John Fairchild dreamt of Geoffrey Beene the other night. Even in the dream, set in the narrow corridors of the Ritz in Paris, W ‘s editor-at-large and America’s most consistently acclaimed fashion designer did not speak. “I was walking with Oscar [de la Renta], and we saw Geoffrey coming toward us. No escape. You know how narrow the corridors are at the Ritz,” Mr. Fairchild recounted recently. “Geoffrey wouldn’t say hello to us!”
The feud between Mr. Beene and Mr. Fairchild is the stuff of contemporary -fashion legend, dating back, it seems, to the Cold War or at least the bikini. The two men have not spoken since Mr. Beene complained to Mr. Fairchild about a young reporter covering the designer’s fall collection in 1983. “I don’t even know what it is about anymore,” Mr. Fairchild said. “In my dream, I dreamt that Geoffrey presented me my award, and I gave him his.”
In what could have been this year’s most savory moment in fashion, the publisher and the designer were chosen as recipients of the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s lifetime tribute and lifetime achievement awards, respectively. When the news broke, the ceremony at the future site of the Cipriani Wall Street Hotel at 55 Wall Street on Feb. 8 held the promise of real drama, the meeting of two New York fashion powerhouses who have managed to avoid each other for 15 years. Then Mr. Fairchild announced that he could not attend the event because he would be at the 90th birthday party of his paternal uncle that night.
When the two men were asked, instead, to be reunited over a cup of tea, or lunch, to discuss the honor being bestowed upon them, though Mr. Fairchild said he was willing, an aide to Mr. Beene suggested we not even ask his boss.
“That’s the only reason I’m going” to the awards, Mr. Beene said one morning at his studio on West 57th Street. “If he were there, I wouldn’t go. He’s a despicable man,” the Louisiana native drawled. “Oh, let’s not go into it. It’s such a bore to me.”
Mr. Beene cannot be faulted for having great relations with the press. “I used to respect the press,” the designer explained. He looked from his impeccable perch at a black lacquer desk near a clear, wall-length window onto 57th Street. “I don’t as much anymore. Writers and editors got all caught up in celebrity and trends and what will sell a dress,” he said.
The feud with John Fairchild, according to fashion sources, began when Mr. Beene did not appreciate a young journalist sent by Women’s Wear Daily to preview his fall collection in 1983. Mr. Beene telephoned Mr. Fairchild and complained. Mr. Fairchild, whose fatherly pride in his staff is well known, was furious that Mr. Beene dared dictate his choice of writers. Mr. Beene was banned from the pages of WWD . Mr. Fairchild was banned by Mr. Beene.
For many, anger is a luxury we cannot afford. For others, a good feud is their daily toast. “People just assume I’m difficult,” Mr. Beene laughed. “But I have my reasons.” His list of media sorts with whom he does not enjoy a caramelized rapport includes Anna Wintour, Liz Tilberis and even the late fashion czarina Diana Vreeland. “Anna is a difficult woman,” Mr. Beene said. “I haven’t been in Vogue for over four years. She cares more for trends I’m not in step with.” Ms. Tilberis, he said, “should be more independent and not listen to the people around her so much.”
As for Mrs. Vreeland, she and Mr. Beene fell out early in his career. Inspired by seeing Greta Garbo’s Queen Christina one night on television, Mrs. Vreeland rang up Mr. Beene and asked him to concoct a Queen Christina-esque costume for the model Verushka to wear in a Vogue shoot. Mr. Beene’s design set him back some $2,000. “I had to borrow the money,” he recalled. A week or so later, when Mr. Beene presented the dress, he was told Mrs. Vreeland liked it, but she wasn’t going ahead with the Christina theme. He was livid. “‘What did she do? See another movie last night?’ I asked. I never spoke to her again,” Mr. Beene said.
Geoffrey Beene was born on Aug. 30, 1927, in (11)Haynesville, La., “a little town with big ideas,” he said. His father sold cars. His mother, who hoped her son might become a doctor, still resides in the South. While attending medical school on scholarship at Tulane University, Mr. Beene was caught sketching from memory designer Adrian’s costumes for Lucille Ball in Dubarry Was a Lady . The cadavers, you see, were the moment of truth he wished to avoid. When the professor noticed Mr. Beene wasn’t paying attention, he called him to the lectern of the amphitheater.
“Oh, fellas,” he remembered the professor said, holding up Mr. Beene’s sketch pad for all to see. “Look who is drawing dresses.”
Mr. Beene transferred to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles but dropped out to work in the display department at I. Magnin. In 1947, he took a room at a boarding house on the Upper West Side in New York City and attended the Traphagen School of Fashion. The next year, he went to Paris. Crossing the Atlantic was the happiest he’d ever been at that point in life. In Paris, attending his first couture show, Elsa Schiaparelli’s in 1948, “I nearly fainted.” “She and Adrian have been my mentors, with great admiration for Madame Gres,” he said.
Not that Mr. Beene fashions his dreams in Paris now. “Yves Saint Laurent was always derivative, except for the trapeze. And most of [Bernard] Arnault’s choices in designers are horrible,” he said of the chairman of the LVMH company, which owns Christian Dior. “Their clothes are old-fashioned. Like old-fashioned drag, to be precise. And there’s nothing worse than old-fashioned drag.”
More reasons for Mr. Beene and Mr. Fairchild to keep their distance: During a quick rigmarole of 20 questions over the phone, Mr. Fairchild named Yves Saint Laurent one of the most influential designers of the century. He said Schiaparelli only “had her moments.” He declared John Galliano, Mr. Arnault’s choice for the house of Dior, “very influential.” If he hadn’t become a publisher, Mr. Fairchild would like to have become a doctor. Mr. Beene, an architect. Both gentlemen didn’t deny having white hair.
Mr. Beene said his favorite designers of the moment include Isabel Toledo, Douglas Hannant and Alber Elbaz, a protégé who recently signed on to design for Guy Laroche. He advised: “Never look to Europe for inspiration. We’re a modern nation. We move faster. Look here,” he said, looking out his window again. “It’s all on the street.”
Concerning his C.F..D.A. award, Mr. Beene smiled and suggested an alternate title. “I prefer to think of it as a lifetime achieving award,” he said. “As I’m not sailing into the sunset yet.”