Paul Poiret

With the news that the revered French fashion house Paul Poiret has been bought by Korea-based company Shinsegae International, here is an article I penned that originally appeared in The Independent newspaper on Monday 7th May 2007.


In New York tonight the fashion industries movers and shakers will be heading to the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute to attend one of the most glamorous events of the year – a gala benefit, co-hosted by Cate Blanchett, Nicholas Ghesquiere and Anna Wintour, to celebrate the career of a designer known as Poiret: King of Fashion. No, not Poirot, the Agatha Christie detective (although both men did share a portly figure and swank signature facial hair), but Paul Poiret, the Parisian couturier who for two decades at the beginning of the twentieth century not only played a key role in the liberation of women by freeing them from the restrictive corsets of The Belle Époque but also shaped fashion’s future by creating a variety of visionary templates for the fashion industry itself.

“Next to Poiret, Coco Chanel looks like a little dressmaker”, designer Azzedine Alaia once said. “It’s one of life’s ironies that she ended up with millions while he died without a cent…in complete obscurity. How such a strong force can be written out of history is truly mystifying.”

Ghesquiere, the lionized creative director at Balenciaga, describes him as ‘remarkable innovator’ who ‘ushered in modernist fashion’.

“The historic significance and influence of Poiret’s work is breathtaking, and felt in fashion to the present day,” says Harold Korda, Curator in Charge of the accompanying exhibition at the Costume Institute. This is indeed a rare chance to see the work of Poiret, with some of the clothing on show never having been seen before outside of the designer’s circle of family and friends. Korda and fellow curator Andrew Bolton were inspired by the discovery of a treasure trove of clothing that came up for auction in Paris in 2005 and at the core of this landmark exhibition will be more than twenty costumes and accessories acquired by the museum. Viewed as one of the most significant acquisitions for the Costume Institute in recent years, these exquisite designs will be presented along with more than thirty other ensembles, in a series of tableaux, styled with paintings, illustrations, furniture and examples of decorative art that reveal the brilliance of this truly visionary designer.

The underlying simplicity of Poiret’s designs afforded them a never-aging sense of modernity that has been echoed by designers down the decades, from Halston to Roland Mouret. Even in the latest collections references to Poiret can be found, from the cocoon coats of Proenza Schouler and John Galliano to the feathered monkey fur skirts of hot label 6267 and lampshade dress by Thakoon, yet the legacy of Poiret goes far beyond his dramatic silhouettes. Surrounded by fellow artists including Stravinsky, Cocteau and Diaghilev, he was part of a group who struggled to separate themselves from the previous century and especially the extravagances of Art Noveau by breaking the rules and subverting convention.

Poiret, hailed as the first designer to associate fashion with other arts, loved modern art, commissioning Henri Matisse and Raoul Duffy to create fabric prints while patronizing the likes of Picasso, Modigliani and Brancusi. He collected antiquities from Greece and the Tang dynasty and it was ancient history and travel that inspired him most.

Working with Jacques Doucet and Charles Worth, two of the leading couturiers of the day, Poiret focused his trademark style: undemanding silhouettes decorated with exotic patterns. His forte was drapery and he often worked without sketching, pinning and cutting directly onto his models.

At first his designs proved too understated for the wealthy Parisian clientele: while at Worth a kimono-esque cloak so outraged the Russian princess who had commissioned it that she likened it to a sack used for the heads of decapitated commoners. This prompted Poiret to set up his own business.

When he opened his couturier in 1903 the silhouette of the day had changed little for more than a century. Women’s figures were not only divided into two by a whalebone corset but also constrained by masses of fabric – a typical dress covered every extremity with a long train trailing behind. It was a cumbersome style that belied a woman’s role to be little more than decorous.

Poiret set about freeing women from such constrictions and was soon designing garments for Denise, his wife and muse, inspired by the classical paintings he had studied at the Louvre during his youth. He moved the attention to the shoulders and raised the waist to the bosom to echo the neo-Grecian Directoire style of Empress Josephine and Lady Hamilton – two style icons of the late-18th century. To allude to the contours of the body he used superfine fabrics such as muslin, silk and tulle. Paradoxically it was Poiret’s affection for this slim silhouette that inhibited women in a new way. At first the designer dropped his dresses to the floor from the hips, but to exaggerate the narrowness he began to reduce the hemline into what became known, for obvious reasons, as the ‘hobble skirt’.

