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Remembering Rudi Gernreich with William Claxton and Peggy Moffitt

Wednesday, Dec 1 1999
photo by Debra DiPaolo
IT'S FITTING THAT WE SHOULD REMEMBER DESIGNER Rudi Gernreich as the century winds to a close. The subject of "Claxton/Gernreich/Moffitt," an exhibition of fashion photography opening Saturday at Craig Krull Gallery, Gernreich is known for unleashing the topless bathing suit onto the world in 1964, but his work is more complex than that bit of naughtiness suggests. Gernreich was an amateur sociologist with a visionary streak, and he thought a lot about the future. Speaking to Life magazine in 1970, he had this to say about fashion in the year 2000: "Tomorrow's woman will dress exactly like tomorrow's man, and clothing will not be identified as male or female. The old will have a uniform and a cult of their own, and the embarrassment of old age will fade away. There will no longer be any squeamishness about nudity so, weather permitting, both sexes will go about bare-chested. Slowly, the liberation of the body will cure our society of its sex hang-up."

When it's suggested to Gernreich's muse, Peggy Moffitt, that he was a bit wide off the mark with those predictions, she counters, "But he wasn't wrong! What you have to understand is that Rudi dealt in overstatement. Plus, we're surrounded by men and women wearing the same exercise clothes and blue jeans, so unisex is absolutely with us."

Arriving at a Hollywood restaurant for an interview over dinner, Moffitt and her husband of 41 years, photographer William Claxton, make a striking couple. Now 70, Claxton has the photographer's skill of putting new acquaintances instantly at ease, and he plays straight man to his wife, who's the outrageous half of the duo; Moffitt is in her 60s now, but continues to wear the heavy makeup and Vidal Sassoon haircut that became her signature style 35 years ago. Back then Moffitt pioneered a fresh way of displaying clothes that rendered the stiff, jutting-hipped models of the '50s obsolete. Coming on as a pigeon-toed, knock-kneed little girl, with a boyish body and a coy look on her face, Moffitt brought a sense of play to modeling that was distinctly her own.

Claxton, of course, is the photographer responsible for the look of West Coast jazz. A co-founder of the seminal Pacific Jazz label, which premiered in 1952, Claxton took dozens of pictures that helped define and establish Los Angeles jazz, including those astonishingly beautiful pictures of the young Chet Baker. Less known is the fact that Claxton photographed every Gernreich collection beginning in 1961, up through the final collection in 1981. Those images all star his wife, but Claxton and Moffitt are both quick to point out that Gernreich was very much the director of the pictures on view at Craig Krull.

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BORN IN 1922 IN AUSTRIA, WHERE HIS FATHER COMmitted suicide, Gernreich was a Jewish refugee who came to America with his mother in 1938. By the age of 12 he was turning out accomplished fashion sketches, and he launched his career in the '50s as a swimsuit designer for Westwood Knitting Mills. Working out of a building in the 8000 block of Santa Monica Boulevard, Gernreich shifted his focus in the '60s and turned out a series of fantasy-driven collections based on audacious themes that included George Sand, nuns and gangsters. He produced baby-doll dresses and debauched-schoolgirl uniforms for women, Siamese-inspired dresses that folded like a diaper between the legs, tweed tutus, chiffon T-shirts and turtleneck swimsuits.

The theatricality of Gernreich's '60s designs gave way in the '70s to an increasing concern with the future. He designed unisex fashion, body clothes based on leotards and tights, tube dresses, and plastic clothing, and in 1974 he introduced the first thong. He conceptualized a total lifestyle that included designed quilts, perfume, underwear, cosmetics, children's clothes, shoes, hosiery, hats, furniture, kitchen and bathroom accessories, and gourmet soup. His last design, unveiled a month before his 1985 death from lung cancer, was a bathing suit that exposed the pubic hair. He called it the "pubikini."

"Everything Rudi did was amazing, and I still wear his clothes all the time -- I'm wearing one of his designs right now," says Moffitt, who's dressed in a tailored, pinstriped suit. "His designs are timeless -- in fact, I'm working on reintroducing his clothes, and have been talking with some possible backers. Rudi did it all, and it's just for people to discover it."

Gernreich was certainly crucial to Moffitt, who came into bloom under his tutelage. Born in Los Angeles in 1937, Moffitt describes herself as "a Hollywood kid. My father was a reporter who moved here and became a screenwriter and film critic. My mother was born in Tennessee, but was descended from one of the families that came over on the Mayflower, so she was basically a New Englander. I had a wacky upbringing in that I was a debutante, but I had a crazy father with a divine sense of nonsense which I inherited."

Moffitt first met Gernreich in 1954, while she was still in high school. "We met at Jax, a Beverly Hills clothing store where I worked on weekends," she recalls. "I had on lavender velvet pants, a white turtleneck sweater, and an amethyst necklace my grandmother had given me, and Rudy noticed what I was wearing, but we didn't become friends until years later." After high school, Moffitt moved to New York to study theater at the Neighborhood Playhouse and, already pursuing a career as an actress, returned to L.A. in 1957. That was the year she met and fell in love with Claxton, and by the time they married in 1959, she'd begun modeling.

Claxton is also a native. Raised in Pasadena, he learned the fundamentals of photography from a neighbor, then took pictures to pay his way through UCLA, where he studied psychology and art. It wasn't until he began having his pictures published, and being handsomely paid for them, that he considered photography as a career.

"I began photographing jazz musicians in the '40s, for no other reason than that I loved the music, and in 1953 I began doing album covers. Then, in 1955, my first book of jazz photographs was published [it was recently reissued by Taschen as Jazz Seen], and I woke up and was a photographer,"
he laughs.

Moffitt picks up the story, recalling, "Bill and I began running into Rudi at parties in the early '60s and he kept asking me to drop by, but there's a part of me that's excruciatingly shy, so I never did. He finally called me because he was designing a junior line and I seemed young compared with the models of that day, who tended to be very sophisticated. He started building clothes on me, and we fell into a relationship that was totally electric. It was really like finding your soul mate."

Claxton interjects: "As a photographer, I feel fortunate to have been around to photograph Rudi's clothes, because they had an incredibly strong graphic quality. And Peggy didn't just wear the clothes -- she performed them. Most models just know how to look pretty, but Peggy knew how to move, and she brought tremendous wit to the photo sessions. I had the technical knowledge of photography, but Peggy and Rudi were the ones who made the pictures."

As for Gernreich's vision of the future, the end of the century has proved to be more complex than he imagined. Asked what Gernreich would think of fashion today, Moffitt speculates, "He'd probably like it better than fashion trends of the '70s, such as platform shoes, which he hated. But I think he'd be disappointed at how conservative things have gotten. Rudi expected we'd be more enlightened by now."

 

"Claxton/Gernreich/Moffitt" opens December 4 (4-6 p.m.) and continues through January 15 at Craig Krull Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica. Claxton and Moffitt will sign The Rudi Gernreich Book at the opening.

  • Remembering Rudi Gernreich with William Claxton and Peggy Moffitt

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