Today we reminisce about
Joan & Adrian, Adrian & Alaïa
“Be true to yourself first. Study, work, and don’t be afraid to stand up for your beliefs. The odds are great but the joy of creating is greater still.”
Adrian Adolph Greenburg was born in Naugatuck, Connecticut, on March 3, 1903, to Gilbert and Helena Pollack Greenburg. Adrian’s parents owned a milliner’s shop in Naugatuck and the young boy grew up surrounded by fabric, ribbons, feathers and the forms that would create the shapes of the fashionable hats of the day, always helping out in the family’s hat shop after school.
Although his father, Gilbert, had hoped his son would attend Yale Law School, Adrian was accepted to the Parsons School of Fine and Applied Art in New York in 1921 and would go on to spend four months at Parsons’ Paris branch. While there, his work on a gown for a costume ball caught Irving Berlin’s attention. Berlin invited him to design costumes for his Music Box Revue in New York City where Adrian was introduced to the wife of Rudolph Valentino. Natacha Rambova invited the young Adrian to come to Hollywood and work on her husband’s film. The Adrian legend says that Adrian took his father’s first name, Gilbert, changed his first name to his last name, and – now as Gilbert Adrian – bought a white suit and a black cape lined in red satin and went west.
Confident, good-looking and 24, Adrian was soon designing costumes for the A-listers of Hollywood, Cecil B. DeMille and Louis B. Mayer. Having been trained in the soft construction of hat fabrics, as well as Parsons’ design skills, it was a hat he designed for Garbo that would influence hat design for a decade and start his reputation. The belted trench and slouch hat of A Woman of Affairs would catch the attention of Women’s Wear Daily. Adrian’s sense of the theatrical needs of the camera were translating easily on to the streets of America.
In 1930, 8 million Americans went to the movies. As Adrian himself would later remark, Joan Crawford in the 1940’s would carry his reputation on her padded shoulders, but in 1932, Crawford would wear the Letty Lynton dress. A white organdie confection of feathers, beads, and ruffles, the Lynton dress took America by storm. It would secure the broadening influence of Hollywood over Paris on American women’s fashion.
In 1938, Adrian began work on The Wizard of Oz, and designed probably the most famous pair of shoes in the world – the Ruby Slippers. Adrian would sign with MGM where he did an average of 50 sketches a day and made $1,000 a week. He worked on more than 250 films in his career a designed for the greatest stars of the day: Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, Jeannette MacDonald, Jean Harlow, Katherine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford. His designs ranged from the “casual to the superb evening wardrobe” seen throughout the Golden Age of Hollywood films.
In 1941, Adrian left the film business and set up his own couture and ready-to-wear label but was forced to close when in 1951 he suffered a serious heart attack. Retiring to Brazil with his wife, Janet Gaynor, and their son Robin, Adrian would return to do the costumes for Camelot but suffered another heart attack and died at the age of 56 in Hollywood where he is buried with his wife.
Adrian dressed Joan for the first time in Our Modern Maidens (1929), accentuating her lithe, slender legs during a dance sequence, and endowing her with a junglelike costume featuring broad stripes slashed across white silk.
During the prolific years ahead, Adrian would, little by little, cultivate a new image for Joan, for whom he designed costumes in thirty-one films, the last being A Woman’s Face in 1941. Joan admitted cheerfully that, prior to her bonding with Adrian, she had made most of her own clothes.
Joan Crawford: The Enduring Star by Peter Cowie, pages 49 & 51
This past February, I attended an exhibition at designer Azzedine Alaïa’s fashion house in Paris. Some of Alaïa’s designs were shown as well as a handful of selected pieces by Adrian which Alaïa had purchased from him prior to his death. These acquisitions were made possible thanks to the friendship they had formed some years earlier in the mid 1950’s when Alaïa was just starting out in fashion design. Several of Alaïa’s pieces were on display because they had been directly inspired by some of Adrian’s own creations.
For the first time ever, Adrian’s designs were being shown in France.
ADRIAN and ALAÏA: The Art of Tailoring
In its first parallel exhibition, Association Azzedine Alaïa presents the work of Azzedine Alaia and Gilbert Adrian, a designer held in great esteem by Azzedine Alaïa.
Curated by Assocation Azzedine Alaïa under the direction of Olivier Saillard, the exhibition highlights the subtle transmission of elegance and style that can happen between two great couturiers even when separated by decades and continents as they both focus on executing the same garments – the construction of the jacket.
