The Mystery of ’60s Designer Tzaims Luksus and Bennington College

tzaims luksus
The Mystery of ’60s Designer Tzaims Luksus Keystone-France

I always slow my car when I drive past a certain cedar-shingle-sided mansion in Old Bennington, Vermont. The once-formal gardens are lush and overgrown. A porte cochere sags over a vintage Mercedes. A gold lock, which upon closer inspection is styled in the face of the Buddha, draws two iron gates tightly together, upon which a hand-painted sign reads, "Keep Out."

For years, I inquired around town—did anyone know the owner? They did not. On freezing New England days, my daughters and I bought hot chocolate from the local café and drove past the residence, looking for lights in the old glass windows or signs of life, like footprints across the snowy lawn. During the past decade, the house, somehow both ramshackle and glamorous, blossomed in our imaginations. We suspected a fascinating person lived inside.

Ten years passed before I learned the name of the house’s owner, and of his complicated and mythical life. He was Tzaims Luksus, a man who managed to have been a celebrated fashion designer, a small-town eccentric, a head-shop owner, and a bereft widower who buried his partner on the grounds of his unheated mansion. Time magazine labeled him a “Vermont industrialist” in a January 1966 profile and lauded his bouts of “feverish” artistic output, but many locals know him only as the man who might yell at you for lingering on the sidewalk near his home. The more I learned about his extraordinary life, the more I realized the whole story underscored the whiff of artistic darkness that hangs about the town I have come, somewhat unwillingly, to call home.

Even though I’m a fiction writer, I could never have conjured a story so wild as the real one, a character so enthralling and formidable he began to appear as in my dreams.

Both rugged and artful, Bennington is a town that forges artists, largely due to the eponymous college, which historically keeps to itself. The margins of its leafy campus brush up against a former factory town. Bennington is, by nature, a dark and moody place, cloaked in a long winter that depressed even Robert Frost, the bard of New England, who lived nearby.

dance class
Female students leap in the air in matching outfits during a modern-dance class rehearsal at Bennington College in Vermont in 1949. Archive Photos - Getty Images

Surrounded by large swaths of dense forest, the outskirts of Bennington are a place where you can hide—or get lost. Between 1945 and 1950, five people—including Paula Jean Welden, who inspired novels by Shirley Jackson and Donna Tartt—went missing in the area. The media began calling the rural, mountainous zone “The Bennington Triangle.” My friends have stumbled across plane-crash sites and long-abandoned ghost towns in the woods.

Lately, popular culture has focused on the dazzling ’80s of Tartt, Jonathan Lethem, and Bret Easton Ellis, but I’ve found myself thinking about the darker ’60s, the era Joan Didion described in The White Album as riddled with paranoia and possessing a “mystical flirtation with the idea of 'sin’—this sense that it was possible to go 'too far.’”

The ’60s at Bennington College were predictably potent. Composer and trumpeter Bill Dixon mixed experimental jazz and activism. Anthony Caro and Paul Feely were advancing abstract modern art. Jackson was still living on Main Street in North Bennington, in ill health, allegedly donning a turban on Halloween to read fortunes to children parading costumes down the tiny Main Street, as my own children have done for the last decade.

In 1966, Tzaims Luksus came to town, lean and well dressed. He was a man perfectly suited for the times; he’d hiked the Himalayas, designed haute couture psychedelia, and was unafraid to push against cultural norms. Locals were awestruck as he purchased the unmodernized 1901 mansion on Walloomsac Road, previously known for being the earlier site of the unsuccessful suicide of a local businessman.

People in town now largely know Luksus for his eccentricity—his rambling house, regular conflicts, occasional arrests, letters to the editor of the local paper, his habit of bicycling through town in a linen sailor suit. But his accomplishments as an artist are significant.

In the case of Luksus, one works to disentangle truth from myth. I don’t mean to imply that myth itself is inherently bad; as a writer, I recognize the solace and ingenuity that drives the act of personal storytelling. I also honor the pain that sometimes demands it.

Born James Henry Luksus in Chicago on January 1, 1932, Tzaims began designing feed-sack dresses for his mother on the family farm when he was 12, according to Leigh Wishner of the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising Museum in Los Angeles, who’s writing a book on 20th-century printed fabrics.

Tzaims, then still going by James, joined the Navy and studied at the Pennsylvania College of Art in the late ’50s. As a young man from an Illinois farm who’d also served in the military, he had not grown up in the high-fashion milieu and possessed a certain artistic temperament that regularly put him at odds with collaborators. At some point in his early life, Tzaims experienced a profound loss when his nephews died in a car accident. He abruptly left art school to study weaving in Athens, Greece. When he returned—exiting a short-lived marriage that produced a son—he launched a remarkable career in textiles and fashion.

