‘…a couturier who employed the language of orientalism to develop the romantic and theatrical possibilities of clothing.’
One of my favourite fashion designers – Paul Poiret, was born on the 20. April 1879. in Paris. His innovative designs changed fashion landscape of the early 20. century. He was cunning, cheeky and radical.
He first worked as an umbrella maker – a job his parents forced him to do in an attempt to deprive him from his natural pride. There he collected scraps of silk left over and created dresses for a doll his sister had given him. His career started when he showed Madame Cheruit, a prominent Parisian fashion designer, his designs. She liked his work and bought the designs.
He continued to sell his designs until he was hired by Jacques Doucet in 1896. Poiret designed a red cloth cape for the House of Doucet which sold 400 copies. He later worked for the House of Worth, but his experimental and provocative designs found no place in this Victorian fashion house. Even the customers were shocked when he presented them his designs.
Ahead of his time, he opened his own fashion house in 1903. with the help of Rejane, famous actress of the time. His first noticeable design was a kimono-coat. Poiret, a Picasso of the fashion world had a dramatic flair for exotic and opulent designs. His vivid greens, royal blues and brilliant reds soon replaced the soft, pastel colour palette so favoured by Edwardian ladies and Callot sisters, a rival fashion designers. In four years, Poiret had Paris at his feet.
Far away and exotic countries such as Japan and Turkey served as his main inspiration and he soon presented his clientele with harem pants, turbans, hobble skirts and kimono-like jackets. As living pieces of art, his dresses were composed of rich materials, intriguing details, abundance of beads, a hint of crispy velvet and coated in exotic flair. He liberated women from their tight corsets – a legacy of Victorian times, but captivated them in hobble skirts preventing them from taking big steps. However, corset was far more popular than hobble skirt ever was.
Poiret had an amazing sense for marketing and he attracted, not only his clients, but all of Paris by designing flamboyant window displays that caught every bodies attention. His grand soirees, luxurious parties and costume balls became well known. For one of his costume balls, held on 24. June 1911. ‘The Thousand and Second Night’ (based on The Arabian Nights) he ordered his 300 guests to dress in Oriental clothing. Guests who disregarded his instruction were asked to either leave or to dress in one of his Persian costumes.
He was the first fashion designer ever to launch a fragrant connected to the fashion house named ‘Parfums de Rosine’ after his daughter. Inovative and ahead of his time, he started fashion photography in 1911. when Edward Steichen took photographs of models dressed in Poiret’s dresses.
Besides exotic world, Poiret had a living inspiration – his wife Denise. Denise, slender and youthful provincial girl, was Poiret’s muse and a prototype of la garconne (flapper girl). They met in 1905. and had five children together, including two daughters who became inspirations for his perfumes. Poiret said of his wife ”My wife is the inspiration for all my creations; she is the expression of all my ideals.”
After The First World War many fashion houses reopened but client’s tastes have changed. Fashion designers like Coco Chanel presented simple, sleek clothes that were cheap and practical. Poiret’s Arabian Nights exotic avant-garde designs found no refuge in post-war society. His theatrical, opulent, piece-of-art dresses were long forgotten.
New society, new fashion had no place for Poiret. In 1944, when he died, his glorious days, separated by two wars, had been forgotten. His friend and a fashion designer, Elsa Schiaparelli helped to prevent his name from falling into oblivion. She was the one to pay for his burial.