Revolutionary: there is a mere handful of designers who truly merit that label, who not only changed the way people dressed but whose clothes made a social statement that impacted the world around them. Maybe Rudi Gernreich’s name doesn’t resonate now quite the way that Chanel or Armani does, but he anticipated almostevery shaping force in contemporary fashion: body consciousness, gender fluidity, the dominance of sportswear and streetwear. And that’s aside from the intrinsically modern pieces he created - the thong, or the jersey knit dress, or patterned nylons, or the chemise – that have entered the fashion lexicon.
But there is a whole other side to Gernreich which elevates him into the rare pantheon of creators who transcend all preconceptions about their vocation. He was a social activist decades before the label acquired its modern currency. The fact that he used clothes as his vehicle makes his story even more timely. The fashion industry wrestles with the challenging reckoning of #MeToo and #TimesUp, but Gernreich was so far ahead of the curve on this that it’s breathtaking. Diversity, equality, sexuality, gender…he was posing philosophical questions about fashion’s relevance from the very outset of his career in the Fifties. And maybe challenge was ingrained in him much earlier than that.
“Do you know what is my only wish?” Gernreich said to his mother when he was five years old. “All people should be equal, nobody too good, and nobody too bad.”
He was raised in Vienna, in a politically enlightened Jewish household where social justice and democracy were ideals. Vienna was the city of the Wiener Werkstätte, of Josef Hoffmann, Freud, Klimt and Schiele. Gernreich took it all in. His father was the director of a hosiery manufacturer (he would kill himself in 1930), his Aunt Hedwig had a couture salon. Rudi showed an early interest in fashion. In 1937, when he
was 15, Hedwig took him to Paris, where he saw Cristobal Balenciaga’s first couture show. It was a revelation for him.
Then came the Nazis, and the Anschluss in Austria. The Gernreichs were obvious targets. They left for America, Rudi’s mother allowed only a small overnight bag. Refugees, the family ended up in Los Angeles. An extraordinary Viennese diaspora meant the city was full of similarly exiled Austrians - composers, artists, designers.
Again, Gernreich moved through a world of heightened aesthetic sensation. But his path to fashion was actually through his decade as a dancer. His appreciation of the body in movement became the foundation of his design philosophy. After years spent as a hired gun on the LA fashion scene, he launched his own business in 1960,
drawing on a lifetime of inspiring, difficult experience. For the few decades his creativity flourished, Rudi Gernreich was the most famous designer in the world.
There was a fair amount of notoriety in his fame. In 1964, Gernreich’s breast-baring monokini drew down the wrath of every institution from the Vatican to the White House. But for him nakedness was a natural state of being, and there was nothing that was so emblematic of liberation and freedom, ideals to which his own past
gave enormous weight. When he died in 1985, he left the intellectual property of his estate to the American Civil Liberties Union. What better year to reactivate that legacy than 2018.