The story of Paul Poiret is one of a working class son, who used his natural charisma to gain entry into some of the most exclusive ateliers in Paris and eventually became one of the twentieth century’s great couturiers. But it’s also a cautionary tale about a man who refused to adapt to changing times and styles after WWII due to his arrogance and finally ended penniless and bitter, his once-great label long forgotten.
Biography (the beginning)
Paul Poiret is born 20 April, 1879 as the son of a cloth merchant, in Paris’s working-class quartier of Les Halles. As a young boy he is sent to apprentice with an umbrella manufacturer, where he gathers “the scraps of silk left over after the umbrella patterns had been cut,” and uses them “to dress a little wooden doll that his sister . . . had given him.”
Still a teenager, Poiret takes his sketches to Madeleine Chéruit, a prominent dressmaker, who purchases a dozen from him. He continues to sell his drawings to major Parisian couture houses, till he is hired by Jacques Doucet, one of the capital’s most prominent couturiers. Poiret is only nineteen years old at the time. Beginning as a junior assistant, he is soon promoted to head of the tailoring department. His debut design for Doucet, a red wool cloak with a reverse gray crepe-de-chine lining, receives 400 orders from customers.
Paul Poiret Sketches
After two years of mandatory military service (1914-1918), he returns to Paris and is hired by House of Worth, once founded by Charles Worth, but now taken over by his sons. Instead of working on the luxurious eveningwear the House is famous for, Poiret is put in charge of the less glamorous and more practical items. Gaston Worth, the business manager, referred to Poiret’s division as the “Department of Fried Potatoes.” His ideas and designs are not appreciated by the clients. One of his “fried potatoes,” a cloak made from black wool and cut along straight lines like the kimono, proved too simple for one of Worth’s royal clients, the Russian princess Bariatinsky, who on seeing it cried, “What horror; with us, 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.”
At twenty-four (Poiret has a tireless self-confidence, despite his experiences at the House of Worth) he breaks out on his own and after borrowing funds from his mother, opens his own shop on Rue Auber. Its flashy window displays attract attention and he makes his name with the controversial kimono coat. Looking to both antique and regional dress types, most notably to the Greek chiton, the Japanese kimono, and the North African and Middle Eastern caftan, Poiret advocated fashions cut along straight lines and constructed of rectangles.
Paul, Denise & the children
Denise & Paul Poiret in their home at Faubourg Paul & Denise Poiret at workDenise & Paul Poiret at work Denise & daughter Rosine (the cosmetic line was named after her)Paul & Denise Poiret with their children, November 1922 .
In 1905 Poiret marries childhood friend Denise, with whom he’ll go on to have five children. “She was extremely simple,” he later will say, “and all those who have admired her since I made her my wife would certainly not have chosen her in the state in which I found her.” Denise Poiret will eventually become his artistic director as well as muse, wearing his designs as they travel around Europe together and winning a reputation as a trendsetter. (A fact her husband will later take credit for: “I had a designer’s eye, and I saw her hidden graces.”)
Years later, Denise Poiret is described as:
“the woman who had inspired the feminine silhouette of this century”
Poiret’s process of design through draping is the source of fashion’s modern forms. It introduced clothing that hung from the shoulders and facilitated a multiplicity of possibilities. Poiret exploited its fullest potential by launching, in quick succession, a series of designs that were startling in their simplicity and originality. From 1906 to 1911, he presented garments that promoted a high-waisted Directoire Revival silhouette. Different versions appeared in two limited-edition albums, Paul Iribe’s Les robes de Paul Poiret (1908) and Georges Lepape’s Les choses de Paul Poiret (1911).
Denise Poiret, the Fashion Icon
Every decade has its fortune-teller, a designer who, above all others, is able to divine and define the desires of women. In the 1910s, this oracle of fashion was Paul Poiret, known in America as “The King of Fashion.” In Paris, he was simply Le Magnifique, after Süleyman the Magnificent, a suitable nickname for a couturier who, alongside the great influence of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, employed the language of orientalism to develop the romantic and theatrical possibilities of clothing. Like his artistic confrere Léon Bakst, Poiret’s exoticized tendencies were expressed through his use of vivid color coordinations and mysterious silhouettes such as his iconic “lampshade” tunic, “Kymono” coat and his “harem” trousers, or pantaloons. However, these orientalist fantasies (or, rather, fantasies of the Orient) have served to decline from Poiret’s more enduring innovations, namely his technical and marketing achievements. Poiret effectively established the canon of modern dress and developed the blueprint of the modern fashion industry. Such was his vision that Poiret not only changed the course of costume history but also steered it in the direction of modern design history..
Lady Asquith, wife of British Prime Minister H. H. Asquith, invites Poiret to show gowns at 10 Downing Street. Stories of half-nude models running amok at the prime minister’s residence cause a furor in the press and the resulting scandal almost forces Asquith to resign...
Peggy Gugenheim wearing Paul Poiret Helena Rubenstein in Poiret, 1926
Paul Poiret on Tour with his Collections
Historians consider Poiret the first haute couturier to have taken his collections on tour in Europe and America. He visited Berlin in 1910, and the next year went on a six-week trek (in a chauffeured car) to Moscow, St. Petersburg, Warsaw, Vienna, Frankfurt, Berlin, and Bucharest—where he was arrested for not having a proper permit. Poiret’s arrival in New York in 1913 was prefaced by an open letter from John Cardinal Farley warning against the temptations offered by “the demon fashion.”