Everybody praises the revolutionary works of Coco Chanel, but years before her, there was a character that revolutionized and shaped modern fashion as we understand it today.
When we think of iconic fashion designers from the first half of the twentieth century, the first person that comes to mind is, without a doubt, Coco Chanel. Fashion lovers could argue that Elsa Schiaparelli was way better, or even give me a list of ten other designers that shaped modern fashion. However, there was one character almost everyone remembers, the one who did all the things any designer you could name before and actually changed the course of fashion. His stroke of genius is still present in current fashion, and his work was almost banished from historical records. That man was Paul Poiret, a guy with an inherent talent that pushed the boundaries of fashion in all ways, in terms of design, marketing, and art.
Americans used to call him the “King of Fashion,” while his official nickname given to him by the people of France was Poiret “Le Magnifique,” as he was compard to the historical Suleiman the Magnificent, the greatest ruler of the Ottoman Empire. He was born in 1879 in Paris, and grew up in a family of cloth merchants. From a young age, his father decided to place him as the apprentice of an umbrella maker. Soon, he discovered a new passion for fabrics and clothing construction that encouraged him to steal scrap silks from the shop and create amazing dresses for his sister’s dolls.
When he was a teenager, in 1898 he started sketching outfits that were nothing like the world had seen before. Motivated to make a living from this passion, he decided to show his creations to someone who would materialize them. That was Madeleine Chéruit, one of the most important couturiers of the time who, impressed by the talent of this ambitious teenager, decided to buy him about a dozen of his designs. By 1901, he had already worked at a fashion house, and he was now working for one of the leading fashion houses in Paris called Worth House. He started working in what the owner of the brand called “fried potatoes,” which were basically very simple and practical clothes for the common everyday life.
He wasn’t content with just creating plain items and started to endow the clothes with his particular and groundbreaking style. This, of course, wasn’t something the company received quite well, and after creating a special cloak for a member of the Russian royalty who absolutely loathed it, he abandoned his job, but not his eagerness to innovate. In 1903 he opened his own couture house, where he felt free to experiment and create whatever he wanted. By the time he had already collaborated with some theatre companies and had designed some of the costumes for their productions. One of his most popular ones had been the one used by the renowned actress Réjane. In no time his popularity increased and his house became one of the most important and praised ones due to its originality.
As an innate genius, he was always looking for ways to revolutionize fashion according to his own artistic visions. Being a good observer, he realized that one of the things that had been limiting the world of fashion were the use of corsets in the past centuries (mainly since the Renaissance). Fashion evolved, but it had kept that precise item and praised a specific type of female figure over the years. That had to change and Poiret was determined to do so. He was mainly inspired by the fashion from the different ancient civilizations like Greece, Rome, Egypt, Japan, and China, just to name a few. So, he focused on the whole history of Oriental fashion (thus the nickname inspired by the Ottoman sultan). He ditched corsets and petticoats and started creating pieces with very different shapes and fluidity like no one did before. Harem pants, turbans, structured coats, and dresses, he introduced all of those pieces before anyone else.
In terms of structure, one of the main qualities of his designs was his use of fabrics, as they could help him create any desired shape. Through draping and meticulous cuts, he managed to create extravagant and breathtaking pieces. But as a good businessman, he knew that his originality and uniqueness wasn’t really enough. He wanted to change the fashion industry for real, so he became the first designer to create his own fragrance and beauty cosmetics (yes, he did it one century ago, even before Coco Chanel).
But this wasn’t enough. Poiret wanted to go beyond the limits of the industry, and soon opened a store close to his couture shop devoted to interior design. This wasn’t just a regular furniture shop, as it had a clear relation with the fabrics and ideas he used for his clothes. Thus he invented the idea of the “total lifestyle” brand. Just when you thought that was it, he basically invented the idea of the fashion spread in magazines as we understand it nowadays. In 1911, he made a photoshoot of his new collection and published it in the Art et Décoration magazine claiming that fashion, indeed, was a work of art.
So, how did such an intelligent and decisive character fall into oblivion? The main answer is a combination of war and pride. With the outburst of World War I, as a proud man who had made his military service in his youth, he felt the need to help the army with what he was best at: clothes. He became a military tailor, but when he returned to France, his business was in the worst economic situation imaginable. Moreover, he failed to see that, while he was out of the country, the fashion trends and tastes had changed and his stubbornness didn’t allow his style to adapt to the public’s needs and preferences. By the time Coco Chanel was at the top of her career with her simple yet extremely sophisticated designs that people –who now preferred functionality– absolutely embraced. His successful career was over.
Poiret’s bankruptcy, together with a terrible divorce, took most of his remaining money. He spent his last years in absolute misery, selling paintings and drawings at the streets and cafés of Paris. Everybody abandoned him, family, friends, and the industry. All except two women who took care of him for the rest of his life. One was a former employee who, by the way, he had taken out of his memoirs when she quit her job to open her own fashion house. She used to feed him regularly and visited him to see if he was doing all right. The other one was the celebrated fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, who even paid for his funeral service and the one who saved many of his sketches and clothes to later hand them to a museum.
Paul Poiret was forgotten for more than eight decades. However, there’s been a sort of resurgence of his works thanks to the exhibition the Metropolitan museum organized about his career. Also, Chung Yoo-Kyung (a businesswoman attached to one of the founders of Samsung) bought the rights to the name and is now planning to release a whole new fashion brand inspired by the works of this fashion genius who shaped the way we consume and embrace fashion nowadays.
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