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Fashion 88 : Fashion's Gentle Giant : Much Like His Clothes, Best-Selling Designer Geoffrey Beene Is a Man With Few Hard Edges

February 12, 1988|MARY ROURKE | Times Staff Writer

When people say Geoffrey Beene is eclectic, they're usually talking about his life as a fashion designer. Not just because he's been known to put black-lace cuffs on an otherwise everyday coat, but because he attracts such a range of responses from people.

He may be the only man in the fashion business, for example, about whom one publication has written that they want him for President while another has refused to write about him at all.

It was Paper, the outspoken and opinionated New York magazine, that recommended Beene for President after reviewing a recent collection. "He always invites us to his shows," says Kim Hastreiter, who edits and publishes the 3-year-old magazine with David Hershkovitz.

"The young are important to him," she adds. "He takes us as seriously as if we were Vogue magazine."

And it was Women's Wear Daily that outlawed him. Steve Ginsberg, West Coast editor, says he isn't certain that policy will change tonight when Beene celebrates his 25 years in business with a retrospective fashion show at the Century Plaza Hotel to benefit AIDS research.

"There's still a rift between the paper and Mr. Beene," Ginsberg confirms. As for plans to cover this evening's event, he says, "I'm noncommittal."

The break had nothing to do with fashion. It came four years ago when Beene allowed Architectural Digest magazine to feature his Long Island home before it appeared in W, the biweekly offshoot of Women's Wear Daily. "I had no idea it would become a cause celebre ," Architectural Digest Editor Paige Rense explains.

Being ignored by the trade paper has hurt him, Beene admits. But it has also made him more determined than ever to be his own man.

Hard to Intimidate

"My career is my life," he says. "I will not be intimidated on the whim of another."

It is one of the few times that the 60-year-old Beene sounds the least bit harsh. Most often, he is the embodiment of softness, from his whispery voice and his mild Southern accent to his silvery white hair and baby-fine complexion.

Even the clothes he wears are without hard edges. He maintains that modern means comfortable; his single favorite garment seems to be a blazer shaped like a cardigan sweater.

His reputation for eclectic tastes has been building since before he entered the world of fashion. He was raised in the South by his mother and grandfather, a country doctor who also owned a cotton plantation.

"Not as grand as Tara but approaching it in dignity and richesse ," Beene says, comparing the homestead to Scarlett O'Hara's estate in "Gone With the Wind."

Even while the family owned it, he picked cotton there for 25 cents an hour. He also accompanied his grandfather on house calls.

Because he so admired the man, Beene planned to be a doctor too. But after a year in medical school, he realized it wasn't right for him. "Cadavers are the moment of truth," he says.

He went to Paris, then Rome, to live for several years. Now, he says: "I feel most at home in Europe. I'd like to live in Paris six months a year."

At the moment, Beene is a bachelor who lives with his two dachshunds (Sir Lancelot and Maximilian) in Manhattan. He is a private man who does not talk easily about his personal life.

Major Awards

"My mother is the closest person to me," he offers. The 83-year-old Louisiana resident visits him in New York every month or so. Despite his eight Coty awards and his two CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) awards, despite the fact that his designs are in the permanent collections of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as well as Ohio's Cleveland Museum, Beene believes his mother when she says she still sees room for improvement.

"My mother wishes I were not so busy, and not so quick to respond back to her. She wishes I were more tolerant," he says.

Obviously he is comfortable in the company of women. "He wants to make them look beautiful," explains Mimi Sheraton, Time magazine's food critic and the designer's close friend, who cooks for him on weekends when she and her husband visit his Long Island home.

On several Valentine's Days, Beene has sent a chauffeured car to deliver candy to Sheraton's door. And for lunch, they sometimes test small, informal restaurants, especially in Greenwich Village, a New York neighborhood he especially likes.

Despite the $200-million fashion empire he heads, Beene is a man of simple tastes, Sheraton says.

"Yes, he's a workaholic, but he's not motivated by money," she contends. "He'd never put his name on chocolates or anything like that."

New Ventures

He will, however, expand his corporation in dramatic ways this year. To his couture and knitwear collections for women, Beene just added a new line of shoes for Diego Della Valle, produced in Italy. Later this month, he will present a new sportswear line, a co-production with Warnaco, who also makes his knits. Future Beene-Warnaco projects include a new sleepwear collection to be introduced in March.

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