When it comes to luxury fashion brands, the US can’t hold a candle to Europe, particularly France. Crucially, the US has no tradition of couture. But, in the mid-20th century, one US luxury brand flickered into life and burned brightly and briefly. Its name: Irene, after its founder, Irene Lentz.
Irene grew up on a ranch. As well as establishing her own brand, she was one of Hollywood’s busiest and most influential costume designers, with two Oscar nominations and 123 credits on IMDb. Those scandalous high-waist shorts and midriff-baring top in which we first encounter Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice are down to Irene.
Irene Lentz managed to build her brand in what was, before the 1960s, a sector dominated by men. That’s a distinction she shares with a handful of talented women, notably Jeanne Lanvin, Madeleine Vionnet, Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparell. In the US back then, the other notable dress designer was Claire McCardell, but she was working behind the scenes and aiming for a more casual, mass market.
Irene was a master of her craft, in touch with the zeitgeist and with a flair for marketing. She’s a remarkable and tragic figure, whose story falls into five chapters.
Chapter 1 – Irene Lentz gets going
Irene Lentz is born in 1901 in Brookings, South Dakota, then, in 1910, moves with her family to Baker, Montana. Nine years later she’s on the move again, this time with her mother and younger brother to Los Angeles.
In 1921, she’s working as a full-time sales girl in a drug store, when F Richard Jones (Dick to his friends) drops by and takes a shine to her. He’s a director of silent films at the Mack Sennett Studio and helps Irene to get a job there, initially as a production assistant, later as a star. IMDb lists eight movies in which she appears between 1921 and 1925. During that time she features as one of Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties – a bevy of scantily-clad (for the period) eye candy who keep popping up in his Keystone comedies and at any other opportunity.
During her acting stint, Irene Lentz spots an opportunity to design and sell clothes to the growing movie community and from 1924–26 studies at the Wolfe School of Design. Dick Jones is still there in the background (or perhaps even the foreground, who knows?) and in 1926 they set up their first shop, on South University Avenue.
By 1929, the business is thriving, they relocate the shop to larger premises and get married. Then tragedy strikes. The following year, just 11 months after their wedding, Dick dies of tuberculosis age 37. Irene closes the shop and leaves for Europe, where she discovers the wonderful world of Paris couture.
Irene Lentz’s account of how she got started demonstrates her skill at building a brand story. Here it is, as reported by Frederick C Othman in Behind the Scenes, Hollywood in the 7 June 1942 edition of The Press Democrat:
She left the ranch when she was 16 to study music here at the University of Southern California. Had a roommate who was too timid to attend night school classes in dress design alone. Miss Lentz went along. After two nights she knew she was going to be a dress designer herself. She finished the course, dropped the music and set up a dress shop on the university campus, with the sign, “Irene.” That’s all the name she’s had since then. Just Irene.
“The campus shop was a great success from the beginning,” she said. “The dresses were cheap, and I do think they had a certain flair, but the real reason for my rushing trade was the fact that my store was the only place on the campus where the girls could smoke. Cigarettes were strictly against the rules everywhere else. So I always had a shop full of prospective clients, smoking. The place was so full of smoke so much of the time that my doctor wouldn’t believe it when I told him I didn’t smoke.”
The coeds smoked and bought dresses and received one of their major thrills when Dolores Del Rio walked into the store and bought an evening gown for $45.
“I never did learn how she heard about me,” Irene said. “But she was wonderful. Many a woman would not have told a soul where she’d bought that dress. But Dolores told everybody she knew. After that I got plenty of movie trade.
“One of my best customers was Lupe Velez. She refused to try on dresses in the fitting room. She tried them in the front room, by the plate-glass window. She always had a gallery.”
What a great account and love the sketches of Dolores and Lupe – the two Mexican superstars pretty much at the peak of their popularity. But, interestingly, no mention of Irene’s acting exploits or, indeed, of Dick Jones. Perhaps she feels that these would detract, or at least distract, from the narrative she wants to promote.
Irene’s tale of how “one day I discovered my passion and, through a combination of dedication and luck, built a business” is a kind of blueprint for so many subsequent start-ups. Notable practitioners are the likes of Markus and Daniel, the eponymous creators of Freitag, and Phil Knight whose memoir, Shoe Dog, recounts his adventures as founder of Nike.
