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His father, a hosiery executive, died when Rudi was eight. He detested school because of its "rigid militaristic atmosphere." His sanctuary was the dress shop run by one of his aunts. He became so enthralled with the world of dress design that plans were made to send him to Paris to become an apprentice in a major couture house. But Hitler's armies were threatening Europe, and instead of going to Paris, Rudi's mother, who died two years ago, fled with her only child to America just before the Anschluss in 1938. Gernreich was 16.
After settling in Los Angeles, where his mother had friends, he divided his days between studying art at Los Angeles City College and working as an office boy for $8 per week, which, together with the small sums his mother earned by baking pastries at home, enabled them to eke out a living. Then one night he happened in on a performance of Martha Graham's modern-dance company. "It had such a tremendous impact on me that it changed my life," he says. An instant convert, he dropped art, began studying with Lester Horton ("a kind of West Coast Martha Graham"), and danced his way through the 1940s as a member of Horton's company.
Crazy Sketches. By his own confession, Gernreich was never a great dancer. But being with the company gave him the chance to design costumes, the first real clothes that he had ever created. He also picked up a job designing fabrics. To dramatize them, he had them photographed draped around live models. People who saw the ads wrote to suggest that Gernreich try designing clothes, and so in 1949 he produced his first "experimental collection." A number of Los Angeles stores, including I. Magnin, wanted to order them, but, rues Rudi, "I had no way of producing them, I had no knowledge about manufacturing."
Gernreich began learning the hard way, working for dress designers on the West Coast and in Manhattan. "I was expected to turn out collections based on Dior and Fath," he recalls, "but I was ready to burst out with new ideas." His chance to do so came in 1952, when he teamed up with Walter Bass, a fellow Viennese emigrant and the son of a tailor to royalty. Bass at the time was turning out classic women's suits-tight-fitting, full of darts, and with broad padded shoulders-in a small loft in Beverly Hills. "Rudi was doing these crazy sketches, but nobody knew what to do with them," says Bass. But with Gernreich designing and Bass handling the business end, the pair produced a line of loose-cut, tightly belted dresses in ordinary ginghams and rayon tweeds. The operation was tiny, but, says Rudi, "for the first time, I could do what I wanted to do." Says Bass: "It was really a wild line, like a car with wings. Sometimes I thought I was committing suicide."