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The Gift of Garb

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JEAN LOUIS “LOVED EACH ONE OF us,” says Carol Channing, who wore his creations in 1967’s Thoroughly Modern Millie. “He saw us as perfect the way God made us.” The Paris-born costumer and couturier, who died of natural causes at age 89 on April 20, was the answer to many a star’s prayer. “He understood what ladies should look like,” says Bob Mackie, a former sketcher for Louis.

Those grateful ladies included Judy Garland in A Star Is Born, Doris Day in Pillow Talk and Judy Holliday in The Solid Gold Cadillac, the 1956 film for which Louis won his sole Oscar out of 14 nominations. Private clients included the Duchess of Windsor and Nancy Reagan. And, in what became a TV fashion event, he created 52 signature gowns for Loretta Young to wear on her 1953-61 series The Loretta Young Show. “Jean felt it was important to see the woman,” says Young, who married Louis in 1993, “not the dress.”

Still, some of Louis’s creations—such as the strapless black satin gown Rita Hayworth wore in 1946’s Gilda—wound up stealing the show. “Every designer has copied that gown,” says Dynasty costumer Nolan Miller. The dress, says designer Geoffrey Beene, is an “engineering feat. [Hayworth] put her hands straight up, and the dress never moved.” The secret? Plastic molding inside the top, Louis told PEOPLE in 1987. For Marlene Dietrich’s 1953 Las Vegas act, Louis designed a clingy, flesh-colored sheath covered with beads. It made Dietrich, at 52, look almost nubile—and naked.

Such genius is inborn, “but he worked hard,” says Young, 84, who was friends with Louis and his wife Maggy (she died in 1987) for 50 years before he became her third husband. The younger of two sons of Louis and Mathilde Berthault, Jean Louis (he dropped the surname) was an up-and-comer in French fashion when New York designer Hattie Carnegie hired him. Discovered by actress Irene Dunne, he became designer for all of Columbia Pictures in 1944.

Louis dressed stars but never behaved like one. In 1961, Marilyn Monroe showed up for Something’s Got to Give fittings without a stitch on. “I want you to see what I look like,” she explained. Flustered, Louis let an assistant wield the tape. The next year, Monroe was sewn into a contour-hugging Louis gown before going onstage at Madison Square Garden to sing a breathy “Happy Birthday” to JFK.

Later, Louis focused on his couture line. Visitors to his and Young’s Palm Springs, Calif., home always found him “immaculate” in custom-made clothes, says designer James Galanos, a protégé. Early on Sunday, April 20, ready to attend mass with Young—like him, a devout Catholic—Louis collapsed. “The years of our marriage were the most wonderful of my life,” says Young. “Jean was a genius and, to me, an angel.”