Chapter 2 – Irene goes into couture
Following the death of her husband, Irene Lentz goes to France for five weeks and while she’s there she visits the salons run by the Paris couturiers. She returns to the US, her head spinning with ideas. In 1931 she opens Irene Ltd on Sunset Boulevard and it’s a big hit. Within two years, it’s being eyed up enviously by the guys at Bullocks Wilshire, a Los Angeles department store that’s the pinnacle of style and opulence. They’re attracted by both the quality of her product and her stellar clientele.
There’s clearly synergy here and they persuade Irene to move her operation to the department store and open up a kind of French salon. This is a ground-breaking development – the first designer/retail store partnership of its kind. From now on, her clothing label, copied from a logo created by Dick Jones, simply reads “Irene.” Could her original inspiration have come from Gilbert Adrian Greenburg, known simply as Adrian, at MGM?
As a customer, the service you receive is as lavish as the clothes you’re buying. You can see Irene’s original creations modelled in-store. As at the salons in Paris, the team you meet for your fitting includes the designer herself as well as a tailor and a pattern cutter. You also get to have shoes and jewellery picked from elsewhere in the store to complement your ensemble.
The Irene brand already has a following in the film community and the move to Bullocks raises its profile, prestige and prices – one of those tailored suits will set you back $400–700. For the remainder of the decade, Irene Lentz continues to build her clientele among the stars and wealthy wives of studio executives as well as landing commissions from production companies to design the wardrobes for their movies. One of the first is Flying Down to Rio (1933), whose leading lady, Dolores del Rio, insists that Irene design her costumes.
Other divas whose film wardrobe she ends up designing include Constance and Joan Bennett, Carole Lombard, Loretta Young, Hedy Lamarr, Claudette Colbert and Ingrid Bergman. By the late-1930s she is travelling to Paris for the spring fashion shows. And by 1941, even British Vogue refers to Irene’s “Californian elegance.”
Meanwhile, at a party thrown by her customer, fan and friend, Dolores del Rio, Irene Lentz meets Eliot Gibbons. This is no coincidence. During the 1930s, Dolores is the wife of Cedric Gibbons, the head of MGM’s art department (after their divorce in 1940, he will be seen out with, among others, Carole Landis before getting hitched to Hazel Brooks). Eliot is Cedric’s brother.
Eliot, an erstwhile assistant director, is working as a writer of short stories for newspapers and screenplays for movies. He’s also a keen aviator. So, when Irene expresses an interest in becoming a pilot, he offers to help her finish her required flying hours – a great pretext for spending lots of time together. On New Year’s Eve 1934 he proposes to her and they tie the knot in 1936. The flying lessons continue and, ironically, she gets her private pilot’s license just a couple of days before civilian flying on the West coast is prohibited following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
Chapter 3 – Irene Lentz goes to the movies
That attack also proves to be the catalyst for a career change. For a while, Irene has been unhappy with her financial arrangements with Bullocks. She’s been contemplating her next move, including setting up her own manufacturing company. But with the US being drawn into World War II, that seems too risky. So, she’s open to new ideas and approaches.
Louis B Mayer is also in a quandary. He’s facing a raft of departures from his wardrobe team including Adrian, his head costume designer. Irene Lentz is ideally qualified to rescue the situation: she has the talent, she has the profile and she’s not going to be drafted. Encouraged by his wife, one of her many friends and clients, Mayer proposes that Irene join MGM and run its costume department. She accepts but on her own terms.
On arrival, Irene quickly assembles a team around her. The challenges they face are formidable. A multitude of warring individuals and factions to finesse. A hectic and dynamic schedule that requires working all hours. And constant changes of stars, directors and producers that disrupt the best-laid plans.
Easter Parade (1948) is a case in point. When Charles Walters replaces VIncente Minnelli as director, songs have to be rearranged, Judy Garland’s opening scene reworked (so the original costumes for it are no longer needed) and two of Judy’s key ensembles have to be changed. Further wardrobe modifications are required when Ann Miller replaces Cyd Charisse. Then Gene Kelly gets injured and Fred Astaire steps in. Cue further changes to the dance sequences and costumes.
