Rudi Gernreich: Fearless Fashion Renegade and Los Angeles Icon
Gernreich’s designs -- clothes that come from a place of meaning, with a radically hopeful view of the future -- are the perfect antidote to the increasingly nihilistic contemporary runways.
My first and only original Rudi Gernreich piece, a sleek red knit jumpsuit with crossover black trim, was acquired in one of many eBay holes I pursued in 2010, somewhere between doing what I should (college) and what I wanted (clothes). The piece, though dated from the ’70s, felt contemporary: sleek, modern, able to be dressed up or down, and with a touch of athleisure.
This, of course, was deliberate on behalf of the designer. Last year, the Museum of Modern Art addressed fashion as a medium for the first time in 70 years. The exhibition opened with Gernreich’s 1970 futuristic predictions for 2000’s fashion: utilitarian knit jumpsuits with loud colors, geometric designs, and bold cuts, quite like my collegiate purchase. Their boisterousness was balanced out by a functional, egalitarian sensibility — a Gernreich jumpsuit is the rare kind of piece that makes wearers look more like themselves.
This was precisely Gernreich’s vision. “Fashion, as we know it, is dead,” he proclaimed in 1971. “In the new environment of the future, people will accept their bodies. Clothes will be utilitarian, organic, and minimal. It will free us to think of more important things.”
It is this design mentality — utopian, full of possibility — that feels quintessentially Los Angeles, where Gernreich emigrated as a Jewish refugee in the late 1930’s as a teenager. He was inspired not by the haute couture of Paris, but by the street style he saw around him in LA: he staged a fashion show at Watts Towers, created a unisex thong swimsuit to protest the city of Los Angeles prohibiting nude sunbathing in 1974, and was photographed with the likes of Ed Ruscha, Judy Chicago, and Frank Gehry on the steps of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
A founding member of LA’s Mattachine Society, one of the nation’s first LGBTQ organizations, Gernreich did not perceive any divorce between expressing social ideals and designing clothes. He thought that as women obtained increasing freedom through the liberation movement in the ’60s, fashion should reflect this: he created the “no bra” bra, a soft nylon bra without padding or boning to obstruct the natural shape of breasts, in 1964, and expressed his solidarity with the women’s liberation movement with a 1971 collection of military safari clothes accessorized with dog tags and machine guns.
He created the first bra-free swimwear for Bass in 1956 and was one of the first to show models with bare knees in 1961 in anticipation of the arrival of the mod miniskirt. When he and Norman Norell received the prestigious Coty American Fashion Critics Award in 1963, Norell returned his award in protest, citing a Gernreich jacket with different, uneven lapels as an example of the designer’s garish taste. While Norell challenged the ways American ready-to-wear was viewed and made and created an enduring model for American elegance, ironically, it is Gernreich’s designs that would blend in well at a contemporary Margiela or Balenciaga show — despite his confident assertion that eventually, “fashion will go out of fashion.”
He chose not to show his collections in Paris, meaning that despite having created many of today’s ubiquitous fashion items and playing a major role in defining the aesthetic of the 60s and 70s — the topless swimsuit, the thong, the first chiffon t-shirt dress, see-through blouses and bras, coordinated outfits with loud prints, and clear vinyl insets all came from Gernreich — you won’t find his name alongside his contemporaries Cristóbal Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent, or even the more youthful, funky André Courrèges. Perhaps it’s all for the better. Gernreich’s designs reflected a zeitgeist ahead of the European market’s time, and today’s gender-bending fashion activists perhaps owe more to Gernreich than Dior, anyhow.
In the 1950s, Gernreich’s designs were thought to be too avant-garde for the mass market, largely because of his penchant for unisex, a concept he championed long before such conversations about gender dominated the cultural conversation. Gernreich also emphasized an important distinction between unisex and asexual, never sacrificing the chance to highlight the beauty of the human form. “I see unisex as a total statement about the equality of men and women,” he declared in 1970. “Their different sexual natures no longer need the social support of differences of dress. Unisex reveals nature…It doesn’t hide or confuse it.”
He believed the male dress would emerge from its exile of the 19th century, and created interchangeable clothes for men and women, like floor-length kaftans and knit bell-bottomed trousers. Then there was the monokini that became a symbol of the sexual revolution and made Gernreich a household name: initially designed purely as protest, Gernreich did not plan to make the topless swim brief with two slim straps commercially available, but was persuaded after a frontal photograph of his muse, Peggy Moffitt, was published in Women’s Wear Daily.
Diana Vreeland of Vogue told him, “If there’s a picture of it, it’s an actuality. You must make it.” Once again, Gernreich was ahead of his time: he sold about 3000 monokinis, but only two were known to be worn in public. Artist’s model Toni Lee Shelley, who wore one to a Chicago beach in 1964, was arrested, and several stores that carried the monokini were vandalized or received bomb threats. The design was banned in some European countries and condemned by the Pope. Always forward-thinking, Gerenrich said in a television interview, “It may well be a bit much now. But just wait. In a couple of years, topless bikinis will be a reality and regarded as perfectly natural.”
Gernreich also challenged the rise of the logo. In 1968, he mocked the industry with his “unsignature scarf,” printed with random alphabet letters to mock the growing obsession with designer names. “Status fashion is gone,” he said. “Comfort is the rationale… the clothes are merely an instrument for the individual’s own body-message.”
Though he died of lung cancer in 1985, Gernreich’s sartorial and social ideals have resonated with a contemporary audience: variants of his monokini are still shopped for today, and the brand relaunched in fall 2018 in specialty retailers and is now sold at the likes of Ssense and Opening Ceremony. The first capsule collection featured — what else? — bold red, white, and black knitwear. CEO and founder Matthias Kind said, “There’s an urgency to rediscover something meaningful in fashion. Clothes need to reflect the zeitgeist and Rudi’s did in a way that was engaging and most of all fun. He also brought forward a conversation that suggests change, freedom, and equality are not just desirable but also attainable.”
LA’s Skirball Cultural Center has fittingly launched a retrospective dedicated to his expansive body of work, titled “Fearless Fashion,” which features 80 of Gernreich’s most iconic ensembles, original sketches, various ephemera from his life and career from the Gernreich archive at UCLA, and Basic Black, the 1967 short film by William Claxton and starring Gernreich’s muse (and Claxton’s spouse) Peggy Moffitt.
“At the Skirball, where we are guided by the Jewish tradition of welcoming the stranger,” says the exhibition’s curator, Bethany Montagano. “We are inspired by how Gernreich did just that: his apparel welcomed everyone into the fold—regardless of race, religion, gender, sexuality, and body type—broadening the scope of who is ‘fashionable.’ It is a message that resonates to this day.”
The chance to see more of his risqué and avant-garde outfits in person is well worth the trip. Gernreich’s designs — clothes that come from a place of meaning, with a radically hopeful view of the future — are the perfect antidote to the increasingly nihilistic contemporary runways.