On the Edges of Fashion History
As a fashion historian who closely watches both the vintage markets and fashion exhibitions worldwide, I see that the majority of interest goes to the same small group of mainstream design houses. While I would never discount the importance of the likes of Christian Dior or Balenciaga—a total impossibility in light of their mastery of the fashion art form and their influence on contemporary and later designers—I often wonder why so much attention is focused on very few, with such a huge variety of designers forgotten by all but the experts. Over the last 150 years that high fashion has existed in approximately the same form (since Charles Frederick Worth founded his couture house in Paris in 1858), there has always existed a wide breadth of designers creating in a multitude of different styles and for diverse occasions. Narrowing the field of scholarship and vintage collecting unjustly supports an incorrect idea of the past—with fashion creation limited to a chosen few. Discussed below are three designers whom I believe deserve greater notoriety and whose clothes are still highly collectible and wearable today. In terms of style, they range from classic to avant-garde, yet all have a unique sensibility that transcends their time period.
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Philadelphian Gustave Tassell (b.1926 – d.2014) launched his first collection at the age of 30 in Los Angeles for Fall 1957. Though he was based in California, his designs were more in keeping with the high echelons of Paris and New York fashion than his location and climate would assume. Known for clean lines and sculptural shapes, Tassell was heavily inspired by Balenciaga’s silhouettes which he combined with his Norman Norrell-like skill in creating very high-end Ready-to-Wear. Unlike fellow East Coast transplant James Galanos (who first encouraged Gustave to set up his own company), Tassell focused not on couture but on making high-end Ready-to-Wear. His first season of RTW received $25,000 in orders, all attracted by the collection’s “subtle form of chic.” By 1961, Tassell had won the Coty “Winnie” Award and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was a client. He was part of a new group of Los Angeles designers (Galanos, Bud Kilpatrick, Paul Whitney and later Rudi Gernreich) who rejected the supremacy of Paris and New York. While Galanos’s demi-couture designs are still highly prized and certain garments by Gernreich have become iconic, this whole group of West Coast creatives has been under-represented in discussions of 1950s and 1960s American fashion. At the time, it was thought that their distance from Paris provided them with a greater freedom than other American designers, allowing them to design clothes that were fashionable yet not stiff copies of Dior, YSL or Balenciaga. Of this group, Tassell had his own pared-down-yet-flattering aesthetic, while Galanos provided the luxury couture, Kilpatrick the all-American, upscale suburban dream, Whitney the elaborate fantasy and Gernreich the mod, avant-garde. Following Norman Norell’s death in 1972, Tassell moved to New York to become head designer at the House of Norell for four years before returning to Los Angeles and his own collection. As The New York Times wrote, “His is a pure, often magnificent, architectural line”—making clear why Tassell’s designs continue to have longevity and look fresh today.
Similarly described as a “classicist”—though of a very different type—was London-based, Japanese born designer, Yuki (Gnyuki Torimaru, b.1937). After several years as an apprentice with Norman Hartnell and Pierre Cardin, Yuki launched his own company in 1972 where combined the couture techniques he had learned with traditional Japanese garment shapes. His Draped and enveloping designs often showcased an avant-garde minimalism at odds with most 1970s fashion—monastic cloaks and abaya-like jersey evening dresses hid the form under cascades of carefully manipulated fabric, while severe jumpsuits clung to the body. Yuki remarked in a 1975 interview, “I have a tremendous rapport with fabric. It’s an inspiration to me. Each fabric has a different nature and gives me a different idea.” Most closely aligned with Madame Grès, Yuki’s use of jersey to create revealing, plunging “Grecian” gowns gained him a clientele of celebrities and socialites who relished the easy-to-wear sensuality of his dresses, which were more fashion-forward than outwardly sexy. In 1980, when the British fashion industry was in turmoil, Yuki declared bankruptcy (in the same few months as Ossie Clark, John Bates, and Thea Porter). Though he was able to find new investors and restart his company, he gradually shifted his company away from the runway circuit and towards a very exclusive, custom clientele. Even though Yuki has little name recognition today, his designs are still highly sought after on the vintage market due to their wearability and the stark modernity they share with those of his American contemporary, Halston.
A different variant of the avant-garde is found in the designs of BodyMap, the 1980s British duo of David Holah and Stevie Stewart (both b.1958). The pair sold their graduate fashion collection to the venerable London store, Browns, in 1982 and were quickly lauded as new stars of the decade by the alternative fashion press. By reapproaching pattern-making and design they sought to create a new map of the body that reoriented the silhouette through unexpected holes and excess fabric. Their tight, tube-like, stretchy garments were integral to the rise of bodycon dressing in the 1980s, and were showcased on a range of sizes and sexes on the runway—BodyMap was gender-neutral and accepting of all body shapes long before it was a trend. Layering garment over garment—often printed with unique textile patterns designed by Hilde Smith—Holah and Stewart used their clothes to form new body shapes that had little to do with the traditionally fashionable one.
BodyMap was closely linked with the London club and avant-garde art scene, and collaborated with the now legendary Leigh Bowery and Michael Clark on catwalk spectacles. Though BodyMap expanded to several diffusion lines by 1985, the brand had difficulty scaling interest to the masses and went into liquidation the following year. By the late 1980s, their mix of body-conscious and slouchy cuts, innovative prints and layering had been absorbed into mainstream fashion and their influence can still be seen in many streetwear separates today. Luckily for us, Holah and Stewart have started going through their archives for a BodyMap book, expected in 2018.
At first glance, the differences between these designers may be apparent, but they all can be understood to have worked slightly outside the mainstream of fashion: Tassell was based in Los Angeles, which allowed him to experiment with a more constrained palette and silhouette than those competing in Paris and New York; Yuki’s designs were a minimalist counterpoint to the fantasy of British fashion in the 1970s; and BodyMap developed their own radical vocabulary of print and shape in the 1980s. These qualities that prevented their designs from aging and looking stuffy, allowing them to grow in desirability and ease of wear, have also contributed to them being overlooked today. None of them courted fame, celebrity and press in the same manner as some of their contemporaries, and the originality we appreciate now in their garments played a role in them having smaller (in the case of Tassell and Yuki) or shorter lived (in the case of BodyMap) businesses than they might have had otherwise. The inclusion of Gustave Tassell, Yuki and BodyMap in museum collections worldwide and their visible influence on later designers offers key evidence for the importance of digging deeper into fashion history and for celebrating some of the unsung designers of past decades.