Published  05/07/2007

Haute Couture's Grand Showman

Haute Couture's Grand Showman

Poiret: King of Fashion
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
9 May-5 August 2007

French fashion designer Paul Poiret made his mark on fashion history in, typically for him, dramatic ways. The distinctive styles he developed at his atelier in Paris during the early 20th century - 'harem' pants, 'lampshade' tunics and 'hobble' skirts, for instance - are icons of high style for the age. In 2005, clothing and accessories owned by the designer's wife and principle muse, Denise, were put up for sale by his granddaughter. The auction revived interest in Poiret and, ultimately, led to 'Poiret: King of Fashion', the Metropolitan Museum of Art's homage to the man who went from the height of popularity in the pre-World War I years to penniless obscurity at the time of his death in 1944.

Prior to the auction, at the age of 79, Denise had shown her treasure trove to Poiret biographer Palmer White but aside from White, few outside of the family had ever seen the outfits that she had meticulously documented and preserved. When the Metropolitan's Harold Koda, co-curator of the exhibit and curator in charge of the museum's Costume Institute, heard of the auction from Vogue Editor Hamish Bowles, he recognised an opportunity to add some of Poiret's finest designs to the museum's collection. The event drew international attention, due in part to a small private showing of thirty Poiret fashions organised by Designer Azzedine Alaia. The sale attracted high interest and high prices, and Koda and exhibit Co-curator Andrew Bolton, Curator of the Costume Institute, were authorised to purchase a large number of garments and accessories. They brought back to the museum more than 20 items, which form the core of the exhibit located in the special exhibition galleries on the first floor. The garments in the show were made between 1905, when the couple wed and 1928, when they divorced, and are arranged artfully in tableaux suggestive of the settings for which he created them.

With Poiret's couture, perfume bottles, productions from his interior design house, fashion plates based on his designs and promotional items, Koda and Bolton celebrate Poiret's  personality and achievements beyond the most widely known facts - that his designs did not require corsets, that he brought the styles, motifs, and colour palettes of Eastern cultures into Western fashion design - and assert his position as the first modern fashion designer. In a statement prefacing the catalogue, Nicolas Ghesquière, Artistic Director of exhibit sponsor Balenciaga, notes that Poiret 'ushered in modernist fashion, allowing those who came after him to expand on his revolutionary conceptualisations'.1 From Poiret's novel approach to clothing construction to his marketing and advertising savvy, Koda and Bolton claim that he paved the way for contemporary fashion empires and international branding. They also spotlight Denise's pivotal role as primary model, inspiration and de facto artistic director of his maison. The daughter of a provincial wood manufacturer, Denise took naturally to her life with Poiret in Paris. Together, the Poirets built a successful business and social life. As host and hostess of highly publicised parties, they dressed in costumes and enacted parts for their guests' entertainment. They even appeared together in beaded embroidery designs on a pair of shoes, 'Le Bal,' from 1924, Poiret on one foot and Denise on the other. The shoe illustrations show them causing a sensation as they enter a crowded ballroom.

The 224-page, full-colour catalogue is a work of art in itself, with 180 illustrations (158 in colour) of all things Poiret: period black-and-white photographs of his fashions worn by an elegant Denise, his coterie of house models and celebrities of the day; interiors and objects created by Atelier Martine, Poiret's home furnishings company; opulent perfume bottles from his perfumery, Rosine; pochoir fashion plates; early  fashion photography by Man Ray and Edward Steichen; contextual essays; and the catalogue proper, with contemporary colour photographs of garments, accessories and perfume bottles. Shown on mannequins from different  perspectives, with close-up views of fine detail, each garment, as well as the other items, is accompanied by descriptive text that places the design in context and discusses motifs and imagery.2 For example, for the 'Homage a Rousseau' full-length evening gown (c. 1910), with a skirt depicting a Rousseaunian jungle in pearls, seed beads, rhinestones and silk-floss embroidery, the catalogue authors relate that a celebrated fête given in 1908 for Rousseau by Picasso would have 'enhanced the avant-gardist currency of Rousseau's work for Poiret'.3

The son of a textile merchant, Poiret was born in 1879 and educated in Paris. As a teenager, he made fashion drawings and developed a love of fantasy and art. Hoping to steer Poiret towards work he considered more profitable, his father apprenticed him to an umbrella manufacturer. Soon after, in 1889, several of Poiret's drawings were purchased by a fashion designer; later that same year, one of the most celebrated Parisian couturiers, Jacques Doucet, hired him. Doucet's influence on Poiret was profound and lasting. Doucet cultivated actresses as clients, promoted an elite form of femininity and collected art. (In 1924, he purchased Picasso's 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon' (1907) through his art advisor, André Breton.) Poiret painted a bit when he was a young man and formed friendships with avant-garde artists. In the catalogue, readers will find a portrait of him painted in oil in 1914 by André Derain. Doucet, whose interests dovetailed with Poiret's budding vision of fashion as fine art, was a congenial mentor.

