Last weekend I was invited to the debut fashion show of the newly relaunched House of Irene. For those of us who love classic cinema, this was incredible news. After all, Irene was a name I never expected to hear during Los Angeles Fashion Week.
When it comes to costume designers of Old Hollywood, Irene Lentz is one of the greats. Known simply as Irene, she began her career in fashion with a dress shop and line of her own in Los Angeles. Her collections caught the eye of the legendary Bullocks-Wilshire department store, who quickly asked her to become the head of their Costume Design Salon. This was the early 1930s and the place where every star shopped, such as Marlene Dietrich who reportedly stopped traffic when she entered the store in an all white pantsuit (at a time when women only wore skirts). This was also the time when even the movie studios would turn to Bullocks-Wilshire whenever they needed additional costumes for their pictures. MGM, Paramount, RKO, Columbia, and United Artists all collaborated with Irene in picture after picture as of 1933. Her stunning designs can be seen on Ginger Rogers in Shall We Dance (1937), Constance Bennett in Topper (1937), and friend Carole Lombard in To Be or Not to Be (1941). Just to name a few.
In 1942, MGM finally decided they wanted Irene for their own and invited her to be their Executive Designer when Adrian left to do his own fashion line. There she would create iconic costumes for everyone from Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)--a film that is one of The Style Essentials on GlamAmor for its lasting impact on fashion--to Esther Williams in Jupiter's Daughter (1949). She also did offscreen wardrobes for stars like Ava Gardner among others. Clearly, Irene had great range in her designs though she always maintained that somewhat subtle but sexy style voice.
Though she would still do later films for friends like Doris Day in Lover Come Back (1961), Irene was never quite content at MGM and asked for permission to open a boutique under her own name once again. It seems as though her time at the studio--already infamous for its politics and creative control--could not have been easy. Even her legacy is somewhat lost in it all. For one, she is frequently confused with Irene Sharaff simply because of their shared name; Sharaff's background in Broadway brought a very different design sensibility to the studio. And of course, historically Irene finds herself sandwiched between the legends of Adrian and Helen Rose, who succeeded her in 1949 as MGM's Head of Costume Design.
But make no mistake about it...Irene has her own style story to tell. Elegant. Subtle. Sensual. Luxurious. These adjectives all come to mind. Gowns and suiting were her strengths, but she was capable of it all. Her name stood for quality regardless of the garment. Great attention was paid to both the fabric and the cut, which included the clever use of stripes, other patterns, or buttons to bring detail to her designs. This was especially smart in the 1940s when World War II severely restricted the amount of textile and trim a costume designer could use. Irene's precision in her fit also made every woman who wore her clothes look and feel like perfection. I've seen firsthand the craftsmanship of her clothing and timelessness of her style. Both guarantee her designs will last forever.
Proof of this can be seen today through Greg LaVoi. LaVoi has long been a fan of Irene's style. As costume designer for TNT's The Closer (as well as other television shows), he frequently dressed star Kyra Sedgwick in vintage Irene. Now he has taken it one step further by relaunching the Irene label and making her designs available to all who can afford it. The style is so timeless that the pieces in the runway collection--all originally conceived by Irene decades ago--are still stunning today. LaVoi even used updated fabrics, such as fashionable leather, to show just how modern these clothes can be. The audience stood when applauding its approval, one that included celebrities like Mary McDonnell, Kim Delany, Gil and Eric Garcetti (who just won primary for LA mayor), and stylist Lawrence Zarian. It also included Irene's great niece Karlyn, who told me how impressed she was by all the renewed respect for her aunt and her vast talent. Join me in the front row for this glamorous fashion show and experience the quiet drama of the House of Irene for yourself.
Irene Lentz in the 1940s at MGM (above)
and designer Greg LaVoi with friend and client Kyra Sedgwick (in vintage Irene) on the red carpet
The crowd and photographers--which included former LA District Attorney Gil Garcetti (standing, below left)--
gather for the glamorous show staged near Paramount at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood
Kyra looks on approvingly as the show opens with signature suiting by Irene,
including the clever use of a striped pattern and her trademark rolled back cuffs
In the 1940s, fabrics became scarce due to WWII and designers had to think of clever ways to add detail...
here Irene's extended tabs add drama to the design of an otherwise seemingly simple suit
Beautiful bold coats and capes accompanied the smart suiting
LaVoi used leather to update Irene's capes, suit separates, and pants
Beautiful loose silk blouses were paired with slim but swingy "Katharine Hepburn" trousers
The peacock print of this silk blouse was a signature for Greg LaVoi
and appeared in great dresses and gowns as well
The two show-stopping Irene gowns that closed the show
TNT's After Party took place in the sound stage next door
and was filled with mannequins dressed in vintage Irene ensembles
Of course this orange strapless Irene gown was a favorite,
but all the dresses were extraordinary