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A showing of Luksus’s designsKeystone-France

“I did not come from a family with money, nor was in any way a member of high society,” Tzaims wrote in a blog entry in 2013. “I virtually had nothing other than a $700.00 annual GI college fund for four years after I was discharged from the US Navy of which I used only three years of that funding at an art academy and design school. When I started designing silk for Sarmi in NYC my job as a window dresser at John Wanamaker Department Store in Philadelphia paid me $25.00 a week.”

A former mentor and girlfriend, textile artist Miriam Fredenthal, noted James was an excellent student and that when he arrived back in the States after the three-year absence in Greece, he’d recovered from some “early family tragedies” and christened himself “Tzaims,” a variation of his first name. “It was the most perfect trade name you could dream up,” Fredenthal in 1991 told journalist Peter Crabtree, who was writing a profile on Tzaims.

She said that though Tzaims started as a weaver in art school, he quickly broke with convention. In traditional design, Wishner said, one is bound by the mathematical structure of a weave. Through silk-screening and tie-dye methods, Tzaims was able to create free-flowing patterns that transcended traditional weave structures, which happened to match, if not anticipate, the spirit of the ’60s.

book cover use of this asset requires approval please contact your account representativemandatory credit photo by bert sterncondé nastshutterstock 13004092dmodel birgitta af klercker in a studio, wearing a short silk satin dress with a long train, printed with a stylized floral pattern on fields of yellow and blue, by tzaims luksus earrings by michael hic hair by ara gallant with hairpieces by tovar tresses birgitta af klerckervogue march 15, 1967 fashion feature, usa
"Tzaims Luksus was poised to create an iconic American fashion brand, with a really strong print DNA," says author and fashion historian Cameron SilverBert Stern/Condé Nast/Shutterstock - Shutterstock

Tzaims’s professional peak was short but remarkable. He produced original silk prints and sold them to fashion houses like Dior and Givenchy. Halston dressed his models. Gordon Parks shot his work for Vogue. Life magazine and The New York Times praised his ingenuity. In 1965, his work received awards from both Neiman Marcus and Coty.

Wishner said Tzaims was influenced by Art Nouveau and did not like calling his patterns psychedelic, as he was not under the influence of drugs while designing. She also noted that he experimented with tie-dying before Halston.

“He provided his tie-dyes to designer Ferdinando Sarmi in ’62," she says. "Then he started designing with silk screening in ’62, ’63—his first silks were produced for Burke-Amey. They became his psychedelic work; those are phenomenal. They are pace setting. Everyone was clamoring for these amazing prints that were perfectly aligned with the times.”

“Tzaims was important,” Wishner tells me. “He was a big deal. His misfit status made it hard for him to succeed in the business. He came onto the scene and made a huge impact on the look of American fashion in that experimental moment—the freedom of that period. But he couldn’t fit in with that world. He saw himself as an artist, not a business person.”

tzaims luksus
Luksus "saw himself as an artist, not a business person," says fashion historian Leigh Wishner.Keystone-France

In the 1990s, local police arrested Tzaims for unlawful mischief, disorderly conduct, and trespassing, mostly due to feuds with neighbors. Those closer to him seemed to know that his volatile moods would pass after some time. Others, including some sources for this piece, asked for anonymity as they were still concerned how Tzaims, now in his 90s, might respond.

Tzaims himself is the real expert as to how trauma and loss informed his life and catalyzed his art. While there is undoubtedly more to his story, the darker and deeper parts feel like his to reveal and narrativize. Though he has certainly caused pain and frustration, he has also inspired surprising loyalty; even some acquaintances whom he has hurt express a desire to protect him and worry about his well-being. This is, perhaps, the nature of a town that understands its artists and their edges a little better than most.

“While we can’t sanitize the record to protect genius,” Wishner says, “he deserves to be known.”

"America doesn’t have a huge iconic print designer, like Pucci in Italy," author and fashion historian Cameron Silver tells me. "Tzaims Luksus was poised to create an iconic American fashion brand, with a really strong print DNA."

Siver adds, "His prints are so good, and he collaborated with such great people He’s an example of a creative person who gets in the way of his own success. I’d love to see a renaissance, to see a modern designer use his prints. The prints are so strong, and the color stories are so interesting—I want to see them live again."

