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Theirs Was a Model Pairing : Peggy Moffitt drew from dance, acting and mime to show the clothes of Rudi Gernreich, the designer of the '60s. Their careers were inextricable. Now, she's back in his creations-- of course.

April 16, 1993|S.J. DIAMOND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

She's back--the pale face, the cap of hair, the harlequin eyes, the mime poses in designer fashions. An icon of the '60s, here again thanks to the revival of "retro fashion."

But wait: The clothes are the interest, aren't they? The model, Peggy Moffitt, is wearing designs by the late Rudi Gernreich, whose Pop / Op / mini fashions defined the decade.

Actually, model and designer are inextricable, an image not just of fashion but of a unique association in the fashion world, in which she owed much to his talent, and he, indisputably, owed much to hers. It was an association that made Peggy Moffitt successful, although it worked against her later success.

Moffitt's work with Gernreich demonstrates the art of modeling, too often a rather static enterprise. At its best, as when Moffitt showed Gernreich, design and model are parts of a whole. To echo Yeats, one can hardly "know the dancer from the dance"--a perfection that can grant some immortality but may keep the performer forever typecast.

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Start with the designer, in this case a man once called the "quintessential American designer." With his cutouts, his vinyl panels, his zippers, tunics and tights, his neon colors and geometric patterns, Rudi Gernreich was Pop, Op and Space Age. He designed for comfort and looks, working with knits, silks, reversible fabrics, in lengths both ultra-mini and flowing to the ground.

He made fashion "statements" about present and future, producing the first unstructured "no-bra" bra and the topless bathing suit and predicting unisex clothing. His designs had both humor and elegance, and were always different.

Though labeled the designer of the 1960s, "he wasn't just a designer of that decade, but of our century, and the one coming up," says Moffitt. "It's just amazing the influence he has now, even among people who have no idea who they're stealing from."

Moffitt, too, was different. "In my era," she says, posed in a chair in her Mediterranean-style living room high above Los Angeles, "almost all the models were blond and Scandinavian and tall"--and she wasn't. She didn't even think she was pretty, although she acquired enough confidence in the look she invented to stick to it these 30 years, comfortable with "how I dealt with the hand I was dealt."

Hers was no story of being discovered, she says, "sitting in an airport at age 14 and someone coming up and saying, 'You should be a model.' But sometimes having a disadvantage turns out to be an advantage: I had to discover myself, an inner energy to make people look, a way to express that something different is happening here."

What she had was a background in ballet and painting and an interest in "stylized things." During high school years at L.A.'s Marlborough School, she sold clothes at the trendy Jax in Beverly Hills and then spent two years studying acting at New York's Neighborhood Playhouse. When she came back, she was offered only parts as "the 10th in a line of squaws standing by a tepee." In comparison, the world of fashion photography that she met through her husband, photographer William Claxton, "had a little chic."

She entered a field more rigid than most. Models must have "looks," and usually a particular look. One day it's the Amazon, another day the waif or maybe the "individual" look (this on a recent magazine spread of eight similar-looking models).

"Our business is full of labels," says Eileen Ford, co-founder of Ford Models Inc. A model needs "one particular look with a chameleon ability to change," she says. "What makes a great model is energy, and not just physical."

Moffitt had that. She also had ideas "about modeling, but it was a problem for me: People were threatened by that or uncomfortable."

Furthermore, she had a methodology in "a profession that has no technique. Mostly it's gone about with, 'I'm pretty, here I am, take my picture.' " Moffitt's view was that models must first draw attention, because they're selling something, whether it's clothes or magazines. Then, "in order to sell, you should entertain, and you have to educate, because very often what a model has to sell, the eye isn't used to yet."

Moffitt, now 55, met Gernreich when she was in her teens and he in his mid-30s, an established designer. "He was using big-boned country-club types, and thought I was too young for his clothes," she says. But he hired Moffitt in 1962 to model a junior line. To Moffitt, modeling was a performance for which she prepared "like a method actor," drawing on everything she had--dance, acting, mime. Unlike other models in a runway show, "who come out and walk all the same and look gorgeous, like Ziegfield girls, I'd walk knock-kneed and pigeon-toed if the dress demanded it. I'd look for the inner life of the dress, and when I did a whole collection, I'd figure out how to play each." A photograph was just a different stage, "a piece of seamless white paper" on which to perform.

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