Paul Poiret (20 April 1879, Paris, France – 30 April 1944, Paris) was a French fashion designer. His contributions to twentieth-century fashion have been likened to Picasso's contributions to twentieth-century art.
Early life and career
Poiret was born on 20 April 1879 to a cloth merchant in the poor neighborhood of Les Halles, Paris. His parents, in an effort to rid him of his natural pride, apprenticed him to an umbrella maker. There, he collected scraps of silk left over from the cutting of umbrella patterns, and fashioned clothes for a doll that one of his sisters had given him. While a teenager, Poiret took his sketches to Madeleine Chéruit, a prominent dressmaker, who purchased a dozen from him. Poiret continued to sell his drawings, eventually to major Parisian couture houses, until he was hired by Jacques Doucet in 1896. His first design, a red cloth cape, sold 400 copies. Poiret later moved to the House of Worth, where he was responsible for designing simple, practical dresses. The "brazen modernity of his designs," however, proved too much for Worth's conservative clientele. When Poiret presented the Russian Princess Bariatinsky with a Confucius coat with an innovative kimono-like cut, for instance, she exclaimed, "What a horror! When there are low fellows who run after our sledges and annoy us, we have their heads cut off, and we put them in sacks just like that."
Poiret's influence expands
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Poiret established his own house in 1903, and made his name with the controversial kimono coat. He designed flamboyant window displays and threw legendary parties to draw attention to his work; his instinct for marketing and branding was unmatched by any previous designer. In 1909, he was so famous that H. H. Asquith invited him to show his designs at 10 Downing Street. The cheapest garment at the exhibition was 30 guineas, double the annual salary of a scullery maid.
Poiret's house expanded to encompass furniture, decor, and fragrance in addition to clothing. In 1911, he introduced “Parfums de Rosine,” named after his daughter, becoming the first couturier to launch a signature fragrance linked to a design house. On 24 June 1911 Poiret unveiled “Parfums de Rosine" in a flamboyant manner. A grand soiree was held at his palatial home, a costume ball attended by the cream of Parisian society and the artistic world. Poiret fancifully christened the event “la mille et deuxième nuit,” the thousand and second night, inspired by the fantasy of sultans’ harems. Gardens were illuminated by lanterns, set with tents, and live tropical birds. Madame Poiret herself lounged in a golden cage luxuriating in opulence. Poiret was the reigning sultan, gifting each guest with a bottle of his new fragrance creation, appropriately named to befit the occasion, “Nuit Persane.” His marketing strategy played out as entertainment became a sensation and the talk of Paris. A second scent debuted in 1912, “Le Minaret,” again emphasizing the harem theme.
In 1911, publisher Lucien Vogel dared photographer Edward Steichen to promote fashion as a fine art by the use of photography. Steichen then took photos of gowns designed by Poiret. These photographs were published in the April 1911 issue of the magazine Art et Décoration. According to Jesse Alexander, This is "...now considered to be the first ever modern fashion photography shoot. That is, photographing the garments in such a way as to convey a sense of their physical quality as well as their formal appearance, as opposed to simply illustrating the object." One year later, Vogel began his renowned fashion journal La Gazette du Bon Ton, which showcased Poiret's designs, drawn by top illustrators, with six other leading Paris designers of the day – Madeleine Chéruit, Georges Doeuillet, Jacques Doucet, Jeanne Paquin, Redfern & Sons, and the House of Charles Worth.
Poiret launched the École Martine, named for his second daughter, to provide artistically inclined, working-class girls with trade skills and income.
Collapse of the Poiret fashion house
During World War I, Poiret left his fashion house to serve the military by streamlining uniform production. When Poiret returned after being discharged in 1919, the house was on the brink of bankruptcy. New designers like Chanel were producing simple, sleek clothes that relied on excellent workmanship. In comparison, Poiret's elaborate designs seemed dowdy and poorly manufactured. (Though Poiret's designs were groundbreaking, his construction was not—he aimed only for his dresses to "read beautifully from afar.") Poiret was suddenly out of fashion, in debt, and lacking support from his business partners, and he soon left his fashion house. In 1929, the house itself was closed, and its leftover clothes were sold by the kilogram as rags. When Poiret died in 1944, his genius had been forgotten. His road to poverty led him in odd jobs as a street painter trying to sell drawings to the customers of Paris' cafes. At one time it was even discussed in the 'Chambre syndicale de la Haute Couture' to provide a monthly allowance to help him, an idea rejected by the Worths (at that time at holding the presidency of that body). Only the help of his friend Elsa Schiaparelli prevented his name from encountering complete oblivion, and it was Schiaparelli that paid for Poiret's burial.
Aesthetic and legacy
Though perhaps best known for freeing women from corsets and for his startling inventions including hobble skirts, "harem" pantaloons, and "lampshade" tunics, Poiret's major contribution to fashion was his development of an approach to dressmaking centered on draping, a radical departure from the tailoring and pattern-making of the past. Poiret was influenced by antique and regional dress, and favored clothing cut along straight lines and constructed of rectangles. The structural simplicity of his clothing represented a "pivotal moment in the emergence of modernism" generally, and "effectively established the paradigm of modern fashion, irrevocably changing the direction of costume history.
In 1905, Poiret married Denise Boulet, a provincial girl; they would later have five children together. Denise, a slender and youthful woman, was Poiret's muse and the prototype of la garçonne. In 1913, Poiret told Vogue, "My wife is the inspiration for all my creations; she is the expression of all my ideals." The two later were divorced, in 1928 after twenty-three years of marriage, in a proceeding that was far from amicable.
Poiret was notorious for throwing lavish parties and plays featuring his designs. For one of his famous parties, on 24 June 1911, "The Thousand and Second Night" (based on The Arabian Nights), he required his over 300 guests to dress in Oriental costuming. Improperly dressed guests were requested to either outfit themselves in some of Poiret's 'Persian' outfits or to leave.
- Bowles, Hamish. "Fashioning the Century." Vogue (May 2007): 236–250. A condensed version of this article appears online.
- The Way We Move: How Paul Poiret freed us from the corset, by Josh Patner, Slate, 18 May 2007
- Mazzeo, Tilar J., The Secret of Chanel No. 5, HarperCollins, 2010, p. 26
- Mazzeo, Tilar J., The Secret of Chanel No. 5, HarperCollins, 2010, p. 25
- Niven, Penelope (1997). Steichen: A Biography. New York: Clarkson Potter. ISBN 0-517-59373-4, p. 352
- Alexander, Jesse, "Edward Steichen: Lives in Photography," HotShoe magazine, no.151, December/January 2008, pp.66 – 67
- "Digital Collections at Chicago History Museum". Digitalcollection.chicagohistory.org. Retrieved 2012-03-17.
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art – Special Exhibitions: Poiret: King of Fashion[dead link]
- Osmothèque - Conservatoire international des parfums. Official website. Web.
- Chadwick, Whitney; Troy, Nancy J. (June 2004). "Couture Culture: A Study in Modern Art and Fashion". Art Bulletin (College Art Association) 86 (2): 384. doi:10.2307/3177425. JSTOR 3177425. Retrieved 10 March 2007.[dead link]
- Shi, Jim (2 October 2006). "Costume Institute Picks Poiret". Fashion Week Daily. Retrieved 10 March 2007.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Paul Poiret.|
- List of books about Paul Poiret (French)
- Two animations by SOFTlab showing the draping used to construct Poiret dresses
- Paul Poiret on Vogue
- Paul Poiret, King of Fashion exhibition – The Metropolitan Museum of Art – New York City