Designers’ Designers

Three books on three couturiers who rank among the greatest America has produced

By Benjamin Schwarz

Image credit: Jacky Marshall From Narciso Rodriguez (Rizzoli)

Geoffrey Beene was the subject of what must be the most influential article in U.S. fashion history when the critic Kennedy Fraser wrote that his profitable, stiffly constructed dresses resembled concrete. Her appraisal provoked Beene’s creative awakening and radical transformation. He devoted his next 30-odd years (he died in 2004) to visionary, demi-couture work, exploring the relationship between clothing and women’s bodies and cannily arranging licensing deals for eyewear and the like to subsidize this uncompromising pursuit. Thanks to his ingenious cutting and seaming, his dresses became lighter and lighter, purer and purer. They skimmed and enveloped their wearers’ bodies; they revealed and eroticized the unexpected—the rib cage, the clavicle, the small of the back. Beene’s friend of nearly 20 years, Kim Hastreiter, the editor and co-founder of the chronicle of cutting-edge fashion and design, Paper magazine, has produced Geoffrey Beene: An American Fashion Rebel (Assouline), an astute book that uses detailed photography to reveal specific qualities of his work, from his use of zippers to the wit that permeates his creations.

Narciso Rodriguez, 48, idolized Beene. A master of clean silhouettes created by meticulous construction based on corsetry, Rodriguez uses intricate seaming that defines the body (as did Beene). His precisely cut, almost stripped-down dresses are hence sometimes labeled “sexy,” which may or may not be true but misses the point, which is that he consistently focuses on how his garments fit and move (as did Beene). Narciso Rodriguez, by Narciso Rodriguez and Betsy Berne (Rizzoli), makes this point clear, especially in a section detailing Rodriguez’s collaboration with the choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. The book concentrates less on Rodriguez’s creations than on the inspirations behind them. In the hands of a less assured designer—one less devoted to the proposition that the craft of dressmaking largely defines the form of the dress—this approach could be god-awful: jejune designers like nothing better than to attach a heavy-handed “theme” to each season’s collection. (“I hate a theme,” Rodriguez has said. “You do have all these influences, but you try not to make anything look too literal.”) As the book shows, though, Rodriguez intelligently uses, say, photographs of bridges to inform how he’ll crisscross straps.

Rodriguez has declared that Isabel Toledo—like himself, raised in a Cuban family in working-class northern New Jersey—“is, by far, the designer I admire most today.” (Both are among Michelle Obama’s favorite designers; she wore Rodriguez’s red-and-black sheath at the Grant Park victory celebration.) Toledo, who eschews seasonal collections and runway shows and whose tiny output (about 700 pieces a year) is sold at only a handful of boutiques and specialty stores, has inherited Beene’s title as the designer’s designer. Her work, defined by an almost surreal architectural purity, mature eroticism, and the marriage of radically innovative construction with the practical (plenty of pockets!), is regularly and rightly praised by the cognoscenti as the product of genius and craftsmanship comparable to Balenciaga’s. Isabel Toledo: Fashion From the Inside Out, by Valerie Steele and Patricia Mears (Yale), which will accompany a mid-career retrospective of Toledo’s work at the Fashion Institute of Technology this summer, emphasizes how Toledo’s profound understanding of the guts of a dress drives her innovations. The authors also perceptively assess the intense collaboration between Isabel and Ruben Toledo, her artist-and-illustrator husband of 25 years (they met in ninth grade). Resolutely indifferent to trends, Toledo has the highest aspirations: “I want to make a garment that lasts. It’s not just yours. It should be your daughter’s eventually.” This book testifies to the soundness of her goals.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/03/designers-designers/307273/