Rudi Gernreich

B. 1922

D. April 21, 1985

Birthplace: Vienna, Austria

Awards: Coty Award, 1960, 1963, 1966, 1967

Knitted Textile Association Crystal Ball Award, 1975 CFDA Special Tribute, 1985

Long before December 1, 1967, when he became the first American designer to appear on the cover of Time, colleagues from the worlds of art and fashion had hailed him as a super star. Rudi Gernreich has been referred to as a visionary, a prophet, a clairvoyant, and an innovator who changed the shape of fashion. His ingenious and imaginative designs foretold all that clothing would be about in the future—fun, freedom, and sex. His 1965 invention—the soft, unstructured "no bra" bra—was probably the most important garment introduced during the second half of the twentieth century. His new concept, which he began to formulate in 1970, called "unisex," was a reflection of his uncanny ability to foresee what was to come. Although his topless swimsuit may have outraged the America of the 1960s, it enshrined him as the guru and the most influential social message carrier of fashion's next forty years.

One-time film-maker (Crackers, 1970), a cofounder of the first revolutionary gay rights organization (the Mattachine Society), and the creator of "the total look," achieved by extending the wild Op Art patterns on his clothes to the shoes and stockings, Gernreich began his career in New York in 1949, with a coat and suit manufacturer who dismissed him within months for his unsatisfactory designs. Having moved to Los Angeles from Vienna with his mother in 1938, he naturally retained images from his childhood and later used them as inspiration for his designs, such as his topless swimsuit which, supposedly, was based on a children's bathing suit popular in Vienna during the 1930s.

Gernreich was trained in modern dance, and he danced professionally for several years. The use of tights and leotards in his body-conscious clothes reflected his belief that clothing should celebrate freedom of movement, a radical concept that contrasted strongly with the prevailing idea that fine clothing should be rigidly constructed. These were just a few of the Gernreich influences that began fashion's new relationship with stretch and comfort.

In 1952 Gernreich 's cotton dresses were shown in Jax, a hip shop in Los Angeles, where they sold out in a day. In the late 1950s, he was the first to shorten the skirt, followed immediately by Andre Courreges, Emilio Pucci, and Mary Quant. By the 1960s his career was booming, resulting largely from the huge success of his knitwear, produced in conjunction with Harmon Knitwear and Westwood Knitting Mills. Gernreich was the first to use transparency in clothing, inserting clear vinyl panels in mini dresses and swimsuits. His experimentation with synthetic fabrics, including a molded dress, is now acknowledged as the prelude to today's use of hightech fabrics. His 1974 thong and Y-front underwear for women were later popularized in the 1980s (the latter by Calvin Klein), as was his tube dress, reinvented by Donna Karan in the 1990s.

After his forays into gourmet food and furniture design, he began work on his final fashion statement—the pubikini—his perfectly cut and fitted triangle of fabric, intended to break the last taboo in the revolution of women's liberation. His colorful, uninhibited, and audacious designs are considered by many as indisputable evidence that Gernreich was indeed the most farsighted designer of the century. See also: Andre Courages; Emilio Pucci; Mary Quant; Calvin Klein; Donna Karan.

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