Another challenge is dealing with stars’ anxieties about their clothes. The studio is full of starlets desperate to impress and established stars worried that their careers may be on the slide. Irene’s combination of empathy and decisiveness are just what’s needed to reassure them.
In spite of all the distractions, though, there are movies for which Irene manages to get her ideas through. In the case of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), one of those ideas is to associate Lana Turner’s character with a colour, as a composer might with a musical theme. So, Cora wears white in every scene except two.
Finally, in June 1949 Irene falls victim to MGM’s internal politics, her departure apparently triggered by her nemesis, Katharine Hepburn (read on for more on her), outraged by Irene’s failure to show up for a fitting. She still seems to be hanging on in there, though, in early 1950, when Doris Koenig’s Vagabondia column in the 2 March edition of Monrovia Daily News Post reports that:
She Is now an executive designer of MGM Studios, besides having her own wholesale manufacturing business – Irene Inc.
So far as her studio is concerned, Irene has no last name. Her driver’s license lists her as “Mrs Eliot Gibbons,” but she has built “Irene” into such a trademark that if you ask the studio operator for “Mrs Gibbons” you draw a blank. Ask for “Irene” and you will be connected with her office…
Consistency is one of the hallmarks of great brands!
Chapter 4 – Irene goes into ready-to-wear
Back in July 1946, Neiman Marcus let Irene Lentz know that, alongside Christian Dior, Salvatore Ferragamo and Norman Hartnell, she has been chosen as a recipient of their Award for Distinguished Service in the field of fashion. It gets her thinking. She’s sick and tired of dealing with internal politics and having to compromise her designs: “I want to create designs that reflect my taste, rather than cater to those of a director or producer.” She’s also got to the point where she’s established the reputation, the relationships and the team to make her ambition to set up her own manufacturing company realistic.
The one thing Irene lacks is financing. With the help of Harry Cohn at Columbia, she assembles a group of over 20 luxury department stores including Bergdorf Goodman (New York), Marshall Field (Chicago) and Neiman Marcus (Dallas). She keeps 51% of the ordinary shares of Irene, Inc while her backers take the other 49%. As part of the arrangement, the stores get exclusives to her designs.
In 1947, Irene Lentz reveals her plans to begin designing her own range of clothes as well as continuing to work at MGM – she has negotiated a new contract to facilitate this. This time around she will be turning her attention to ready-to-wear rather than couture – “…marketing genius. Upscale stores could offer clients the Irene garments that stars loved,” says Mary Hall, founder The Recessionista. In its Apr 1, 1948 issue, Vogue US, announces the launch:
It is not news that Irene is a designer. Of all the women who design in America today, her clothes have had, in one sense, the widest public: she makes the screen-life clothes for stars of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer where she is head costume-designer. But now the news is that Irene has turned her strong, fresh hand, again, to clothes for private lives, and her first ready-to-wear collection is now in several shops across the country. Consciously limiting her sphere, Irene makes no attempt to cover every phase of her new public’s life; she refuses to touch casual clothes, sports clothes. Instead, she makes the strict but feminine day-suit she is famous for, turns out beguiling afternoon print dresses, establishes her formal evening clothes as events.
For 15 years Irene continues to head up her own business, latterly being persuaded to design costumes for a select number of leading stars.
Chapter 5 – Irene Lentz throws in the towel
On 15 November 1962, with rave reviews from her latest show ringing in her ears, Irene Lentz heads for Hollywood’s Knickerbocker. It’s not a propitious place. In the early 1940s when it was still glamorous, actress Frances Farmer was tracked down there by police and sent to a mental institution. Later in the 1960s, William Frawley of I Love Lucy fame, will be dragged there to die after he collapses from a heart attack on the street.
Irene checks in to the now-faded hotel under an assumed name. That night she consumes two pints of vodka, tries to slit her wrists, then jumps out of an 11th-floor window. Hours later, her body is found on an awning. She has left a brief note: ““I am sorry to do this in this manner. Please see that Eliot is taken care of. Take care of the business and get someone very good to design. Love to all. Irene.”
Why? Why? Why?
