Great art does not happen in a vacuum. There is always some thing, some one—especially some one—who played a role and, very likely, one that is more collaborative than even the credited genius might admit.
The master opus that resulted during two rich decades of collaboration among fashion designer Rudi Gernreich, muse and model Peggy Moffitt and photographer William Claxton is a testament to the adage that it takes two or, as in this case, more, to make a dream come true.
Peggy and Bill did some great work before meeting Rudi, one favorite example hanging in our kitchen, a 1959 moody black and white photograph he took of his wife—before the Vidal Sassoon bob and kohl-rimmed eyes that made her an icon—clad in a tulle prom-like dress at a hot dog stand at 3 a.m. It’s a staged photograph, taken only a year away from Rudi establishing his L.A. fashion atelier. But it’s eons from the sinewy graphic aesthetic, the mind-blowingly innovative clothes and experimental creativity on film and in fabric that would define this trio and continue to impact the culture and hold our imagination generations later.
The interplay and outcome of these provocateurs is the subject of the “The Total Look: The Creative Collaboration Between Rudi Gernreich, Peggy Moffitt, and William Claxton,” which opened Sunday and runs through May 20, 2012 at the MOCA Pacific Design Center.
These three were at the heart of a creative community that also shaped Los Angeles style and art during their hey day, and which continues to reverberate today. Last Saturday’s opening night dinner for the show was also a celebration of the friendly conspirators then and now—from Vidal, who was as much an unofficial honoree at the dinner party as was the shows instigator/curator Cameron Silver, who counts Gernreich among the very first vintage clothes he sold when he started Decades.
For this exhibition, which showcases some 55 of the 400 archival looks in Peggy’s care, Cameron relied on co-curators Jhordan Dahl and Ethel Seno (the latter an equally fabulous partner when I organized Peggy’s incredible memorial for Bill in 2008). Along with Peggy, they all had a partner in Christopher Claxton, who oversees his father’s archives and coordinated presentation of the films and photographs.
Many of Bill’s photographs of his wife in Rudi’s clothes are burned in our pop cultural consciousness, it’s true. But there is still something so electric about seeing the clothes and the photographs up close.
Talking about electric, the lighting issues didn’t faze me, despite MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch pointing them out apologetically within seconds after I walked into the downstairs gallery. “They aren’t right for clothes,” he said. “Don’t tell anyone,” I responded. “Seriously, everyone is too focused on all these crazy patterns and clothes!” (To wit, when Francisco Costa and I connected the morning after—which was the day of the Oscars and his reason in town—I insisted he beeline it over there after lunch.)
The ripples, or degrees of separation were further revealed during the opening night dinner. MAC is the primary underwriter for the exhibition and the opening party, and MAC president John Demsey told me his grandmother frequently wore Gernreich because his grandfather’s knit company sourced much of the jersey the designer used. “My sister even wore Rudi Gernreich to the prom,” he said. We gasped.
His cohosts included a long list of deep pockets who made it all happen. But only a few looked as chic as Sally Perrin and Gelila Puck in original Gernreich. (Gelila’s other half Wolfgang, despite being busy overseeing dinner—and a delicious one it was from the lobster starter to the chicken pot pie—snuck out to join us in the upstairs gallery during cocktails. He shared his memories of seeing Rudi and his big white Bentley at Ma Maison and later the original Spago’s on Sunset. They were, after all, fellow Austrians…)
Many other OG’s got an airing Saturday night, too, some unquestionably Gernreichs—like those worn by Sally, Liz Goldwyn, Trina Turk—and some harder to spot, as in the wonderful coat worn by China Chow. A Peggy-inspired accessory of another kind—a needlepoint pillow by Jonathan Adler, who co-designed the party decor with other half Simon Doonan—appeared on several sofas and chairs in a lounge near the dining area, which ended up mostly unseen through the night. Everyone was having much too much a blast in the hot-pink lit dining room.
Who cares that Mila Kunis was there? For me the excitement was seeing Vidal and Peggy, still spectacular at 84 and 72. Friends as they are, I’m continually in awe and inspired by their enduring style and mastery of the art of living.
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