In 1901, Poiret joined the House of Worth, taking a subordinate role as designer of daywear, while Worth's signature evening gowns took centre stage. Still, Poiret drew attention to himself by designing a cloak cut along straight lines from black wool. The simplicity of the cloak offended a Russian princess, who compared it to a common sack. After 1903, when Poiret founded his own couture house, elaborate plumage, fur, brocade and feathers began to appear in his designs, but his approach to clothing construction remained, essentially, quite simple. From the start of his career, Poiret had enthusiastic supporters, mainly from the bohemian avant-garde, and detractors, who considered his flesh-coloured stockings, off-shoulder draperies and culottes to be radical. Of course, publicity on both ends of the spectrum only served to increase his cache with the public. Clearly, he was a man of contradictions; in 1906, for example, he designed a dress without a corset, but in 1910 developed the 'hobble' skirt, a garment hemmed below the knee that restricted movement. Apparently, he was proud of his provocative personas, artistic and personal, for he proclaimed on a sign at the entrance of his office, 'Danger!! Before knocking, ask yourself three times - Is it absolutely necessary to disturb HIM?'4 According to catalogue contributor and fashion historian Caroline Rennolds Milbank, for Poiret '… the simplest act of riding in a motorcar, attending a rehearsal of a new play or going to the races was an excuse to make a visual statement every bit as dramatic and stylised as the pochoir fashion plates he helped to popularise.'5

The beautiful pochoirs of his designs that, to this day, are reproduced on greetings cards, posters and novelty items helped to imprint Poiret's vision of fine art fashion in public consciousness. The pochoir (a form of stencilling in which a design is etched through a thin piece of metal before being printed on paper) perfectly captured the designer's bold colours and patterns; some have said that the pochoirs convey Poiret's genius more effectively than the actual garments do. Although pochoirs were considered too labour-intensive and costly for fashion illustration, Poiret chose them for the lavish albums he offered free of charge to his clientele. The illustrators placed the garments in settings that showcased their drama and individuality. Among the artists who established their careers illustrating for Poiret were Paul Iribe, who made pochoirs for 'Les robes de Paul Poiret' (1908); Georges Lepape, whose pochoirs appeared in 'Les choses de Paul Poiret' (1911); and the artists who contributed to La Gazette due bon ton. Published from November 1912 to 1925, the gazette resulted from a meeting between Poiret and magazine editor Lucien Vogel, who shared an interest in aligning art, culture and high fashion. The gazette contained articles on the most prominent designers, essays, theatre reviews, gossip columns and other features of interest to the Parisian elite. Like Poiret's albums, each issue of the gazette was printed on fine paper and illustrated with pochoirs. Raoul Dufy, Charles Martin, André-Edouard Marty, Georges Barbier and other artists known outside the world of fashion illustration contributed fashion plates, theatre and costume designs, and other works.

By selecting artists from the avant-garde to design fabrics, invitations, invoices, brochures and provide illustrations, Poiret continued to align fashion and modern art. The streamlined shapes and boldly coloured abstract patterning in Poiret's gracefully draped garments echoed those found in Fauvist, Cubist and Futurist works. Iribe, Lepape, Erte, Barbier, Marty, Dufy and other artists who worked with Poiret highlighted the most 'modern' aspects of his designs. Attracted to Dufy's brilliantly coloured Fauvist paintings and designs, Poiret commissioned him in 1909 to design stationery for his maison and, later, to design fabrics for garments and for Atelier Martine. From 1912 to 1918, Dufy designed fabrics for Bianchini Férier, a Lyon-based silk manufacturer.

Poiret could not sew, and perhaps that is one reason he moved away from dressmaking conventions, which relied on patterns and tailoring. His flowing creations moved with the body, did not require precise patterns and revealed influences ranging from the Greek chiton, Japanese kimono and North African and Middle Eastern caftan. Poiret amplified the dramatic effects of these basic garments, cut along simple lines and constructed of rectangles, by choosing vividly coloured fabrics in unusual combinations. Technical deficiency may have impelled him to break with tradition, but there is no doubt that Poiret intended to set himself apart. He had a talent for, as we might say today, 'spotting a trend and running with it'. Like the most successful contemporary mass-marketers, he was able to synthesise many influences and ideas - the naturalism of Greco-Roman dress, the romanticism of Poiret's Neoclassical Revival, the 'Orientalism' of the Ballets Russes - into something that seemed truly unique. Poiret's 'sampling' of designs from the Wiener Werkstätte exemplifies his gift for synthesis. The founders of the Viennese workshop conceived of design as a 'total work of art' encompassing every aspect of life; a goal shared by Poiret. His successful use of some of their principles and many of their designs in his garments and Atelier Martine furnishing is clear from the fine line separating his work from the workshop's productions. In her catalogue essay, Heather Hess, Stefan Engelhorn curatorial fellow at the Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University, notes the blurring of a distinction between the Wiener Werkstätte and Poiret in advertisements and in articles published in Vogue and the Washington Post.6

In his autobiography The King of Fashion (1930), Poiret acknowledged his debt to many artists, designers and styles, past and present. He stated that his greatest contribution to his age had been to recognise, interpret and circulate their ideas. But, in his hands, these ideas seemed more exciting. Clothing, accessories, perfume and furnishings appealed to the senses and were, for Poiret, vehicles for infusing everyday life with art. In fact, haute couture's grand showman displayed fashion as fine art on the world stage. He was a celebrated figure when he toured eastern and central Europe and America, dominating headlines and capturing the attention of people who would never have the opportunity to own one of his garments.

