By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
|photo by Debra DiPaolo|
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.
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.