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Unearthing a Treasure Trove of Rudi Gernreich Fashions, The WHOLE Story
I adore recounting this interminable tale about my Vintage Rudi Gernreich collection because there has been so much speculation and disinformation surrounding the unearthing of this incredible collection of treasures.
It was the late summer of 1995 just shortly after I had opened my very first boutique, The Paper Bag Princess in West Hollywood, which was tucked discretely behind the MAC Makeup flagship shop on Santa Monica Blvd. I received a call from one of the producers of the OPRAH show and they asked if I would consider appearing on one of her upcoming shows entitled, “Are You Rich and You Don’t Know It?” I was cheeky in my reply when I chirped, I was wondering when I might hear from Oprah, and that I had been saving myself for her show! Apparently my humor was somewhat infectious and they booked me there on the spot! I was flying off to Chicago a week later.
Now the truth is that no matter where I travel in the world, and for whatever reason, I always managed to find time to go Treasure Hunting. So true to form, while I was in Chicago and on my off time from shooting the Oprah show I used my first book, The Rag Street Journal, The Ultimate Guide to shopping Thrift Across North America, Henry Holt, New York, to guide me through the back streets of Chicago in my hopes of unearthing something fabulous, for this was un-chartered territory for me back then and you never know what you will find hidden away.
In my travels around Chicago I stumbled into a small but well tended vintage shop called Strange Cargo and spotted a couple of interesting garments, so I asked one of the clerks if they had any high-end vintage garments that may not be on the sales floor, (always a good tip). The clerk replied with a question, ‘Well what are you looking for?” My thoughts of course as any seasoned collector would toss back, “Oh I will know it when I see it”, but I continued with a statement, which seemed to simply bewilder the sales clerk; I said, “Do you have any Rudi Gernreich?”
Now truthfully to this day, I have no idea why I pulled that particular vintage designer name out of my head, but there you have it, I said it, and the sales staff was completely dumfounded, as she replied, yes, here are a few pairs of pants. But not just any pants, these were fabulous dead stock Harmon’s Knit pants with their price tags still intact. I snatched them from her hands and proclaimed them mine as I slipped into the dressing room.
Well this was rather alarming since these two pair of pants were perhaps the most expensive things in the entire store, so the sales clerk hovered over me as I fitted myself in the dressing room. I emerged shortly and exclaimed I would take the two pair of pants, however I would inquire if by chance they would have any more Rudi’s. Again the clerk said, “Well yes, but they are in the back, and I will have to go and get them”, so I agreed I would wait.
She returned with half a dozen very interesting pieces of Gernreich, which were clearly from the same collection, and again I said I would try them on, and again that concerned look crept across her face. Once again I exited the dressing room and almost tripped over her as she hovered, and I said, ‘Yes, okay please add these to my pile of purchases, but now do you have any more?”
She was about to turn to her stockroom again when the owner of the shop disclosed them self to me, and asked if he could help me. I replied, “well yes, I am just wondering if you have any more Rudi Gernreich’s?” At which point he insisted if I were to tell him what size I wore and what I was really interested in that he would bring more out to me. At this point it seemed silly to keep going back to their stockroom to choose things they thought I might like, so I suggested I simply pop my head in and have a good look myself.
Goodness I thought they would die at that request, however they finally relented and let me have a glance at an over head hanging rack that to my amazement was crammed packed full of dead stock Rudi Gernreichs! I seriously thought they would have a heart attack when I proclaimed I would like to try them all on.
Seriously, it was like these were their precious little newborns that I was about to snatch them from their playpens! As the story goes they conceded, and let me take them in small groups, however upon my second return to the stockroom, the owner was about twenty steps behind me, which was just long enough for me to get a proper unhindered look around the stock room, at which point I looked up to see that the entire perimeter of the ceiling was stacked four feet tall with boxes of garments from HARMON’S KNITS. Could these all be even more Rudi’s, I dared not dream of it for this was enough to stop the heart of even the most seasoned vintage treasure hunter. I held my breath, as I pleaded in my sweetest, ‘Wolf in Blond Clothing’ voice. And in a wide sweeping motion with my outstretched arms I said, “Could I see ALL of this”.
At this point I truly think they contemplated tossing me out on my ass. However, he responded with, “I do not have a staff member to spare as they need to stay out on the sales floor, so I am not able to get them all down for you right now”. “Oh that is okay” I said, “Honestly I do not mind doing the work to get them down myself!” “Yes but I can’t be liable for you up on my ladder”. “Not to worry”, I implored him, “I promise I won’t sue you, seriously I will sign whatever you need me to, just let me go through them myself and I will choose what I want.”
In truth I am sure you may never have seen anyone work so fast flipping through so many boxes as I did. One after another I tossed them down off the shelf with the skill of a surgeon in a high-stakes poker game, never missing a suture or a trump card. By the end of an hour I had opened every single box and had them all out on the sales floor stacked in rows of styles and coordinating colors.