Following on the Wiener Werkstätte's 'total work of art,' he extended his reach to areas as yet unexplored by other fashion designers. By applying his aesthetic to entertaining, furnishings, fabrics and perfume, he became the first 'lifestyle designer'.7 Today, Christian Dior's home linens and Ralph Lauren's Polo seem obvious. But in his day, Poiret's experiments were daring. His connections with artists, actors, dancers, wealthy socialites and literary figures fuelled what became a vast enterprise that included a perfume house named after his youngest daughter, Rosine; an interior design firm named for his second daughter, Martine; an art school for young women that supplied charmingly naïve designs for plates, carpets, textiles and furniture; a nightclub, L'Oasis; and an art gallery on the premises of his couture house run by an art dealer but at Poiret's disposal to show the modern art about which he was passionate.

Although he broke new ground for his successors, unlike them he did not use his name to brand his lines. Nevertheless, his designs and the flamboyant ways in which he promoted them marked them as his own. Such high-profile clients as Sarah Bernhardt, Isadora Duncan, Peggy Guggenheim and Colette, paraded his garments on an international runway. He hosted elaborate parties that promoted his maison more effectively than traditional fashion shows; on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art are photographs from one such highly publicised event, the 'Thousand and Second Night,' which took place on 24 June 1911, in the garden of his couture house. The year before, Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes premiered 'Schéhérazade', from One Thousand and One Nights,in Paris, with scenes created by Russian painter Léon Bakst, whetting cultured Parisian's appetites for Eastern-inspired fare. Poiret invited his guests to dress in 'oriental' costumes. He required those who came without costumes to change into garments designed by him, such as the 'harem-style' pants offered in his spring 1911 collection.

Rosine's perfumes were advertised in novel ways as well; for example, in a series of fans illustrated with women wearing Poiret fashions in settings furnished with Atelier Martine designs. The scents were promoted with excerpts from poems by French poets, Verlaine and Baudelaire among them; endorsements from actresses, and names and packaging tied to popular entertainments. These inventive marketing strategies might indicate his acceptance of mass market values, but Poiret remained a steadfast adherent of the artisan aesthetic. He hired fine craftspeople and favored labour-intensive production methods. Toward the end of his career, he tried to become a mass phenomenon, inspired by Marcel Duchamp's concept of the 'ready-made'.8 In 1917, Poiret launched his 'genuine reproductions' for American consumers. These cheaply produced garments had specially designed labels and were advertised in brochures that mimicked Poiret's haute couture. This ill-conceived attempt to keep up with the winds of change was half-hearted and bound to fail. Soon, in the post-war period, Poiret's vision would seem outdated, too lavish for women introduced to the active life through wartime work and the automobile age.

For a while, Poiret was able to navigate the fine line of fashion logic, described by catalogue essayist Nancy J Troy, a professor of art history at the University of Southern California, as 'the insurmountable problem faced by the couturier when unique creations saturated with artistic aura are subjected to the conditions of mass production for widespread consumption in an industrialised economy.'9 In the end, his commitment to individuality, fantasy and theatre, and the artisan mode of production tipped the balance in favour of such designers as Coco Chanel, who co-opted many of Poiret's ideas and tailored them to a new audience. Chanel's designs were in step with her clients' tastes for functional sportswear, while Poiret always designed through the lens of his own interests, and for the particular muse of Denise. His vision of fashion remained tied to art, luxury and glamour. In 1928, he and Denise divorced, signalling the close of Poiret's reign as the 'King of Fashion'. In 1934, he developed Parkinson's Disease and began a slow decline that culminated in his death in 1944.

Looking at Poiret's fashions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one will be struck by their charming femininity and the beauty of their fabrics, colours and simple lines. Yet, it is difficult to conceive of them as modern. But the exhibit does point the way from Poiret to more recent designers (such as Alaia, Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Jacobs, Proenza Schouler and Vivienne Tam), who are integrating aspects of his aesthetic and specific designs into their lines. When one looks deeper, the legacy of haute couture's grand showman cannot be missed.

Cindi Di Marzo

1. White P. Poiret. London: Studio Vista, 1973: 7.
2. Koda H, Bolton A. Poiret. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 2007.
3. Koda, Bolton, Poiret: 55.
4. Ibid:  31.
5. Ibid:31.
6. Ibid: 40.
7. Poiret was the first fashion designer to develop a line of perfumes.
8. Duchamp's 'ready-mades' were mass-produced objects inscribed with a word or phrase and his name.
9. Koda, Bolton, Poiret: 17.

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