Tzaims came to Bennington in 1966 after a member of the Vanderbilt family, Lawrence Vanderbilt Morris, promised to finance his independent work at an empty mill. When that fell through, the John G. McCullough family (who, like the Vanderbilts, made their money in railroads) stepped in, alongside artist and local businessman David Gil, who founded Bennington Pottery, an iconic ceramics retailer. “After three years I was forced out and left with nothing but my international fame both in textile and fashion design,” Tzaims said of the business, which ultimately failed.

According to locals who partied with him in the ’60s, Tzaims was charismatic, worldly, volatile, and prone to exhaustion after bursts of creativity. He was “seductive, but occasionally toxic,” a former acquaintance tells me. The interior of his house featured textiles from Marrakech, furs, candles, mirrors, large plants, and a grand chandelier in the kitchen. His parties were legendary, once featuring The Living Theatre and the Ondekoza group, also known as the “demon drummers of Japan,” who played on Tzaims’s lawn in loincloths. There was, according to the acquaintance, a lot of LSD.

Also during parties, Tzaims would occasionally play the 1842 antique pipe organ on the third floor of his mansion late into the night. “It bordered on the macabre,” the acquaintance says. Occasionally, he says, Tzaims would slip into a new persona, like a space-aged character from a comic book, and expect others to play along with his new identity.

My friend and fellow writer Joel Gardner grew up in Bennington in the ’70s, as Tzaims’s professional life was on the decline. Gardner’s father was renowned novelist John Gardner (Grendel, The Sunlight Dialogues) and a member of the Bennington College faculty. “There were parties,” Joel Gardner explains to me. “They were outrageously loud and swelled with people, and alcohol flowed freely. We had plenty. My father also taught a lot of classes in our living room, in the house next to the Old First Church. Sometimes a class and a party would blend together. Tzaims would show up on occasion, a bottle of something in hand.”

Gardner adds, “Eccentric is a word easily tossed around, but Tzaims’s eyes simmered with a kind of joy … his eyes not so much sparkling as sparking. I distinctly recall a time he cornered me in our library and regaled me with instructions on how to get a Rolls-Royce dealer to let you have the car for the day to take for a picnic. There wasn’t Google in those dark times, let’s remember. You were who you said you were.”

Tzaims experimented with chronic reinvention. His life was a mix of luxury and trial. Though he lived in a mansion, there was no central heating or running water. “Rainwater is very refreshing to bathe in,” he once told Crabtree. “I have a very practical nature when it comes to living and survival. I grew up in the Depression.”

In 1968, as his mill project was faltering, Tzaims received support from Standard Oil heiress Rebekah Harkness (whose Rhode Island manor Holiday House is now owned by Taylor Swift). Harkness hosted a showing of Tzaims’s spring collection in Paris at the Hotel Crillon and wore his iconic dresses, examples of which are now featured in the collection of the Met Costume Institute. “Rebekah Harkness was a God send for me and the American Fashion Critics became the Devil that not only destroyed my association with her but destroyed her and her Ballet Company and all the good she did as well,” Tzaims wrote in 2013.

Eventually, the business relationships dried up. “I suppose that I had some kind of problem or aggravation with almost every designer I sold my fabrics to,” Tzaims told Crabtree. Gil, his one-time supporter, eventually called Tzaims “unmanageable.”

Bennington is a romantic and tough place to visit as an outsider. Like Tzaims, I’m not originally from this place. My husband’s family had roots just outside Bennington. Thirteen years ago, I arrived at our farm homesick for the South and ravaged by postpartum depression. I published my first book that year and taught at the college for a while. Bennington made me an artist. It gets into your bloodstream; maybe the darkness does too.

“Bennington is self-serious,” Joel Gardner tells me. “There are a lot of artists who have to immerse themselves in an environment that is serious about the work they do. … Then there’s all the mysterious water running through all that rock underground.”

It was, in some ways, a privilege to partake in that mysterious water and belong to the tradition of this dark and artful town where icons like Helen Frankenthaler and Martha Graham made work. Even though Tzaims onced showed some original paintings in the college’s library, he was not, to my knowledge, a regular part of the college community. Though at times, he moved in illustrious circles—once even lunching with Queen Elizabeth II—he lived as an outsider.

Even his shingle-sided mansion, in the oldest and most prosperous section of Old Bennington, is a physical manifestation of that quality. Its bohemian decline draws the eye among the other well-painted homes and formal, tended gardens. A loose blue tarp with frayed edges, intended to cover a hole in the roof, flaps in the wind.

When the house next to Tzaims’s went up for sale during the pandemic, I scheduled a showing. I walked the property line, gazing into the jungle of his backyard, a wild tangle of intentional plantings, Tibetan statues, and an unbelievable carpet of fuchsia-colored bee balm. I could see that in the past, the grounds had been artful and intentional. I thought about the importance of home, in the present and hereafter, and the act of creativity involved in making your own refuge.