When you come across a tragedy like this, you search to make sense of it. How could such a talented woman do this to herself? But then how could the likes of Alexander McQueen and Kate Spade follow in her footsteps? Well, in one sense you can never know what’s going through someone’s mind when they make that decision.
The police suggested that Irene was “despondent over business problems and her husband’s illness.” According to her business manager, “Irene had been under a terrific strain. She had been in ill health for about two years.” What more can we say?
She was a woman operating in a man’s world – a fundamentally lonely undertaking. What’s more, she was working in an incredibly stressful environment with all sorts of budgetary, scheduling and interpersonal pressures quite apart from the need for relentless creativity – a killer in itself. On the surface, Irene was self-confident, but under the surface she had her insecurities. This example from Irene – A Designer from the Golden Age of Hollywood: The MGM Years 1942-49 is shocking in its brutality:
On August 2 1944, Irene and Virginia Fisher, her sketch artist, had a meeting with Katharine Hepburn to discuss the sketches for Without Love. Nothing Irene showed Hepburn seemed to meet with her approval. Before leaving, Hepburn quickly listed her ideas, reiterating sharply that she would return the following Monday and hoping Irene “will have designs that are in keeping with my character in the story.” It was the first time that Virginia saw Irene, who was always self-assured, physically shake. “Intimidation couldn’t describe what I witnessed. Irene was terrified by Hepburn’s stinging remarks,” Virginia confided.
In the early days there was Dick Jones, and he seems to have been something of a buttress and a Svengali for her as well as the love of her life. They really do seem to have shared a dream. It’s probably no coincidence that reports of Irene hitting the bottle begin to emerge in the early-1930s – soon after his death. The problem got worse and worse as time went by.
Irene’s motives for marrying Eliot may have been praiseworthy but they proved to be a poor foundation for marriage. Around the time of her engagement, she told friends “I felt a need to take care of him.” Then, a year after their wedding, she had a skiing accident, which caused a miscarriage. She was devastated and never forgave herself.
On the other side of the marriage bed, it’s quite likely that Eliot – also an alcoholic – felt outclassed and overshadowed by his brother. World War II might have provided a distraction for him, but within a month of his return rumours began to circulate that he was going out with other women. Shortly before Irene’s suicide, he suffered a stroke (from which he recovered).
If by that time Irene Lentz had fallen out of love with her husband, she had fallen into love with Gary Cooper, according to her friend Doris Day. In her biography, Doris Day: Her Own Story, she remembers:
Irene designed the clothes for several of my pictures so I got to know her very well. She was a nervous woman, introverted, quite unhappy, and at times she drank more than was good for her. She had an unhappy marriage to a man who lived out of the state and only occasionally came to visit her. One time, toward the end of a long evening, when she had been drinking quite a bit, she confided in me that the love of her life was Gary Cooper. Irene was a very attractive woman, a lovely face, and when she talked about Cooper her face glowed. She said he was the only man she had ever truly loved. There was such a poignancy in the way she said it. It really broke my heart.
After that, she several times confided in me about Cooper. I got the impression that she had never mentioned him to anyone before me, and she was so happy to declare her love for him. Thinking about it now, I cannot honestly say whether Irene’s love was one-sided or whether she and Cooper had actually had or were having an affair. But the way she loved him touched jealousy in me, for I had never loved a man with that much intensity.
Cooper had died the year before Irene’s suicide.
Want to know more about Irene Lentz?
If you’re serious about Irene Lentz, you have to get hold of Frank Billecci and Lauranne Fisher’s Irene – A Designer from the Golden Age of Hollywood: The MGM Years 1942-49. Although it’s mostly about her years at MGM, it contains a well-researched chapter on her life up to that point. It has been the main source for much of this piece.
Online sources I have consulted include:
- Various articles at Newspapers.com
- Various articles by Mary Hall at The Recessionista
- California Couture: Irene at Bullocks-Wilshire by Mary Hall for HuffPost
- Irene Lentz by Hollis Jenkins-Evans for Vintage Fashion Guild
- The Chic Life and Tragic Death of a Revered Costume Designer by Elizabeth Snead for The Hollywood Reporter
- A sequel for Irene Lentz fashion line by Vincent Boucher for the Los Angeles Times.