The Chic Life and Tragic Death of a Revered Costume Designer

Issue 12 STY Irene Lentz Gallery Main Image - H 2013
Peter Stackpole//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Issue 12 STY Irene Lentz Gallery Main Image - H 2013

51 years after Irene Lentz took her own life, the timeless looks she created for Marlene Dietrich and Lana Turner are being brought back in a new fashion line.

This story first appeared in the April 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Anyone with even a perfunctory knowledge of costume design knows the names Adrian, Edith Head and Bob Mackie. But few have heard of Irene Lentz, a twice-Oscar-nominated designer who had a charmed career that ended in tragedy when she leapt to her death from her room at Hollywood's Knickerbocker Hotel in 1962.

Lentz not only costumed Hollywood's Golden Age stars for the big screen -- famously putting Lana Turner in then-scandalous high-waist shorts with a midriff-baring top in 1946's The Postman Always Rings Twice -- she also dressed them in real life. Her eponymous Irene clothing line was one of only two to have its own salon at Los Angeles' famed Bullocks Wilshire department store in the 1930s and '40s. (Coco Chanel had the other.) But over recent decades, Lentz largely was forgotten. "She is the most celebrated costume designer nobody has heard of," says TV and movie costume designer Greg LaVoi, who is writing a book about her.

Her close friend Doris Day -- whom Lentz dressed in the early-’60s films Lover Come Back and Midnight Lace -- still fondly remembers her. "She was such a talented designer, and I loved everything she did for me," Day tells THR. "She knew exactly what I liked, and when we did a film, we didn't even have to discuss my wardrobe because she knew what I would wear."

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Lentz -- Oscar-nominated for Midnight Lace and 1948's B.F.'s Daughter -- was revered for her dresses in ultrafine silk souffle, luxurious bias-cut chiffon gowns and kick-pleated day skirts. Her looks represented a new wave of modern American dressing: wide swingy trousers with elegant silk blouses, tailored suits cut to hug a woman's curves, with hand stitching and exquisite buttons. "Her tailoring flattered a woman's figure," says Doris Raymond, owner of L.A. consignment store The Way We Wore.

Now -- 51 years after her suicide at age 61 -- Lentz's designs have won a new group of admirers: Tory Burch has worn a Lentz creation on the NYC charity circuit, and for 2010's The Tourist, costume designer Colleen Atwood put Angelina Jolie in a caramel shawl and ivory sheath based on an Irene look. "I have always been enamored of the refinement of her eye," says Atwood. But her most enthusiastic fan is LaVoi. During the run of TNT's The Closer, he dressed star Kyra Sedgwick in 60-year-old suits, and this spring took the bold step of relaunching the Irene line with the blessing of her family. Irene pieces come up for sale occasionally at The Way We Wore and Melrose Avenue's Decades and are priced around $1,800 to $3,800.

Lentz's design career began modestly. After moving to L.A. from Baker, Mont., in 1920 at age 20, she worked as a bit actress in Mack Sennett silent films before opening a tiny boutique, Irene of California, on the USC campus where she basically "dressed coeds," according to LaVoi. But after her husband of 11 months, silent-film director F. Richard Jones, died of tuberculosis at age 37, Lentz left for Europe, where she discovered European couture.

When she returned, she opened another boutique at 9000 Sunset Blvd. and built a following among the wealthy wives of studio execs -- including MGM chief Louis B. Mayer's daughters Irene and Edith -- and a celebrity clientele that would come to include Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner and Carole Lombard. Soon, Bullocks came calling with an offer to open her own custom design shop at the store (where Gary Cooper, a reputed lover, visited). Her first big film break came when loyal customer Dolores del Rio insisted Lentz design her costumes for the 1933 film Flying Down to Rio.

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Lentz, usually credited as Irene, began working for United Artists and Columbia Pictures. Then one day, Mayer called. "I thought maybe he wanted me to design wardrobe for some pictures," Lentz once said. Instead, he offered her the job as head of MGM's costume department, replacing the famed Adrian, who was leaving to start his own fashion line. During her tenure, Lentz (who had closed her shop at Bullocks) clashed with Mayer. "It was not easy for her," says fashion writer Mary Hall, founder of The Recessionista blog, who has researched Lentz's life. "She had conflicts with Mayer because she wanted quality in design. Mayer's top priority was economy in design." In addition to work pressures, her marriage to screenwriter Eliot Gibbons (brother of MGM head art director Cedric Gibbons) was said to be unhappy.

By the end of the ’40s, Lentz wanted out of MGM. She secured funding from 20 stores, including Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, to relaunch her line at a more mass-market level. "It was marketing genius. Upscale stores could offer clients the Irene garments that stars loved," says Hall. "Today, that would be similar to how someone like [designer] Janie Bryant has leveraged Mad Men to design a fashion line for Banana Republic. Except Irene was a fashion designer before she went to the studios."

But if her career sounds like a Hollywood movie, the ending is a tear-jerker. On Nov. 15, 1962, days after her latest show received rave reviews, Lentz checked into the Knickerbocker in Hollywood. (The now-closed hotel has a history of tragedy: Actress Frances Farmer was arrested there before her institutionalization, and I Love Lucy's William Frawley was dragged there to die after he had a heart attack on the street.)

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After a night of heavy drinking (she downed two pints of vodka), Lentz leapt out an 11th-floor window, only to land on an awning and have her body found later that night. A suicide note read: "I'm sorry. This is the best way. Get someone very good to design and be happy. I love you all, Irene."

There's some mystery behind what exactly drove her to such despair. Day wrote in her 1975 autobiography that Lentz had confided to her a longtime love for Cooper. The married actor, known for his affairs, had died the year before. Day wrote, "Thinking about it now, I cannot say whether Irene's love was one-sided or whether she and Cooper had actually had or were having an affair." But there were other factors: her husband's ill health following a series of strokes, her alcoholism and an incident (recounted by client Barbara Sinatra in her autobiography) in which she suffered facial paralysis after falling asleep with her face under an electric blanket.

Sadly, her line closed a few years after her death. But Lentz no doubt would be pleased to see her designs coming back into style. Says Day: "I can see why there is interest in her today. I often hear from fans telling me how much they loved my wardrobes in films, and I can thank Irene for that. Her designs are truly timeless."