When Jean Louis was starting out, he says, Paris was the only place for aspiring designers.
But a half century and 70 films later, the Academy Award-winning designer says he believes "American designers are the best in the world"--which is what he told a crowd of several hundred last week at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
Louis was honored at the Otis/Parsons School of Design Fashion Critics Awards, an annual gala dinner and show of student designs.
The compact Paris native sat beside actress Loretta Young, who wore a Louis gown in white and peach chiffon. Through the years, Louis' creations also have been worn by Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, Lana Turner, Ginger Rogers, Joan Crawford and numerous other film stars.
The veteran costumer admitted he is unimpressed by fashion he sees today on the silver screen ("It doesn't exist anymore"), but he did nod approvingly at the march of student fashions on stage. He called them "marvelous."
The designs, by 22 senior and 32 junior Otis/Parsons students, were bright, extroverted and West Coast in flavor. Sportswear was predominately white or splashed with bold graphics; evening gowns were clingy and fanciful.
Many fashions evoked the '60s, such as an Op Art checkerboard-pattern dress, a white leather jacket appliqued in a Picasso print, hip huggers and bare-midriff, ribbed sweaters.
Student designer of the year Rod Beattie showed a tight-fitting, draped black gown and lighthearted men's sweaters covered with cartoon faces of Fred Flintstone and Dick Tracy.
Beattie, a 26-year-old from Eagle Rock, said he believes evening gowns should make a woman feel "elegant but not strapped in." In menswear, he's strictly casual.
"I never wear a tie," he said. "I don't know how to tie a tie."
Students worked with several Los Angeles designers during the year, including Eletra Casadei, Christine Albers, Glenn Williams, Sue Wong and Mattie Hillel for Anne Cole Collection.
The gala raised $300,000 for student scholarships, according to Frances Balcomb, Otis/Parsons public relations director. A silent auction after the show, plus a subsequent weekend sale of the students' fashions, raised $17,500 for individual student designers, she added.
The awards evening began with a Carol Channing tribute to Louis, delivered by video. (The performer was out of town with the play "Legends.")
Letter From First Lady
Rosemary Brantley, chairman of Otis/Parsons' fashion design department, said in a speech that Louis "personifies the highest personal and professional values." She also read a letter from Nancy Reagan, for whom Louis has designed.
Louis, who was head designer for Columbia and later Universal Studios, received 14 Academy Award nominations over the years, winning an Oscar in 1956 for "The Solid Gold Cadillac."
In the early 1960s, he opened a Los Angeles fashion studio, where he designed for private customers several years more.
Louis closed his brief speech in his still-thick accent, saying: "I love you all."