By Wesley Harris (Claiborne Parish Library Historian)
“Fashion design” conjures images of Paris, New York, and glamorous Hollywood types. The last place you might associate with the term is Haynesville, Louisiana.
In the 1930s, a young Haynesville boy known as “Sammy” to his friends was fascinated by clothing design. Local tradition holds that Sammy designed and made doll clothes as a child. In a 1988 interview, his mother told a journalist that when Sammy was eight, he walked to a Haynesville store, purchased some blue and orange floral fabric and a Simplicity pattern and asked his aunt Lucille, a talented seamstress, to sew some beach pajamas for him.
It was the first step in turning Sammy Bozeman into Geoffrey Beene, arguably the best fashion designer the world has ever seen.
Born Samuel Albert Bozeman Jr., on August 30, 1924, in Haynesville to Samuel and Lorine Bozeman, Sammy changed his name when he entered the world of fashion. He took the maiden name of his maternal grandmother, Lillie Beene Waller, the daughter of Elizabeth and Robert Beene who migrated to Dykesville in Claiborne Parish from Georgia in the early 1800s. Beene was born into a family of doctors—his maternal grandfather Leroy (Lee) Waller and great uncle Shadrack (Shack) Waller were longtime Haynesville physicians—and Beene was encouraged to follow in their footsteps. “In the South,” he once said, “if you’re not a doctor, lawyer, merchant or thief, everything else is a hobby.” Beene said his parents “pooh-poohed” his desire to study fashion.
“So, the family thought I ought to be a doctor,” he remembered, especially his mother Lorine. They sent him to Tulane to study medicine. “The first two years weren’t bad, because it was classroom work, but the third year we got into vivisection, cadavers, and all that horrendous stuff. And every disease we studied I got.” Beene dropped out in 1946 after three years of study and moved to Los Angeles where he worked in the display department of the I. Magnin retail store until 1947.
Later that year, he moved to New York City to attend the Traphagen School of Fashion and then on to Paris for more training. In 1949, he returned to New York where he became assistant designer at the Seventh Avenue house of Harmay. In 1958, he left Harmay to design with Teal Traina before starting his own design house, Geoffrey Beene, Inc. in New York City in 1963.
A year later, Beene received the Coty American Fashion Critics’ Award, the most prestigious award in fashion. His first collection was featured on the cover of Vogue magazine. During his career, he won the award seven more times.
Fashion icon Iris Apfel said of Beene, “…no question he’s the best designer in America and I think you could argue quite reasonably that he’s the best designer in the world.”
Beene’s clients included Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, Nancy Reagan, Faye Dunaway and Glenn Close. His recognition as one of the greatest arose from his artistic and technical skills and for creating simple, comfortable, and dressy women’s wear. Known as both an innovator and a teacher, several of Beene’s former apprentices became successful fashion designers.
In honor of Beene’s fashion legacy, the Council of Fashion Designers of America created the annual Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement award in 1984. Among the recipients are Bill Blass, Oscar De La Renta, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Tommy Hilfiger, and Beene himself.
Beene’s sister Gloria was born in Haynesville in 1932, attended Louisiana Tech and worked as a schoolteacher, marrying Haynesville football coach M. D. Ray, Jr. Gloria died in 1965 and Sam Bozeman, Sr. in 1975. Beene’s mother remarried and moved to Bossier City, leaving little connection between Geoffrey and the town where he grew up.
Beene’s career in fashion design spanned over 40 years. He died on September 28, 2004, due to pneumonia complications from cancer at age 80. He is buried at the Old Haynesville Cemetery with his sister Gloria, mother Lorine Bozeman Pratt and stepfather Leroy Pratt.
Beene expressed the motivation for his work simply: “The whole point of design is to make people feel better about themselves.”
Maybe he became a doctor after all.