How Rudi Gernreich's Style Inspired George Lucas’ 1971 Film 'THX 1138' and 'Star Wars'

William Claxton LLC, Courtesy of Demont Photo Management & Fahey/Klein Gallery

The Fearless Fashion: Rudi Gernreich exhibition, opening May 9 at Skirball Cultural Center, examines the life cycle of the gifted, complex Los Angeles designer.

The late Rudi Gernreich was a design visionary, whose exemplary body of work has inspired all manner of fashion — from Marc Jacobs to Lisa Perry, Marimekko, Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons plus Hedi Slimane — not to mention, Hollywood’s finest.

In Tom Ford’s 2009 screen adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man, the drama’s pivotal female character Charley (Julianne Moore) was costumed in a graphic Gernreich-style hostess dress. "Maybe she’s his muse," Ford admitted, suggesting that Charley’s freewheeling persona might have been inspired by women whom Gernreich looked to for motivation, such as his best-known model, Peggy Moffitt.

Flash back in time to the making of  George Lucas’ 1971 film THX 1138, which eventually generated the Star Wars franchise. According to Hollywood lore, the impetus to the costume design of that original sci-fi thriller was Gernreich's stark, minimalist Unisex collection, which generated a global sensation when the designer presented it at Osaka’s Expo '70 world fair in Japan in March of that year.

"There were three giants in modern fashion — Poiret, Chanel and Gernreich," proclaimed George Hoyningen-Huene, the Russia-born Vogue photographer who served as color adviser for a slew of masterly George Cukor films, including his 1954 remake of A Star Is Born.

The exhibition Fearless Fashion: Rudi Gernreich at the Skirball Cultural Center (opening May 9 and running through Sept. 1) examines the complete life cycle of this gifted, complex Los Angeles designer. It delves into Gernreich’s private life and forges through his professional career in order to thoroughly examine his technical skill as well as his personal identity, which developed after he fled Nazi-ridden Europe and settled in L.A. with his mother, Elisabeth, in 1938.

Gernreich was born into the Vienna, Austria, fashion system in 1922. His aunt, Hedwig Mueller, operated an upscale women’s fashion boutique which became his home away from home — and the place where he produced his first dress sketches — after his hosiery manufacturer father, Siegmund Gernreich, passed away in 1930. "He was a Holocaust refugee and he found sanctuary in Los Angeles, which we explore," states Bethany Montagano, the Skirball curator who conceived Fearless Fashion with Skirball’s assistant curator, Danielle Killam.

Driven by a "social conscience" or the freedom-fighting rebellious spirit which guided Gernreich’s hand, the exhibition integrates 80 important ensembles he crafted over the course of his three-decade design career that developed professionally after he left his position within Lester Horton’s dance troupe in 1951. (Horton, a notable film choreographer,  is credited with sparking the modern dance movement in L.A.)  A sartorial journey through Gernreich’s momentous lifetime, each section of the exhibition lends to 50 custom-built mannequins upon which most of the garments hang.

"Gernreich sought to celebrate the natural form, not suppress it," explained Killam.

Figures were specially made for the exhibit with flat feet, while a group of 10 mannequins were sculpted to portray striking, kinetic poses. This dynamic character evokes movement, which always motivated Gernreich’s designs after he left his position within Horton’s dance troupe to pursue his professional fashion career in 1951 — reflected in the poses which his muse, Moffitt, and models Barbara Flood and Leon Bing, struck when captured in his clothes.

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The bespoke mannequins were the brainchild of Humberto Leon (co-artistic director of Kenzo, who serves as Fearless Fashion’s creative director). Leon also sells the Rudi Gernreich capsule collection (recently launched under the artistic direction of Camilla Nickerson and Neville Wakefield) at Opening Ceremony, the concept store he operates with his partner Carol Lim.

A longtime fan of Gernreich's work, Leon passionately believed that the bespoke mannequins would lend distinction to the exhibition, which follows a number of Gernreich shows such as the 2012 MOCA show "The Total Look" (curated by Cameron Silver) that celebrated Gernreich's partnership with Moffitt and photographer William Claxton.

Silver, a curator and fashion director for H by Halston, sees room for another exhibition, given Gernreich's revolutionary approach to design:  "The work warrants it," he says. "Rudi Gernreich was an incubator of so many ideas." 

Killam astutely gets an old warhorse out of the way by showcasing Gernreich’s most famous design — the "monokini" topless bathing suit — as the exhibition’s first item.

By 1964, with encouragement from a Look magazine editor who was "determined to publicize it," Gernreich had come up with the revealing swimming costume, which was ultimately brandished by a prostitute in the Bahamas for Look magazine in a conservative "back-view" photograph. After Gernreich released full-frontal photographs of Moffitt flaunting it, the Vatican and the Kremlin were among his denouncers. Nevertheless, he was famous and doing brisk business, as 3,000 monokinis were sold by exclusive department stores such as B. Altman and Co.

Meanwhile, the exhibition's section "Minis, Mods and Pantsuits" portrays how this ardent provocateur helped to “dress an equitable society" by displaying his emancipating, boundary-pushing '60s garb, including one of the first micro-minis (launched in tandem with Mary Quant and Andre Courreges’ short skirts) as well as ensembles named after Marlene Dietrich, the Duke of Windsor, Ringo Starr and the novelist George Sand that helped to normalize the concept as acceptable women’s attire.

Another exhibition section, "Unisex Solidarity," displays an original jumpsuit Gernreich displayed at Expo '70 as well as vibrant caftans he produced in the early '70s for Moffitt, her husband, William Claxton, and their son Christopher; while "Swimsuits and Undergarments" gives him his due for dreaming up designer underwear.

Enhancing Fearless Fashion’s immersive quality is interview footage testifying to Gernreich’s quest to imbue his designs with profound meaning. Case in point is an emotionally charged conversation with the late Henry "Harry" Hay, the L.A. activist and Gernreich’s one-time partner who in 1950 founded the Mattachine Society, the first lasting American Gay Rights Movement. Gernreich was Mattachine’s second member. “It is timely to tell Rudi’s story," reflects Montagano. "He is a wonderful avatar to display how to use your platform to create positive change."