Though Tzaims did not always have consistent fortune in business, he had a compelling love story. He met his partner, Gene Lott, a shy and retiring Texas man with a small inheritance, at a film festival in 1966. Lott aspired to write. The couple traveled often. “Nepal and Morocco were our favorite places,” Lott told Crabtree. “We took a trek through the Himalayas that was so high an experience, you’d be brought together for life, no matter who you shared it with.”

As the ’60s drew to a close, Tzaims and Lott opened a boutique and tea house on Bennington’s Main Street. They filled the shop with fine caftans and rolling papers, but in 1973, a fire burned it to the ground. A second iteration morphed into a head shop that was targeted by police and closed in 1985. While the era of excess was in full swing at the college, the town itself was more blue collar and conservative, and Reagan-era politicians attacked the public school curriculum and espoused the so-called War on Drugs. “The people who project fear—legislators, the police—are really the greater criminals,” an often-prescient Tzaims later told reporters.

Tzaims recalled the targeting of the shop as his low point, and he and Lott were now in financial trouble. The money from Lott’s inheritance and Tzaims’s earlier successes had run out. When visiting in 1991, Crabtree observed that the dark-paneled interior of the home “was in trouble.” “The second floor is a magnificent wreck,” he wrote, “with Luksus fending off the occasional bat.” Crabtree’s piece mentions a leaking roof, and a hole in the bedroom ceiling, which Tzaims admitted to carving “in a fit of compulsion.”

As their fortunes decreased, Lott took a late shift at a local hanger factory. He worked there until 2014, when the factory encouraged him to retire. Lott passed away that same year. Tzaims, grief stricken, kept Lott’s body in the house for several weeks, figuring the winter weather would preserve it, and buried him on site in a lavish ceremony. He invited Crabtree and the local news to document the occasion. He arranged the flowers and dug the grave himself.

Lott was, according to a friend, the buffer between Tzaims and the real world. He nurtured the fantasies, paid the bills, wrote thank-you notes, made apologies. His passing hastened the decline of the house, though Tzaims continued to live in the mansion part time, Lott’s body nearby in the yard.

Theirs is an unusual love story, but a profound one, and perhaps the most consistent part of Tzaims’s storied life.

Recent studies point to a link between early trauma and genius. John Gardner struggled with the accidental killing of his younger brother on the family farm. Tzaims experienced a similar trauma involving an automobile crash that killed his nephews, the trauma Fredenthal alludes to in her remembrances of his early years. Perhaps, in order to deal with trauma, the brain becomes more expansive and flexible. When life has been fundamentally altered, the mind imagines other possible modes of being and seeing; it has to.

When I learned the name of the man who lived in the mysterious mansion through a babysitter, no one was sure if he was still alive. Apparently, Tzaims had traveled abroad during the pandemic. One neighbor thought he was trapped in Thailand. Another supposed he might have passed away overseas.

I began researching this article assuming I would never make contact with him, wishing I’d found the courage to knock on his door years before. One day, following a trail on the Internet, I found Tzaims Luksus actively blogging from a remote village in Myanmar. I emailed him requesting an interview, and he declined.

I can’t help but respect his resiliency, creativity, and reinvention in the face of a world that did not understand him, and with trauma and heartbreak in the wings. Tzaims Luksus turned 90 in January of 2022, while traveling internationally during a global pandemic, and writing passionately about textiles and his family’s history.

In June of 2021, Tzaims posted about how his brother’s letters from Burma during World War II inspired him to travel to the region in 2017, 2018, and again in 2020. “I realize now being here how much I was influenced by its rich ethnic culture and tribal color, design, printing and weaving of clothing fabrics,” he wrote. Tzaims indicated that he was at work on a new couture collection “that is uniquely Burmese created by Burmese with my guidance.”

“The result,” he continued, “will be shown first in Yangon, then Singapore and finally in Paris during the couture collections, however, not in the circus like outlandish presentations that now dominate the showings of Dior or Chanel or those violent presentations of McQueen. I won’t say how. That is for all to see in Paris when the time comes which will be soon and when Paris returns to normal health conditions.”

I drove by the house at the end of July. Thick foliage eclipsed views of the house; vines were closing in. Blue tarps still moved in the breeze. The golden Buddha lock was fixed to the gate. There was no sign of an inhabitant, but I know better than to make assumptions.

At 90, Tzaims Luksus is still creating fashion, and perhaps even his own life.

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