If you are looking for an icon of nineteen twenties fashion, then you will absolutely cross paths with the name Poiret. Known in the industry for cultivating some of the biggest and most sensational changes to women’s fashion, Poiret was a modernist in its first and purest form. He dominated the fashion scene in Paris and abroad from the mid 1900’s until he closed his House at the end of the twenties. He is credited with giving women more freedom in their fashions, and introduced colour, opulence and international flavours to his designs. What a time it would have been to be alive!
Paul Poiret is one of the greatest couturiers that France ever produced. Born in April 1879, he lived on both sides of luxury and poverty in his 65 years. His father was a cloth merchant, and when Poiret was old enough to work, sent him to apprentice in an umbrella factory. Whilst working in the factory, Poiret would collect the scraps of silk from the cutting room floor, and fashion them into outfits for his sister’s dolls. He had a knack for sketching and loved to design, and began to take a portfolio of his work around to couture houses in Paris. He sold many of his designs and then in 1896, was hired by Jacques Doucet. Here Poiret began to nurture his skills of design, and learnt many new techniques from the great couturier. Poiret then moved onto the House of Worth, where his flamboyant designs were too much for this classic fashion brand and clientele.
Finally in 1903, Poiret open his own House where he could be as creative and Avant Garde as he pleased. Poiret not only established himself in women’s clothing, but also as a great business man. He introduced things previously not seen or heard of by fashion designers, and became an entrepreneur before we even knew the word existed. He became known for lavish window displays of his latest creations, and threw some of the most sensational parties of the time. He opened his home, a mansion in Paris, and invited everyone who was on society’s it list. Poiret used his muse and wife to showcase his latest designs at these parties, with no expense spared. Think Gatsby, and that’s the kind of soiree that Poiret was known for giving!
There are some notable developments in fashion history which we can thank Poiret for. One of the best known innovations was that of freeing women from their corsets. Poiret changed the silhouette of fashion dramatically when he started to use draping techniques and free flowing fabrics. No longer did women’s busts ooze over the top, but a much more flat and comfortable style was adopted. The empire line was a style that Poiret favoured, raising the waist line to just below the bust, and allowing the fabric to be fluid from this point on. Fabrics such as muslin, lightweight silk and satin, and tulle were all used, and a vibrant colour pallet was introduced.
A lot of the inspiration for Poiret’s designs came from oriental influences. The use of colour and pattern was inspiring to Poiret, and he became known for his kimono coats when he first opened his House. Poiret travelled to many places to draw further on his inspiration, and we began to see tassels, feathers, Batik, Persian and ropes of pearls all come through in his work. Design innovations such as the hobble skirt, a skirt with a very narrow hem which significantly impeded the wearing from walking, was another of Poiret’s creations. Harem pants are another staple of Poiret, which are a baggy trouser cinched in at the ankle. As you can imagine, women did not wear trousers in the early twentieth century, so Poiret created a frenzy with his new ‘Style Sultane’ silhouette. The ‘Lampshade’ tunic also came from the House of Poiret, which as the name suggests, was a tunic with a wide hem line encasing a wire structure to give it more definition and make the shape more dramatic. Poiret also drew inspiration from the Ballet Russes, and frequently used draping in his work. This draping technique lead his designs to herald a somewhat Hellenic influence, which saw a departure from the traditional tailoring and patternmaking from couturiers before.
In 1911, Poiret further established his brand with the introduction of a fragrance. He was the first French couturier to do so. The same year, he also developed a home décor division, and the Poiret brand started to become known as a whole lifestyle, not just something affluent women could wear, but something they could also decorate their homes with. The lavish and luxurious lifestyle that Poiret, his wife and five children had become accustom to, started to slow down at the beginning of the First World War. Like many French men, Poiret had to serve for his country, and as a result, his fashion empire had to close. Upon re-entering the trade in 1919, Poiret struck difficulties, and found rivals in the likes of Chanel. While Chanel was establishing herself as another great French couturier, Poiret was unable to keep up. His garments while they had been revolutionary and opulent, were not fine examples of construction. They looked dazzling from afar, but if you got too close, you could see the flaws. Women were starting to become accustom to not only great design, but fine sewing and finishing. Poiret sadly never regained his place at the top of the scene, and after struggling for a few years, closed his doors in 1929. What was left of his stock was sold off as rags.
Paul Poiret lived out the remained of his live on a much more discreet level than he had previously. On the verge of poverty, having lost everything, Poiret died in 1944, aged sixty five. By the time of his death, most in the fashion world had forgotten all about him and the tremendous things he contributed when at the top of his game. His close friend, Elsa Schiaparelli, was the one who paid for his burial service. It took some years before the industry finaly recognised the achievements of Poiret, and since then, many exhibitions have been held in his honour. Being the first designer to publish a look book, create a logo and dive into costume design as well, Poiret really was an innovator.
After ninety years lying dormant, the Poiret brand has been revived by Beijing born designer Yiqing Yin, and will showcase its first collection for Fall 2018. It seems that fashion will always remain attached to its past! For a man that stabilised the French Couture industry, Poiret’s legacy will live on. Not only a designer, but a poet, a painter, a musician and a well-travelled individual, Paul Poiret and his quirky creations will forever hold their place in the history of fashion.
Love Always, Anastacia Rose xx