By Suzy Kalter
May 25, 1981 12:00 PM

The models, all five of them, refused to wear it. The photographer on location in Montego Bay finally persuaded an adventurous local to wiggle into the designer’s latest concoction: tight-fitting black knit bottoms held up with—gasp!—nothing more than a pair of skinny suspenders. When the first photographs of the “topless” bathing suit finally appeared in June 1964, they set off shock waves in the world of fashion—and established brash Rudi Gernreich as the designer of the decade.

All through the ’60s Gernreich (rhymes with Earn Quick) made headlines as he raised hems and hackles to shocking new heights and introduced Americans to geometric knit minis and their first see-through blouses. Norman Norell was so revolted by Gernreich’s early designs and Coty Awards that he sent back his own Hall of Fame plaque, declaring that fashion was dead. Nonetheless, wild Rudi was soon expanding into a more sedate line for clients like Eva Marie Saint and Nancy Reagan, and grossing $3 million a year. He became the sixth American designer elected to the Fashion Hall of Fame.

Then, like acid rock and campus unrest, Gernreich’s career seemed to end with the decade. In 1968 he closed his West Hollywood atelier and took off for a year in Morocco. “If I hadn’t left the business,” Gernreich says now, “I would have had a nervous breakdown.” He kept busy designing ballet costumes and home accessories (pot holders, napkins and the like), but basically Gernreich waited out the Annie Hall, peasant and preppy looks.

It took until this spring before Rudi was ready to return full force, and he did so with the old splash. His new 40-piece collection has been snapped up by Beverly Hills’ trend-setting Right Bank Clothing Company, and later this summer Bloomingdale’s in New York and California’s I. Magnin are expected to be selling Gernreich’s new bloomers, shorts and jumpers.

Rudi is confident they will walk off the racks. “I knew I had a winner before the stores ever looked at the line,” he boasts. He insists that his Op-Arty dresses in checks and cubes ($200 to $300) “are not a rehash of the ’60s. I think we’re in burdened times and people need relief,” he adds. “They want amusing clothes.”

Gernreich, 58, has been fashion-conscious since his boyhood in Vienna. His father, who died when Rudi was 8, was a prosperous stocking manufacturer. The boy had hoped to study haute couture in Paris but instead fled with his mother to the U.S., a step ahead of Hitler.

They settled in Los Angeles, where Rudi worked preparing bodies for autopsies in the morgue at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. He later studied art at L.A.’s City College and then eased his way into the fashion business, apprenticing for a Seventh Avenue manufacturer. But his greatest passion during the 1940s was performing with Lester Horton’s L.A.-based modern dance troupe. “I never was a very good dancer,” he sighs. “I wanted to become a choreographer but that never happened.” On the side, he designed costumes for the company, and in 1952 Gernreich teamed up with fellow Viennese immigrant Walter Bass to launch his first collection. The line was an instant smash, though it was not until he urged American women to go topless at the beach that Rudi made his name—and the cover of TIME.

The overwork that forced Gernreich into a slowdown appears to have vanished. In the Laurel Canyon house he has called home for 27 years (Rudi has never married), he is up around 6 every morning for his ritual nude swim in the pool and playtime session with his two companions—Osso, a German shepherd, and Osso Buco, a poodle. By 10 the designer is bent over the drawing board at his nearby studio creating his next attention-grabber—that’s right—a 1980s collection of swimsuits.