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Topless Creator Gernreich Dies : Fashion World Saw Him as Its Most Innovative

April 22, 1985|MARYLOU LUTHER | Times Fashion Editor

Rudi Gernreich, designer of the topless bathing suit, the thong, one of the earliest minis and many other fashion firsts, died Sunday of lung cancer. He was 62.

To his admirers he was a prophet--a seer with 20-20 fashion vision. To his detractors he also was a prophet--the oracle of ugly. To most of the people in the fashion industry, he was considered the most inventive designer of these times.

Gernreich died Sunday morning in the hospice care unit of Cedars Sinai Medical Center, where he had been for about a week. He was admitted to the hospital in mid-January, and his cancer was diagnosed.

The Los Angeles designer bared breasts, shaved heads and passed out guns in the name of fashion. His clothes were censured by the Vatican, denounced by the Kremlin, banned in Cannes and displayed at Expo '70 in Japan. Although he probably was best known for his topless bathing suit of 1964, he had been recognized by the fashion world since the 1950s as the designer who freed women from the constraints of high fashion by creating young, often daring clothing that followed the natural form of the female body.

Along with London's Mary Quant, he was one of the first designers to shorten skirts to mini-highs in the early 1960s. His other fashion firsts include the no-bra bra, the no-shape swimsuit, the little boy look, the thong bathing suit, evening gowns with built-in jewelry and clashing color combinations that were psychedelic before that term became commonplace. In a kind of pre-punk mode, he playfully cut holes in his dresses and bathing suits, and he brought wool jersey to swimsuits and such fabrics as vinyl and cellophane to high fashion.

"Like the once omnipresent Kilroy, 'Gernreich was here'--first," said Edith Locke, former editor of Mademoiselle magazine and presently an independent television producer and director.

The only child of Siegmund and Elisabeth Mueller Gernreich, Rudolf Gernreich was born in Vienna on Aug. 8, 1922. It was at a time when haute couture was at its peak, and the authoritarian state of chic was governed by a handful of French couturiers who convened twice a year to hand down their hemline edicts to an adoring aristocracy.

Gernreich got his first look at this world of high fashion as a child. His sanctuary from what he called the rigid militaristic atmosphere of school was the Vienna dress shop run by his aunt, Hedwig Mueller, and there he spent hours sketching her designs for Viennese society and learning as much as he could about fabrics.

At 12, his sketches were seen by an Austrian designer, Ladislaus Zcettel, who offered Gernreich an apprenticeship in London, but his mother thought he was too young to leave home. (Gernreich's father, a hosiery manufacturer, died when the boy was 8.)

When Gernreich was 16, he and his mother fled Europe along with thousands of other Jewish refugees and escaped to California. He mastered the English language, and obtained American citizenship in 1943. Working after classes as an errand boy at advertising agencies, Gernreich attended Los Angeles City College from 1938 to 1941 and Los Angeles Art Center School in 1941-42.

As an art student at City College, Gernreich was close enough to Hollywood to be influenced by it.

Hated Movie World

"I was always on the fringes of the movie scene," he once recalled. "At one time I worked in the publicity department of RKO Studios, and once I replaced a friend who was a sketch artist for Edith Head (the late costume designer). But I hated every minute of it. I didn't fit in. The beginning of my career was monstrous."

Ergo, a career shift. As the direct result of watching a performance by Martha Graham's modern dance company, Gernreich dropped art and the movie studios in favor of dance and the theater.

While studying with Lester Horton, whom Gernreich described as "a kind of West Coast Martha Graham," he became less interested in static details, the decorations of clothes, and more concerned with how they looked in motion.

"Before, I only considered the body from the neck to the knees, the part that was clothed. Dancing made me aware of what clothes do to the rest of the body--to the hands and feet and head," he told The Times in 1969.

"I was never a great dancer but my six years with the company impressed me with the importance of clothes in motion, body freedom, rhythm, attitude, and gave me a chance to design costumes."

Gernreich left the troupe in 1949, and for the next few years found designing jobs on the East and West Coasts. He soon found that the fashion industry wasn't ready to accept his avant-garde ideas.

Said the designer about the fashion climate at that time: "Everyone with a degree of talent was motivated by a level of high taste and unquestioned loyalty to Paris. Dior, Fath, Balenciaga were gods--kings. You could not deviate from their look."

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