At the forefront of this Directoire revival Poiret advertised his designs with colourful brochures, another shocking innovation that breathed new life into fashion illustration. They caused a sensation. But Poiret never shied from attention and was one of the first designers to understand the power of a PR event. He took models to the Longchamps horse races dressed in his toga-like dresses, split to reveal coloured stockings. Considered an outrage, his designs garnered screams of fright from race goers and the desired column inches.

Poiret loved the commotion. ‘I am not commercial,’ he told the New York Times. ‘I am an artist, not a dressmaker’.

His lavish use of gold, fur, fringe, tassels and turbans (seen this season on the Prada catwalk) embraced the trend for Orientalism that reached a peak in Paris with the arrival of the Leon Bakst and the Ballets Russes. The designer lived an equally flamboyant lifestyle and staged lavish fancy dress balls where tout de Paris would wear costumes designed by him. These soon became the fashion of the day, much as now the extravagances of haute couture eventually influence the high street. The pinnacle of such excesses was his Persian themed ‘1002nd Night’ party in June 1911. Poiret, dressed as a sultan, locked his wife Denise in a giant golden cage. As usual she modelled his latest creation: harem pants. Poiret was inundated with orders and these new fangled trousers provided another step to emancipating women, if only to let them dance the latest craze, the tango.

It is no secret that designer John Galliano is a huge fan of Poiret, having referenced his work liberally throughout his career. During one of his more extravagant couture presentations for Christian Dior played out at the Paris Opera in 1998 critics noted that several outfits appeared as if traced from the drawings of Erte, who illustrated Poiret’s designs. The comparison between Galliano and Poiret runs deep. Just like Galliano, it is said that Poiret showed his models to assume characters, and by using himself to promote his product, again like Galliano whose dress-up appearances at the end of his catwalk shows are as fiercely anticipated as his collections, Poiret also became the brand. Not surprisingly writer Jean Cocteau described Poiret as, ‘an actor like Nero’.

Poiret designed for the theatre and in turn these costumes influenced the fashions. He created gowns for the great entertainers – Rejane, Sarah Bernhardt, Lily Langtry, Isadora Duncan and Josephine Baker. He dressed French author Colette and American art patrons Peggy Guggenheim and Gertrude Whitney. The Marchesa Casati (a much name-checked inspiration of Galliano) was a client and even Elsa Schiapparelli.

Poiret’s inventiveness extended to the worlds of fragrance and interior design, markets previously untapped by couturiers.

In 1911 he set up the Martine school (named after one of his daughters) for working class girls. He encouraged them to draw flowers and nature, and then make rugs, wallpapers, cushions, curtains, ceramics and even furniture to be sold in Martine stores. These girls hand-painted the perfume bottles that he developed in his perfume house called Rosine, after another daughter. This was notably ten years before Chanel. He advertised these fragrances with paper fans and capitalised on their success with soaps, cosmetics, and toilet waters. The precursor of the luxury business that is the template for any fashion brand today, it marketed the concept of lifestyle shopping.

But Poiret didn’t stop there. With Raoul Dufy he set up a printing and packaging factory. He toured Europe and America, and seeing his clothes copied so readily, he signed the first licensing deals. He created a blueprint for the ready-to-wear business by organising a royalty to be paid for each item sold, rather than a price for the look to be copied. Furthermore he lectured, acted, wrote newspaper articles and painted. He even created a salon-style nightclub in his garden and planned to bring out a monthly magazine for men called Le Prince.

But for all his imagination and foresight Poiret broke one of fashion’s cardinal rules, he failed to move with the times. Following World War I he continued to produce designs inspired by the history books. Although he had revolutionised womenswear he could not fully comprehend how profoundly different women’s lives were post–war, and how the enforced economy of wartime had demanded a basic style of dress that was an anathema to his excessive taste level. There is a report that a mythical meeting between Poiret and Chanel, clad in one of her popular little black jersey dresses, prompted Poiret to ask, ‘For whom, madame, do you mourn?’ Chanel replied, “For you, monsieur.” From the early 1930s Poiret was financially crippled and beset with ill health. He died in 1944, bankrupt and worse, forgotten.

*Image shows label from gold lattice work and lace dress by Paul Poiret, 1925 – from the collection of the Fashion Museum, Bath


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