Rudolph Gernreich was born in Austria in 1922. His aunt and uncle owned a dress shop in Vienna, where he learned about high society, fabrics and fashion sketching. He was offered a fashion apprenticeship in London when he was 12 but his mother thought he was too young to accept it. When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Rudi and his mother fled to the United States. His first job in California was washing bodies in preparation for autopsy, which he later said made him grow up overnight. He studied art and apprenticed at a clothing manufacturer.
He briefly worked in Hollywood costume design in the 1940s but hated it. He joined the Lester Horton modern dance company as a dancer and designer, which helped him to study the relationship between the body and fabric. He also designed freelance and after became a fabric salesman for Hoffman’s.
He became a US citizen in 1943.
He worked briefly in New York for George Carmel but felt pressured into imitating Parisian fashion. In 1951, he worked for Versatogs and felt confined there too. He signed a 7 year contract with Walter Bass Inc. He collaborated with Renée Firestone until 1960 when they both then started their own lines. He also started designing for Harmon Knitwear.
In the early 50s, he began designing swimwear for Westwood Knitting Mills. He designed the first swimsuit without a built-in bra or any boning, for which he won a Sports Illustrated award for in 1956.
He was also hired as a shoe designer by Genesco Corporation in 1959.
He founded G.R. Designs in L.A. in 1960 and eventually opened a showroom on Seventh Avenue.
He won the Coty award in 1963. Norman Norelll was so outraged that an Avant-Garde designer like Rudi was being recognized that he gave his own award back! Rudi won the award a number of other times.
Gernreich was much against the sexualization of the human body or any idea that it was shameful. He wanted to reduce stigma associated with nakedness and liberate the body. Throughout his career, he gained a reputation for breaking fashion rules.
He designed the Monokini in 1964, a topless swimsuit. It was modelled by Peggy Moffitt, generating a great deal of controversy. Gernreich saw it as a form of liberation. He also designed a see-through chiffon blouse, used dog leashes and zippers for decoration, utilized cut-out details and designed the No Bra- a soft transparent nylon bra. The No Bra initiated the trend toward natural busts and away from sculpted shapes. He later introduced stick-on vinyl nipple patches instead of a bra.
His designs were featured in the first fashion video by William Claxton in 1966 which was called ‘Basic Black’ and featured Peggy Moffitt. He worked with the husband and wife duo throughout his career.
He wanted his designs to be affordable and signed a contract with Montgomery Ward in 1966. He was named a fashion revolutionary by WWD the same year.
Gernreich was featured on the cover of Time in December 1967 with Peggy Moffitt and Leon Bing. The magazine described him as "the most way-out, far-ahead designer in the U.S."
He appeared as himself in an episode of Batman the same year alongside Eartha Kitt as Catwoman.
He pushed the boundaries of the futuristic look in clothing, pairing minimalist designs with bright, psychedelic colours and geometric or Op-Art patterns. He was also one of the first to use vinyl and plastic in his clothes.
Rudi exhibited his fashion at an exhibition in New York in 1967 called ”Two Modern Artists of Dress: Elizabeth Hawes and Rudi Gernreich".
He was the 6th designer to be elected to the Coty Fashion Hall of Fame in 1967.
In the 1970s he introduced unisex clothing.
In 1974, he designed a thong bathing suit for men and women in response to Los Angeles banning nude beaches.
He also designed the Moonbase Alpha uniforms worn by the main characters of the 1970s British science-fiction television series Space:1999.
Overall, he focused less on fashion in the 1970s and 80s, turning to food and interiors instead.
He designed the "pubikini" in 1985—a bikini bottom with a window in front that revealed the model's dyed and shaped pubic hair. It was to be his last contribution.
In 1985 Tom Bradley, the Mayor of the City of Los Angeles, proclaimed August 13th as 'Rudi Gernreich Day’, after Rudi had sadly passed away from lung cancer that April.
He was added to the Fashion Walk of Fame in New York in 2000.
In 2003, Peggy Moffitt (who retained his trademark after his death) signed a deal to recreate his designs with Comme Des Garçons.
In 2009, he was the subject of an off-broadway play The Temperamentals for which Michael Urie won an outstanding actor award for his role as Rudi.
On April 2 2012, Time magazine named him to its list of the "All-TIME 100 Fashion Icons”.
The Met has more than 100 pieces of Gernreich designs in its collection.
He is remembered as one of the most innovative designers of the 20th century, his work always challenging society's norms and infused with socio-political commentary. The images he created with Claxton and Moffitt are some of the most emblematic of the freedom and cultural revolution of the 1960s.