Rudolph "Rudi" Gernreich was one of the most prominent fashion designers of the 1950s, '60s and '70s. His revolutionary designs and avant-garde collections embodied his vision of fashion as a liberating force that defied conventional ideas of beauty, identity and gender. "Fearless Fashion: Rudi Gernreich," on view through September 1 at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, is the first exhibition to focus on the social and cultural impact of the influential designer's body of work. The show features more than 80 ensembles, including his iconic topless swimsuit, microminis, thongs, unisex clothing and pantsuits for women--innovations that redefined style and brought him international renown. Also on display are original sketches, letters, photographs, historical footage of fashion shows and oral histories from friends and colleagues. The exhibition presents a comprehensive view of the designer's life and work and illustrates how his bold designs continue to influence fashion today.
Born in 1922 to a wealthy Viennese Jewish family, Gernreich was eight when his father, Siegmund Gernreich, committed suicide. Remaining in Vienna with his mother, Elisabeth Muller Gernreich, die youth sketched and studied fabrics at his aunt Hedwig Muller's dress shop. At age 12, he was invited by a prominent Austrian designer to apprentice in London, but his mother felt he was too young and declined the opportunity. When Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany in 1938, mother and son fled to the United States. They settled in Los Angeles, where 16-year-old Rudi, who spoke no English, began marketing his mother's pastries door to door. His first actual job was in the morgue at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, where he prepared bodies for autopsy. He later credited that experience with giving him an intimate understanding of the human body.
Gernreich's personal history--as a Jew and a gay man--had a profound influence on his work. "After fleeing Nazi oppression as a teen," says Skirball exhibition curator Bethany Montagano, "Gernreich encountered discrimination again. He would eventually find safe haven in the performing arts world and gay rights movement. These early experiences fueled his commitment to promoting a truer expression of self and designing clothes that proclaimed, 'You are what you decide you want to be,'" as the designer himself put it.
Gernreich went on to study at both Los Angeles City College and the Art Center School, and in 1942 he joined the...