Fashion: Up, Up & Away

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The Freedom Women Want. The topless, though it came ten years later, was really but a step away from the tank suit. It started when a Women's Wear Daily reporter asked Gernreich about bathing-suit trends, and he blithely predicted that in five years U.S. women would be removing their bras to sunbathe, just as he had seen French women doing on the Riviera for years. He was promptly deluged with callers asking if he really meant it. Recalls Gernreich: "The more I was asked, the more emphatically I said yes." Italian Designer Emilio Pucci was also predicting toplessness and more. Suggested Pucci: "Perhaps they may take to applying lipstick on their nipples as women did in ancient Egypt." To get the drop on him, Gernreich whipped up a prototype topless for Look. To his considerable surprise, half a dozen stores asked to carry them. He put the suit into production, and 3,000 were eventually sold.

The reaction to the topless was explosive. Irate women picketed the stores brandishing signs reading AS MOTHERS WE PROTEST TOPLESS SWIM SUITS and WHAT NEXT? WE REBEL. Women treated Gernreich as a pariah, and men sidled up to tell him the latest dirty topless joke. Gernreich was chagrined. Says he: "It was a difficult period for me to weather."

But fashion professionals understood. Baroness Fiona Thyssen, former European model and sometime boutique owner, sees the topless as "a one-man rebellion against the couturiers' total disregard for the bosom." "He was trying to take away the prurience, the whole perverse side of sex," insists Peggy Moffitt, Gernreich's favorite model, who posed in the topless for the pictures taken by her photographer-husband Bill Claxton. "Rudi was using the bosom as a shape, not as two breasts spilling out of the body," says Peggy. "The topless was an expression of the freedom that every women wants."

Skirts Are Finished. Moffitt and Gernreich have an extraordinary rapport. Most designers tell their models exactly how to present each dress, often train them for days before a showing. Rudi simply lets Peggy try on a dress, frequently at the last minute, and work out her own approach to modeling it. Says Moffitt: "It happens only once in your life, if at all, that you meet a person who is your missing half. It's telepathy, or ESP any way you want to put it."

Whether by the pool or at his office-showroom on Santa Monica Boulevard, Gernreich finds ideas constantly going through his head, jots them down in sketch form, and files them away. What he sees young people wearing, as he drives around Los Angeles in his white Jaguar 3.8 sedan or strolls Manhattan streets, is a major source of inspiration. "The young," he says, "are very inventive about what they want to wear, how they wear it, and what they want to say with it. I get a great many of my ideas from watching them." When time for a new collection nears, he weeds through the sketches that have accumulated to find the two or three key ideas that he will develop as themes with variations.

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