How I wish you here. Perhaps, it’s the thought of Daphne Guinness dressing, or is it undressing, for the Met Party in Barney’s windows tonight that has me thinking and missing him. God, how he would have loved and loathed that thought! Beene adored spectacle. He was the first in fact to marry the art of spectacle with fashion, staging fabulous shows as performance and dance pieces. But an English aristocrat disrobing in public? At Barney’s. I don’t think so. “Every time I go into Barney’s,” he once told me. “All I see are homeless women. Homeless women carrying their shopping bags to their chauffeur driven limos.”
Known as G.B. to a teeny tiny elite not including me but never as Geoffrey, Geoff, or any diminutive thereof, Beene was the most obstreperous, intimidating figure to ever emerge from the womb of American fashion. Maybe this insistence on the Mr. was a symptom of living life as a diminutive, that is, as a short man. He would have denied it, of course. He was a master of vehement denial, Mr. Beene. “It’s a question of respect, of good manners,” he might have said instead. Unlike his first-name peers, Calvin, Ralph, and Donna, Beene was a not a man of the people. He didn’t care much for most people. Period. Which is another reason why I liked him. Hilariously outspoken (always in that barely audible Southern drawl) and correct in everything but his politics, opinions, and wildy imaginative designs, Beene was, like the English, only rude intentionally.
This was a character flaw that ran like the San Andreas fault beneath the surface, creating major quakes and tremors throughout his career. Among the most famous examples was the morning Anna Wintour came to his showroom for a private viewing of an upcoming collection. At the end of it, she turned to him and said: “Where’s the velvet, Geoffrey? I’d like to see some velvet.” I shudder, even now, just thinking about it. Whispering to an underling, Beene stood there, quietly waiting and probably smiling, while the rest of the room fidgeted in barely suppressed terror and nervousness. When the underling returned, toting a pair of tattered velvet slippers, Beene picked them up with his fingertips and delicately placed them in front of her. “This is the only velvet in the house,” he said. And that was it. Vogue never mentioned his name or showed his clothing in its pages again.
Today, it would be an act akin to seppuku. Professional suicide. But when I heard about the incident, years later, I remember how much I admired the recklessness, the bravery, the impulsiveness of the gesture. I suspect that it might also have had something to do with loyalty to his friend and fan, Grace Mirabella, who had been so unceremoniously dumped as Editor in Chief and replaced by Ms. Wintour.
I’ve never met a Virgo as wickedly impulsive as Beene. But he was also fiercely loyal. Not only to powerful women like Mirabella but to the city’s talented underdogs and fellow outsiders: Annie Flanders in her early days at Details. Kim Hastreiter at Paper. He even left a million to one of his drivers. Then, there was the risk he took in hiring me, a total unknown, to write a book about his work. It was a book in which he didn’t change a single word.
We shared an obsession with ships and departures, too. Because Beene was also a lover of leaving, a man who understood how being at sea consoles even the darkest, most restless heart. “In the days before departure from America,” says the British journalist Sybille Bedford, “you are instantly surrounded by some large, unfocused hopefulness…These last days have an atmosphere, an intensity—the warmth, the emotions are not false. They are ritual. To Americans, sailing is a symbol of travel past and potential, of their peril and their safety; of isolation and flight.” Isolation and flight… Beene’s intimate knowledge of both made him an utterly singular, wise man. Capricious? Oh Yes. There were periods when he shut me out without a word of explanation. Months of silence. But oh how wise he was. And how woefully few, if any, wise men there are left in my life these days.