Billy Travilla is best known for his iconic designs for Marilyn Monroe. Think white halter dress with sunburst-pleated skirt billowing above a NY subway grate, from “The Seven Year Itch;” think pink silk satin peu d’ange column gown from “Diamonds are a Girls Best Friend;” think shiny gold lame plunging neckline, pleated and gleaming, worn for Marilyn’s most publicized photo shoot; ALL those thoughts began as just that … thoughts. They are all the brainchildren of Billy Travilla.
As a design student in Los Angeles, in 1990, I was aligned to apprentice with Billy. That is … until he died … one week before we began our work together. Fast forward to 2006 and Billy’s business partner, Bill Sarris, (an old friend, now deceased) invited me to consider writing Billy’s biography and to re-develop Travilla’s trademark fashion collection. I realized I could not allow the world to be robbed of the unwritten stories of Billy. This fashion / costume designer’s personal and professional adventures involve more than the likes of Marilyn Monroe; they include Hollywood legends Judy Garland, Errol Flynn, and Joan Crawford. These film icons are just a few of the names topping Billy’s client list of Hollywood’s greatest and most glamorous.
For eight intense years, I developed an entire platform, which includes a comprehensive biography of Billy Travilla, numerous subsequent illustrated books (called coffee table books) and other vital projects related to my Travilla platform. All are the “fruit of my loom,” each warp and weft woven by my passion for Billy’s beautiful historical work.
The Oscar’s recently displayed gigantic larger-than-life-posters of Travilla’s iconic sketches of Marilyn Monroe lining the length of the red carpet into the theater. Revered by all in Hollywood for his important contributions to the movie industry, and beloved to so many in the fashion industry, William Jack Travilla (often credited as simply ‘Travilla’) was fascinating.
Fashion’s legendary Yves Saint Laurent designed an entire Paris collection in honor of Billy’s designs for Marilyn. French couture designer, Thierry Mugler, best known now for his eponymous perfumes, has said that Travilla is his strongest and only design influence. Upon Mugler’s first trip to America, the ONLY person that French designer wanted to meet was this design master. Marilyn Monroe would not take a fashion step without him. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward wisely depended upon him. The most coveted film directors in Hollywood clamored over him to use his masterful skills, and they did so for over 100 films.
But what especially fascinates me with Billy (as he preferred to be called) was his personal success and magical life. It was a life of meaning AND glamor.
I recently read novelist Danielle Steel’s personal blog in which she shares – most sincerely – her long-held fascination with fashion. She tells of her latent desires to have been a fashion designer. Due to Danielle’s Francophile tendencies, she resides in Paris full time and attends all the latest couture shows, to keep her fingers in the pie of style.
If Danielle Steel, the glamorous writer of hundreds of novels about fantasy lives, were to read about Billy’s amazing life, we would need to pass her the “smelling salts.” She would swoon with appreciation. His real life far exceeds her best and brightest imaginings … and she is pretty bright and definitely imaginative.
Its as if Billy wove a lifetime to rival Danielle Steels finest stories. But he did it all by “just” being Billy … an accomplishment unto itself.
Billy’s glittering designs for Linda Gray as Sue Ellen in Dallas were stunning enough, to be sure. But what moves me about this man is what Billy did for actress Barbara Carrerra when she was about to be “axed” from that Lorimar cast. The designer took it upon himself to delicately explain to the actress that she was being mischaracterized on the set as a difficult diva. He explained to her that others on the cast resented it. He gently persuaded the luscious Latin lady to befriend the cast more sincerely, and in doing so, rescued her from being fired.
Travilla’s terrific style with male swagger allowed him to revamp Errol Flynn’s aging, drug-weary image sufficiently, to make the actor look magically sexy again. Billy’s skills even earned the designer an Oscar for that work in Adventures of Don Juan. Impressive? Certainly. But what impresses me most, is the fact that when, years later, Billy ran across a stumbling-drunk, elderly Flynn in a Paris nightclub, he kindly averted his gaze so as not to embarrass the former sex symbol.
The movie-star-handsome designer is certainly world-renowned for his seminal work for Marilyn Monroe, each Travilla dress having fetched many millions of dollars recently at Debbie Reynolds Beverly Hills auction. Less known, however, but even more significant to me, was the rare and tender way in which Billy protected, respected and encouraged a severely insecure Marilyn. To Billy, the bashful blonde was as much a beloved friend, as a costume muse.
Billy Travilla’s life and legacy is one of the most fascinating, heart-warming, complex, inspiring and glamorous lives I have ever seen. And, appreciatively, growing up with celebrities, I have seen many. Travilla’s life was a life worth spending 8 years of my own on, in order to dig up, verify and develop the details for a fascinating book, on an amazing human being.
If Danielle Steel had been privileged with the same private information that I have been blessed with, I feel, she too, would have taken the same long look at Billy Travilla’s glamorous, interesting life. And the Queen of glamor novels would have been bowled-over.
Even Danielle Steel would have taken THIS leap!
To see the collections of KAHC and more photos of Travilla and Marilyn Monroe visit her FB Page KAHC/ Website / About.me
[This article is the third of a 12-part series of articles by Kimberley Ashley for 2015. Next month see her article, “How To Marry A Millionaire; Travilla’s Galaxy Of Glamour.” Stay tuned for her upcoming articles on Billy Travilla and his design muse Marilyn Monroe.]
BT WB portait
MM gold, pink, white