Future Shock

Gernreich lives in the past, present and future

On December 1, 1967, Time delivered the startling news: "The miniskirt is here to stay (till spring, anyway)." Fashion designer Rudi Gernreich appeared on the cover of that issue (the first American designer to do so), flanked by two models in space-age dresses. According to the magazine's feature article, he was "the most way-out, far-ahead designer in the U.S."

Gernreich's cutting-edge creations were captured on film by photographer William Claxton, whose wife, model Peggy Moffitt, became the designer's muse (and, with her head of short, shiny black hair and theatrically made-up eyes, became a 1960s icon). Together, the three helped fashion progress by light-years.

"Rudi Gernreich, Peggy Moffitt and William Claxton," the newest exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum, chronicles their careers with more than 50 photographs and a handful of original outfits.

Looking ahead: Peggy Moffitt, center, models fashions by Rudi Gernreich, one of the 1960s' most forward-thinking designers.
William Claxton
Looking ahead: Peggy Moffitt, center, models fashions by Rudi Gernreich, one of the 1960s' most forward-thinking designers.

Dennita Sewell, the museum's curator of fashion design, credits Gernreich for "his foresight in breaking the tradition of the haute couture and making things fun. It's less about the status of who made it or trying to restructure [the garment]," she says, "but about creating an individuality and a freedom where the body is allowed to have its own natural shape."

Gernreich became infamous in 1964 as the inventor of the "topless bikini." His other innovations didn't make the same kind of sensational headlines, but were nevertheless revolutionary. He started to make waves in the mid-'50s, when he created swimsuits without an inner structure. In the '60s, Gernreich was the first to design vinyl clothing, sheer nylon tops, knit tube dresses and the "no-bra" bra. Pairing opaque colored tights with matching dresses and accessories, he invented the "Total Look," and his bold use of psychedelic colors defined the mod spirit. In 1970, Gernreich invented unisex.

Basic Black, a rare film from 1967 featuring Moffitt modeling futuristic Gernreich designs, is also part of the exhibition, and is sure to be a treat for style junkies.

The timing of this show couldn't be better; Time's headline would be just as appropriate today. The April issue of NYLON magazine included a tribute to Gernreich, photographed by Claxton himself, featuring model Michelle Hicks done up like Moffitt, with sleek black hair in a helmet cut, black-rimmed eyes and pale lips. An original vintage dress by Gernreich fits right in with fresh-off-the-runway pieces by Prada and Luella Bartley. And models in a groovy photo spread in the May issue of Vogue sport clear, colored plastic visors that are pretty much identical to the accessories created for Gernreich's 1965 resort collection.

What goes around comes around, and while Gernreich passed away 18 years ago, his predictions are still coming true.

Sewell says Gernreich's prolific career laid the foundation of fashion today. "Knits, simple pieces that go over your head and have one zipper or none at all -- all those things are what we take for granted," says Sewell. "And aren't we glad he did it, too."

 
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