Life of Adrian
The Atelier

Hollywood years

The beginnings at MGM

A Star rises

Born in Connecticut in 1903, Gilbert Adrian was exposed to the fine arts of fashion from a young age by his parents who ran a successful millinery business. Adrian’s passion came alive as he studied costume design at the Parson’s New York School for Fine And Applied Art in New York City, ultimately transferring to Parson’s Paris branch to be closer to Parisian style and couture. While in Paris, he was noticed for his talent, and as a result, returned to New York to design for Irving Berlin’s “Music Box Revue” on Broadway.

Adrian’s first big break for costume design for the movies happened in 1925 in the first MGM film of Mae Murray, “The Merry Widow”. Following that, he started working with Cecil B. DeMille, and in 1928, they both moved to MGM, where Adrian remained at the studio until 1942. At MGM, Adrian meets his first muse, Greta Garbo, whom he transformed into a goddess of glamour adulated by women worldwide. Adrian dressed and transfigured the constellation of all their stars including Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Judy Garland and many others for some of their most memorable film roles.

On a normal day, the highly creative Adrian produced 50 to 75 sketches. Over the course of his career at MGM, Adrian designed and created costumes for over 250 films.

Glamour and innovation

Adrian’s unique sense of style on screen

For the next decade, by becoming Director of MGM’s Costume Department, Adrian upset the notion of glamour in just thirteen years of his career. He possessed the instinct for designing for the camera and the shot, dressing his stars in the most dramatic, scene stealing silhouettes, of signature bias-cut gowns, sharp tailored suits, and draw dropping fabric and embellishment choices. For example, he made the masculine shoulders of Joan Crawford more distinct and used shoulder-padded tops to enhance them. This look made her the diva we know today and invented the silhouette of the 1940s.

Not only were his designs glamorous and inspiring, they were also universal and democratic, as Adrian would design all the garments in a film, from the top star to the lesser associated supporting roles. His creations transcended the screen and soon became desired worldwide. In 1932, his white mousseline de soie dress worn by Joan Crawford in “Letty Linton” was copied for the masses and sold over 500,000 units of this one dress throughout the country. Adrian knew how women liked to look, feel, and move in a beautiful dress, on screen or off.

House of fashion

The everlasting designer

When Garbo left the studio Adrian declared “When the glamour goes for Garbo, it goes for me as well”. As a result, in 1941, Adrian left MGM to open up his own clothing store in Beverly Hills. Even though he was advised that it wouldn’t be the best time with the war, he had already made up his mind. He created two lines for retail, one labeled “Adrian Original” for special couture creations and private clients, and another as “Adrian Custom”, a more encompassing American designer line with off-the-rack designs.

Although he knew his Hollywood designs were too extreme for off-screen, he adapted their esprit, grace and glamour into his collections. The war and its limitations on production and fabric further influenced Adrian as he adjusted to the new reality, making a virtue of the war’s restrictions by eliminating cuffs, lapels and reducing the size of collars and the number of pockets. Adrian was a master of marrying the construction of the silhouette with the proportions, and became known for elements such as diagonal closings, dolman and kimono sleeves. For the next decade, he provided women with that special touch of glamour and its unique sense of style, enhancing the woman’s spirit. Adrian retired from business in 1952 after suffering a heart attack. He lived the remainder of his life in Brazil, before passing at age 56 in 1959. His legacy, however, lives on, in the movies, in the clothes, and in the minds of young designers who look to Adrian for inspiration.

Adrian, the forward thinker

Cubism and Surrealism

The “Modern Museum” Collection

A great lover of art, Adrian incorporated cubism, futurism, and surrealism into his collections. In his “Modern Museum” collection of 1945, Adrian juxtaposed abstract shapes and colors, paying homage to Pablo Picasso, as well as to Georges Braque. This fusion of modern art with fashion would become his signature from the mid and late 1940s. The dress, entitled “Shades of Picasso” is a masterpiece from this collection, which was featured at the 1945 American Fashion Critics awards ceremony when Adrian won his Coty award.

The Dalí dress

While at MGM, Adrian was inspired by surrealism and translated his approach into his designs. This Dalí evening dress, created from a textile designed by the artist Salvador Dalí for the firm Wesley Simpson, played with the print’s effect. Adrian introduced the black area on the left shoulder, like a face in the profile, anthropomorphized, furthering the surrealism.


Audacious gowns with paintings

The Roan Stallion dress

While a child, Adrian had a passion for nature and could spend hours drawing animals at the zoo. He had a vast interest for Africa, which started when he saw in 1912 for the first time “Paul J. Rainey’s African Hunt”. This fascination was reinforced as he explored the world of nature, fashion and the wilds of Hollywood.

The Roan Stallion Dress is the perfect example of his singular approach. He often used the garment as a canvas, sketching in pencil, usually on the basic muslin toile. But in this evening dress, he applied his paintbrush directly to the fabric, creating the amazing effect of a rearing roan stallion.

The Client’s unique experience

His Hollywood influences

Adrian commissioned Tony Duquette, with whom he worked while at MGM, to decorate the modern salon interior of his Beverly Hills store, where every woman could feel cherished like a star. He used classic Hollywood references; floating columns, oriental canopies, and a color scheme known as “glamorose”, to set off his clothes and his customers, as a jeweler uses black velvet to display his diamonds. Adrian created an “Oval room”, in order to work in the round, because he thought a woman needed to be looked at from all angles to design their clothes, just as he did with his actresses.

Adrian saw the role of the couture designer as providing all the fashion amenities to his clientele. When he was operating the Beverly Hills and the New York Salons from 1944 to 1952, they offered customers all the conveniences one would expect to find in the establishment of a top rank couturier. Thus, he created shoes, jewelry, and his perfume line, named Saint and Sinner, which came in rectangular bottles with stoppers in the shape of his trademark symbol, the Greek Ionian capitol. His advertisements appeared everywhere, in “Vogue”, “Harper’s Bazaar”, “Town & Country” and “Life” magazines.

Art inspirations

The explorer

Adrian was a great painter and an art collector. Always admiring Africa, he visited the continent in 1949, when he took a six-week motor trip through the Sudan, Kenya, and the Belgian Congo. When he returned he produced 19 oil paintings of Africa, which were later exhibited in New York. During his trip he also collected a group of African masks, ceremonial blades, carved vessels and sculptures. Adrian’s painting titled “African Jungle with Figures” has his signature fluid line detail displayed throughout the painting.

The emblem of the current Adrian Original brand, a parrot mixed with a butterfly, is an ode to two discerning elements of his inspirations. Indeed, Adrian owned a parrot named Birdy of whom he often painted its portrait as well as using its imagery and colors in his collections. Upon retiring, Adrian and his wife Janet spent eight months of the year in Brazil, which further influenced his paintings and love of the rainforest. He collected butterflies in every size, shape and color. During his lifetime, Adrian often incorporated the wing shapes, colors and patterns into his collections, whether it be on the silver screen or his own label.