Now anyone who has ever shopped in a vintage boutique and seen someone like myself in high-gear, will know that behavior such as this is bound to draw attention and like hyenas to a fresh kill the little fashionestas start to creep out from behind every rack, and crack in every corner of the shop. They circle me like great white sharks that swam massive oceans drawn by the scent of fresh blood. Now they all want a tasty bite, and they can’t believe I intend to buy every last morsel of this beautiful bounty. Could I not just give up one or two little pieces? NO I declare!
But wait we are forgetting the urgency, I am in town for two days, I am supposed to be working shooting the OPRAH Show, and instead I am dirty up to my elbows in the dust of some thirty odd years of dead stock Rudi Gernreich fashions. No, No, I am taking all of it I exclaim again, as I believe I might have gently pushed an advancing hysterical hyena back into their corner, being ever so careful not to allow any of their salacious drool to hit the garments laid out before me. This was now a time for serious negotiations and these frothing, fighting fashion groupies were truly cramping my style.
It was time to wrap these babies up and put them out of sight and out of mind. I called out for some giant garbage bags, and I stuffed every last bikini, bando, and bell-bottoms into those bags, faster than a well-heeled Beverly Hills housewife at Neiman’s Last Call!
Now to make matters worse, the owner of the shop did not want to take a credit card, nor a check, but rather, he wanted either cash, or a certified check. Oh come on, I had just fought a ferocious battle in 6 inch heels to secure this kill and now he was adding terms which could send the curorial scavengers back from their lairs to congregate around my bounty in the hopes that I can’t meet his terms.
I had to think fast, so I gave him a check for the full amount, and allowed him to take an imprint of my credit card, and promised I would be back in five days with either cash, or a cashier’s check to pay for it in full. This was serious business as there were well over one hundred pieces in all. So I tied the tightest knots I could muster in the half dozen large garbage bags that now contained my treasures, and assured him I would be back from LA in just five days. (I did not dare tell him who I was and that I was in town to shoot an episode of OPRAH, in fear that the price just might go up!)
I headed back to my hotel, did not sleep a wink, left the next morning for LA, only to return four days later to shoot the final segment on the show with Oprah herself live in the studio. Now one would think I would have been nervous to shoot the show, but heck no, I was terrified my stash of Rudi Gernreichs might have vanished. So when the limo driver from the OPRAH show came to collect me at the airport I asked him for one tiny little favor. “Could we take a little detour before you drop me at my hotel?”
So I pulled up in a super-size black Limo to the front doors of Strange Cargo with a nice big fat white envelope clutched in my hand bursting with cash to collect my Rudi’s. I swear they could not believe their eyes when I pulled up directly from the airport with all that money! I wish I could say that after I handed the shop owner the money my stress dissipated, heavens no, for now I needed to trust that he would ship everything I just paid for all the way home to me in Los Angeles.
I think those were the longest five weeks of my life. I had just spent a small fortune buying this incredible collection and I drove away with nothing but a handful of pieces that could fit in my carryon suitcases home. I did manage to pull one fabulous purple dress from the collection to wear on OPRAH the following day.
I delighted in the rumors I heard over the ensuing years, that one particular notable Los Angeles based vintage purveyor, not to be outdone by little old me, professed they had purchased all the jewels of this Rudi Gernreich collection first, and had left behind only the insignificant pieces. I giggled to contemplate why on earth anyone would ever say such as silly thing, for if they were to have left all this glorious collection behind they must sure be completely out of their minds!
Turns out that Strange Cargo had originally unearthed this cohesive collection of Rudi Gernreichs years earlier from the remaining inventory of an old boutique that had closed somewhere in the Midwest. They had bought out the store’s inventory and had found all these wonderful pieces from one of Rudi’s very last collections dating back to 1973.
Many people have asked me over the years to sell this collection that I have kept under lock and key, however I felt it really warranted just the right moment in time and suitable situation to make such an incredible find make sense to disperse. For if you were to set out today to try to amass such a collection, it simply does not exist in totality. The chances of such a large collection of important dead stock Rudi Gernreich lying undetected and dormant for all these years is next to implausible.
That being said, after the last few years working with the incredible team at 1stdibs, Clair Watson and I put our heads together and decided that perhaps the time had come, we now had the right vehicle to give such and important collection the celebration and momentum it deserved.
However, it is certainly easier said than completed, and we have taken the necessary time to curate the collection, and all its augments over the years from other important contributors such as the two Kabuki dresses from Mrs. Walter Bass, Rudi’s original benefactor and collaborator, as well as the selection of printed silk dresses from his original sample maker May, as well as the small selection of swimsuits which are a delicious study collection.
Rudi Gernreich holds a very special place in my creative heart for he undisputedly dance fiercely to the beat of his own drum, transcending dance, into fashion, and fashion into art, and ultimately at the end of his career and life, he chose to create food as art. Always following his guides and muses he chose freely what pleased his creative voice wherever that lead him, and that is a mantra I truly subscribed to as an artist myself. He was perhaps one of the single most significant voices of the youth fashion movement in California in the early 1960s and 70s.
*A portion of the proceeds of this sale will fund the tremendous work of The Bridges to Independent Living, a non-profit organization to assist at risk youths who are emancipated out of the Los Angeles Foster Care system.
Elizabeth M. Mason