Design Veteran Geoffrey Beene Dies at 77

Geoffrey Beene (search), the award-winning fashion designer whose innovative work across the last half-century landed him at the forefront of American fashion, died Tuesday at his Manhattan home. He was 77.

Beene died of complications of pneumonia, according to Russell Nardozza, vice president of Geoffrey Beene Inc., ending a career that took off after he launched his own company on a shoestring budget in 1963 and turned it into a multi-million dollar fashion empire.

Beene was born Aug. 30, 1927, in Haynesville, La., where he initially planned to become a doctor, enrolling in the pre-med program at Tulane University (search). It was during lectures, when Beene became bored, that he began sketching the elaborate gowns designed for Joan Crawford (search) to wear in the film "Humoresque" -- a sign that medicine would not be his future.

His first job in the industry came when he signed on as an assistant in the display department of the downtown Los Angeles branch of I. Magnin, the clothing store chain. A company executive recognized his talent, and encouraged Beene to get a job in fashion.

A move to New York City in 1947 was followed by enrollment at the Traphagen School of Fashion, followed by time in Paris to learn the specifics of the business. His return to New York was followed by his first big break in 1954, a job designing for Teal Traina and his fledgling firm.

In 1963, Beene opened his own company in a champagne-colored showroom on Seventh Avenue, and the business was an instant success. In its first year, Geoffrey Beene Inc. sold $500,000 worth of clothes, a figure that would quadruple in just two years.

In 1964, Beene won the first of eight Coty Fashion Critics Awards. His work is exhibited in museums around the world, and April 27 is "Geoffrey Beene Day" (search) in the designer's home state of Louisiana.

No services for Beene were planned, according to Narozza. He was survived by a sister, Barbara Ann Wellman of Conroe, Texas.