first in partnership with William Bass and eventually on his own.
For Gernreich, clothes were more than body covering. "Clothes are costumes," he once said. "What you can say and what you do say with clothes is very important. In periods when clothes are conservative, it is symbolic of what you are not saying, and that is important, too."
Later he would say, "Clothes don't always have to make a statement. And when they do, aren't they a bore."
His clothes were never boring. Even those he wore himself, often jumpsuits with lots of zippers and pockets. "I can put them on as fast as anyone can put on a bracelet," he said.
Clothes, for Gernreich, were also protection. While he saw men and women approaching nudity on the beach, he imagined total coverage, anonymous and even sexless, for the street. He believed that people might one day wear protective armor, an updated medieval costume with enameled aluminum shields and coats of mail. "Policemen are now wearing coats of mail," he pointed out, referring to the bulletproof vests that were beginning to be worn in the early 1970s.
"In the 1960s, if you walked down the street and everyone looked at you, that was good, very positive," he said. "The 1970s, it was different -- more subdued, more sober. We are living in a difficult time. In big urban areas people are legitimately afraid. People want clothes that are anonymous on the street, then dress up more elaborately for at home."
He believed strongly in unisex clothing, and one year showed similar two-piece bathing suits for men and women. For another show he shaved the heads of male and female models and dressed them in identical wool jersey jumpsuits. "With a better understanding between the sexes," he said, "the natural thing is that clothes for men and women will be more similar."
"A woman is just as feminine in pants as she is in a skirt," he explained. "There is no controversy about that. But there is no reason for a dress to be on a woman because she is a woman."
He once observed, "Now that women are totally accepted everywhere in pants, men will one day be accepted anywhere in skirts."
In 1969, asked by Women's Wear Daily to choose his most significant designs, he listed the vinyl swimsuit and the wet look (1961), the tweed maxi coat over a short tweed skirt and knee-high vinyl boots (1963), the topless wool knit swimsuit for Harmon Knitwear, the patterned knit costume with contrast-pattern stockings and the see-through chiffon shirt and nylon tricot No-Bra for Exquisite Form (all in 1964).
Whatever the time, there was always one recurring theme: "People should dress for the only valid reasons -- their comfort and their own good looks."
He once said, "The fashion designer was the specialist in woman-decoration. According to the seasons, he trimmed, decorated and decked her out with such torturous inventions that he finally gained the reputation of hating women."
Gernreich helped change all that. "The world as a harem is gone," he said, "and good riddance. It has taken fashion with it. And the fashion designer as such, too."
A year later he stopped designing clothing. He toyed with some licensees, including a unisex perfume (packaged in a beaker), furniture and soup, none of them wildly successful. But his costumes in stretch fabrics for the Bella Lewitzky Dance Company -- including "duotards," one costume worn by two dancers -- were a great hit.
He was a quiet, thoughtful, cultured man, gentle and caring with everyone. He lived alone in a modern, uncluttered hillside house in Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles. There are no survivors, and there will be no funeral services besides a gathering of friends this weekend. Many will miss him.