Vintage Irene for Bullocks Wilshire has new admirers. (Irene by Greg LaVoi )
At the 1960 Academy Awards, all eyes were on Doris Day, lead actress nominee for "Pillow Talk," who glittered in a silvery sheath.
The gown was actually a costume borrowed from Day's next picture, the lush Ross Hunter thriller "Midnight Lace," which would nab costume designer Irene Lentz her second Oscar nomination the following year. But after cycling through a Hollywood career — starting out as a Mack Sennett extra and rising to be head of costume at MGM following Adrian — by 1960, Lentz was only freelancing in films for stars such as Day.
Lentz's clientele was much, much wider — she was dressing fashionable women across the country in Irene, her line of structured suiting and bias silk soufflé gowns that she started with the backing of tony stores like Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus after leaving MGM in the late 1940s.
But by 1962, Lentz was battling health issues, a drinking problem and, reportedly, memories of an old affair with Gary Cooper, who had recently died. After her spring show, with some 85 fashion editors from across the country in attendance, she bade farewell to some associates and checked into the Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel, where she threw herself from a 10th floor window two days later.
Lentz's final note, though, was sanguine: "Get someone very good to design and be happy. I love you all."
Without its namesake, the label ran aground in the polyester-loving early '70s. Though Lentz was once honored by the California Fashion Group for her pioneering role in West Coast style, she remains little known today.
Greg LaVoi's out to change that.
LaVoi, currently the costume designer for TNT's "Major Crimes," was working on the show's predecessor, "The Closer," a few years back and looking for a way to give star Kyra Sedgwick's character a bit of a fashion evolution out of her workaday drab.
"So I was out at Warner Bros. [costume house] knowing that Kyra liked vintage. The character wasn't a fashion plate, so I was pulling vintage jackets," he said. "This one particular one — it was a pumpkin herringbone — caught my eye. It had covered buttons, intricate pattern work, a great shoulder line, and I looked at the label and it said "Irene for Bullocks Wilshire."
LaVoi immediately became a man obsessed.
"I don't know the history of costume design. I knew Bob Mackie and Edith Head." he said. "I went on EBay that same night, and there were two [Irene] jackets and I bought them. I went to Long Beach to pick them up with a friend. I told him, 'If I'm not out in 20 minutes, call 911.' I was in there longer than 20 minutes. I bought six and each one was better than the next."
He now has 200 to 300 Irene suits or parts of suits, 50 dresses and 24 evening gowns — most of them in pristine condition. Improbably, some of his Irene originals were hanging in "The Closer" wardrobe room and caught the eye of a deep-pocket visitor who had won a walk-on role on the show at a charity auction.
"She said, 'My, what would it take to make these today?' I said, 'Money!' About a week later she emailed me and said she was interested in investing in a fashion line," LaVoi recalled.
So, two seasons ago, the Irene by Greg LaVoi label was launched on the runway as "American couture" made to order, with his retail partner Neiman Marcus. All the Irene hallmarks are evident in his spring collection's architecturally seamed suit re-colored in sprightly pink, a black-and-white spring coat and a soufflé strapless gown with contrasting silk flowers up the back. Prices range from $900 for a blouse to $17,000 for a hand-beaded evening jacket. Women's suits run around $2,000. The clothes have been available for order at seasonal trunk shows at Neiman Marcus; more info is available at http://www.irene glv.com.
LaVoi is also up finishing a biography of Lentz, with a forward by Doris Day.
"She was the least best-known costume designer," he said. "Edith Head had a great PR person. Irene was shy and quiet. Where Edith succeeded was in her personality. Where Irene succeeded was in her talent."