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Enter Jack Hanson, who had just opened Jax in Beverly Hills (the boutique chain has since grown to eight stores). "We had far-out things of our own," says Hanson, "so we had a ready-made clientele for Rudi's stuff, and we pushed him." The three-way association worked profitably for seven years. In 1959, Gernreich and Bass separated. Four years later, with Bonwit Teller anxious to carry Gernreich's clothes and Hanson determined to have him exclusively or not at all, they too broke. "Rudi is a supreme egotist," says Bass, who now runs gas stations. Echoes Hanson: "He's a publicity hound."
Nude Ritual. On his own, Gernreich has prospered. The medium-high-priced ($90 to $500) clothes that he puts out under his own label gross close to $1,000,000 a year. The lower-priced ($40 to $125) knitwear that he creates for Harmon grosses another $2,000,000. Just this year, he also contracted to design silk signature scarves for Glentex and a collection of knee socks, stockings and panty hose for the McCallum Boutique.
For all his flamboyance and wit as a designer, and as a raconteur among friends, Gernreich is so shy and nervous in public that he sometimes breaks out in a rash, incessantly smokes black Sherman's Cigarettellos. He is not married, but unlike many designers who squire their customers to public events, he shuns big parties and nightclubs. Instead, he prefers entertaining small groups in his modern split-level Hollywood Hills house, which he has decorated in austere white with leather-tile floors and classic Mies van der Rohe and Charles Eames furniture.
Scarcely a day goes by at his house without Gernreich's taking a ritual sun-bath and a swim in the nude in his private pool, where he also tests out new swimsuit fabrics. As a former dancer and an outdoors-loving Californian, he believes wholeheartedly in the natural body. He has carried his beliefs into practice. Today, Editor of French Vogue Françoise de Langlade de La Renta claims: "No one has freed the body like Rudi Gernreich, and I doubt that anyone so overflows with ideas." One of his most liberating designs was a simple knit tank suit with no inner construction. It came at a time when women were bathing in suits so full of stays and gussets that they practically stood up by themselves. "Just a revival of swim suits that were worn in the 1920s," he says today, but his 1954 suit, and those that came later have made Gernreich the most famous bathing-suit designer in the field.