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Designer Geoffrey Beene Dies At 77

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Geoffrey Beene, the award-winning designer whose simple, classic styles for men and women put him at the forefront of American fashion, died Tuesday at 77.

Beene died at his home of complications of pneumonia, according to Russell Nardozza, vice president of Geoffrey Beene Inc.

The designer launched his own company on a shoestring budget in 1963 and turned it into a fashion empire. Along with Bill Blass, Beene was regarded as one of the godfathers of American sportswear.

Beene had planned to be a doctor, but found himself daydreaming instead about fashions while in pre-med classes at Tulane University — and it showed, Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology told CBS Radio News.

"I think partly because he'd studied medicine briefly, he really understood the human anatomy and he glorified the human body in motion," Steele said. "He created clothes that were easy to move in."

Steele said Beene's designs were one of a kind.

"He was known for his surgically-precise cutting and his use of very fluid materials to create body-conscious and individualist dresses," she said.

Beene was an eight-time winner of the Coty Fashion Critics Award and the first American designer to show his clothes in Milan. He was widely hailed for his innovative and iconoclastic work.

"He was probably the greatest American designer of the past few decades, really one of the most artistic and individual designers that this country has ever produced," said Steele.

"A designer's designer, Geoffrey Beene is one of the most artistic and individual of fashion's creators," read the plaque given to him on New York's Fashion Center Walk of Fame. A 1993 New York Times article described him as "an artist who chooses to work in cloth."

"The more you learn about clothes, the more you realize what has to be left off," he once said. "Simplification becomes a very complicated procedure."

Beene's trademark dressy but comfortable clothing was perhaps best epitomized by a sequined evening dress/football jersey in his 1967 collection. That same year, he designed the wedding dress for first daughter Lynda Bird Johnson.

Born in Haynesville, La., Beene's first job in the industry came when he signed on as an assistant in the display department of the downtown Los Angeles branch of I. Magnin, the clothing store. A company executive recognized his talent, and encouraged Beene to get a job in fashion.

He moved to New York City in 1947, enrolled at the Traphagen School of Fashion, and then went off to Paris to learn the business. He returned to New York and got his first big break in 1954, a job designing for Teal Traina and his fledgling firm.

In 1963, Beene opened his own company in a champagne-colored showroom on Seventh Avenue, and the business was an instant success. In its first year, Geoffrey Beene Inc. sold $500,000 worth of clothes, a figure that would quadruple in just two years. The next year he won the first of his Coty Awards.

He became a New York institution, entertaining friends in his Upper East Side apartment or tending orchids in the greenhouse at his Oyster Bay getaway home. The genteel Beene even engaged in one of the great New York traditions — the feud — as he battled for years with Women's Wear Daily, the industry bible.

No funeral services are planned, according to Narozza. He is survived by a sister, Barbara Ann Wellman of Conroe, Texas.