Seen here through exploration of fabric and form, one can follow the unspoken heritage moving from a master’s eye to the hand of another master as only the best of talents can do. Presented in a pairing of a number of suits over the course of their respective careers, two great couturiers share their unique dialogue in fabric and cut.
Gilbert Adrian, who would be known simply as Adrian throughout his career, was the head of costumes at Metro Goldwyn Mayer in Hollywood during the “Golden Age” of movies through the 1930’s. His work became synonymous with Hollywood glamour and the silver screen. Adrian’s talented ranged from Jean Harlow’s vamp wardrobe in Dinner at Eight, the costumes for the Wizard of Oz, to his tour de force for the entire cast of 1939’s The Women.
So in demand were his designs that in the 1940’s, Adrian left Hollywood to establish a couture design house in New York where his look of the strong tailored suits worn by Katherine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford established American Fashion during the 1940’s and 1950’s.
Azzedine Alaïa arrived in Paris in the 1960’s. In spite of his youthful lack of funding his gifted eye for the unique was always open. Azzedine Alaïa started collecting art, design, and fashion as he practiced his craft.
Alaïa would also go on to become a major collector of Adrian’s work.
Artist, costume design and couturier, Adrian was admired by Azzedine Alaïa for his sophisticated technical constructions, his couture Parisian detail in craftsmanship and cut, his use of fabric and his imaginative wit.
But it was Adrian’s broad shouldered and narrow waisted power suit of the 1940’s that pioneered a revolution in the way women dressed that most struck the young Alaïa. From his native Tunisia in the 1950’s he had admired the Parisian women as elegant, strong and invincible. The Alaïa aesthetic would grow more powerful from that memory. Alaïa had studied to sculpt and mold, now it would begin to inform his personal style.
In 1979 when in his atelier Rue de Bellechasse, an Alaïa couture costumer, the baroness Cécile de Rothschild, brought a close friend in: Greta Garbo. The reclusive Greta Garbo who had worn the suits of Adrian in the 40’s, had Alaïa sew a pair of trousers and an oversize navy cashmere overcoat. He would often talk about that encounter – a beautiful and powerful woman in flat shoes. A few years ago, at auction, he was able to buy back the coat he had made for her.
Sharing many empathies with Adrian in the execution of design, and a shared obsession for perfection in the art of tailoring, Azzedine Alaïa would spend nights around the same black jacket and never be satisfied, looking for perfection. Trained as a sculptor, he became the master of cut and fit.
Azzedine Alaïa Collector
Since his arrival in Paris from Tunisia in the 1960’s, over the course of his life Alaïa’s gifted eye for the unique would amass a collection of over 20,000 objects of rare beauty.
Azzedine Alaïa would begin to acquire museum quality art, design, and fashion, always adding to his collections as his reputation as a collector grew.
While still in his twenties, he purchased an exceptional ancient Coptic head from a small shop, only to discover that it had belonged to a muse of Marcel Proust, the countess of Greffulhe. It was a talisman that he kept near him his entire life.
At the closure of the great Maison of Cristobel Balenciaga in 1968 he purchased masterpieces he could not stand to see disappear. His passion for the history of clothing started that day, when he left the Balenciaga ateliers with these timeless treasures in his hands.
Preserving clothes for Alaïa was preserving history.
Often bidding at auction against international museums, Alaïa carefully constructed his astounding collection with the same attention to detail he lavished on his own designs.
Alaïa’s fashion collection of masters of couture is one of the strongest departments in the Association Azzedine Alaïa’s archives, alongside Azzedine Alaïa’s own work.
The present exhibition is a selection of a small part of Adrian’s work from the many pieces collected over the years by Alaïa. All of the pieces presented here demonstrate the unique passion and love that Monsieur Alaïa cultivated throughout his career for the history of fashion.
“When I see beautiful clothes, I want to keep them, preserve them… clothes, like architecture and art, reflect an era.” – Azzedine Alaïa
Thank you to the Association Azzedine Alaïa for hosting this one-of-a-kind exhibition. All credit for the text containing Adrian’s bio, The Art of Tailoring and Alaïa Collector, belongs to their team. I mostly put the pieces together. 🙂
All photos of the Maison d’Alaïa and of Adrian’s designs were taken by me.
* Published specifically for the Joan Crawford: Queen of the Silver Screen Blogathon hosted by myself and Gabriela at Pale Writer *