Geoffrey Beene Laces His Clothes With Elegant and Mischievous Wit

The Fashion Institute of Technology celebrates an American designer's work

SINCE the early 1960s, Geoffrey Beene has taken countless shapeless pieces of fabric and cut, draped, bunched, and sewed them into works of art.

More than 150 of these works are on display at the Fashion Institute of Technology here through April 30. The exhibit, ``Geoffrey Beene Unbound,'' traces the evolution of his designs with a focus on pieces he created since 1983, when he became the sole owner of his company.

Peruse this exhibit, and it becomes evident why several words have been used to describe what the American designer's clothes represent: freedom, minimalism, elegance, and wit.

First the main room. On each side is a stairway where mannequins modeling the fashions appear to parade as if performing in a New York show. Scores of evening dresses in silk crepe, metallic silk satins, velvet, and lace exemplify the simple yet glamorous and eye-catching style that is Beene's trademark. Each dress enhances the body; lines and curves fall in unusual places yet are unconfining.

STANDOUTS include a short bare evening dress from 1991 with spaghetti straps and tiny silver sequins embroidered on silk chiffon. Black lace is cut out in a graceful curve from under each arm to the back hip. A long black silk-crepe dress from fall 1993 is slit to the hip and has a wispy lace back in the shape of a butterfly.

What makes these dresses so flowing and shapely is the absence of many seams, particularly side seams, which Beene says bisect the body.

``I try to bring side seams to the back or front ... or both, which helps to embrace the body,'' he told Grace Mirabella in an interview published in a monograph accompanying the exhibition. ``Modernity begins here, as a process of elimination: minimal seams, minimal weight, minimal care, minimal details.... Minimalism is, I think, the future....''

Beene's humor can be found in pieces such as a fall evening ``nudity'' dress from 1989, in which the shape of the body appears in gold on the front of a long black dress.

Evening dresses from the late 1960s and early '70s also give a nod to playfulness: In fall-winter 1967-68, Beene presented a royal-purple sequinned football jersey as an evening gown. In fall 1972, he unveiled another whimsical gown, complete with a ``highway'' traveling up the front of it, as well as clouds and green grass - all in radiant sequins.

Another room of the exhibit showcases Beene's clothes in categories such as Gray Flannels, Spanish Gypsies, and Amazing Lace. His 1980s collection of Boleros is especially stunning - short, open jackets that fall just above the waist. From fall 1993 is a handsome black mohair-wool hooded bolero that has Mylar lace cut out in back and front.

Beene, considered a major force in the development of the fashion industry in the United States and abroad, initially studied medicine but, in the late 1940s, became interested in fashion.

He studied in New York, apprenticed in Paris, and worked as a designer for Teal Traina from 1954-1963. He was particularly influenced by the designs of Elsa Schiaparelli.

In 1963, he opened Geoffrey Beene Inc. on Seventh Avenue and has since won numerous fashion awards.

He became an innovative force in the industry for using such unlikely combinations as gray flannel and wool-jersey fabric for evening gowns and denim for a strapless evening dress.

A fitting description of Beene's style is summed up in the first few pages of ``Beene 30 Years,'' a book that accompanies the exhibition:

``Geoffrey Beene is a designer of the utmost propriety. There is an unfailing sense of right occasion, design probity, and social covenant to Beene's clothing. Yet there is also a leitmotif of the designer's slightly naughty, cannily mischievous style that regularly asserts itself.... Beene's women move with self-assured grace even in silhouettes that disclose the shape of the body and in garments that expose zones of the body.... That Beene so manifestly knows the norms is what makes his purposeful minor transgressions witty and not chaotic.''

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