Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be in the world of fashion? To be one of the most famous designers in the world? To be able to create at will? Paul Poiret was able to realize that dream and was known in America as “The King of Fashion” from the Belle Epoch to the Roaring Twenties. In Paris he was simply “Poiret Le Magnifique”. His innovative designs ushered in a new era. In each decade there is one designer who outshines and is able to define the desires of women: “I did not wait for my success to grow by itself. I worked like a demon to increase it, and everything that could stimulate it seemed good to me.”
Paul Poiret was influenced by Sergei Diaghelev’s Ballets Russes and the Orient. He was able to use his influences and bold colors to develop the beautifully romantic and theatrical possibilities. He created such iconic silhouettes as the “lampshade” tunic and the harem trousers. His noteworthy Oriental fantasies later detracted from his greatest revolutions; his technical and marketing achievements. Poiret ultimately created the body of principles for a modern fashion industry. He was the visionary that changed the prevailing fashion of dress and took it in the direction of modern design.
Paul Poiret was born in Paris on April 20th 1879, as the dreamy son of a cloth merchant. Poiret lived with his parents and three sisters in an apartment above his father’s shop. His parents loved the arts and Poiret grew up with as many art works as his parents could afford. In his youth he made his own antique collection from pressing flowers and gathering bits of iron and junk. At the age of twelve, he and his family moved to Rue des Halles in Paris where Poiret attended the Ecole Massillon, a Catholic lycee. When his sisters contracted scarlet fever his parents sent him away to boarding school to keep him from getting ill. Poiret occupied himself with magazines and catalogs, and enjoyed attending theatre and art exhibits. When he graduated at the age of 17, his father sent him to be an apprentice to an umbrella maker. Poiret hated the job and he would day dream about fashion and would draw and sew designs and make his designs from the scraps of fabric from the tables in his spare time, using a wooden mannequin that was given to him from his sisters. “It was hard work for me to complete my work in school, for I was solicited by divers distractions, and by an impatience to taste all the joys of life. At eighteen, I matriculated and my father, afraid lest I should choose a career for myself, sent me to one of his friends who was an umbrella manufacturer, to make me learn business there. It was a hard trial for me.” (Quote from “King of Fashion”)
House of Doucet
By the time he was 19 Poiret had sold twelve of his designs to Mdme. Choiret at the Maison Raundnizt Soeurs and she encouraged him to bring her more. Poiret began to gain other clients and to visit other dress houses; Redfen, Paquin, Rouff, Doucet and Worth. In 1898 Poiret was offered a full time job at the House of Doucet. His first design for the Doucet was a resplendent short red wool cloak, fastened to one side with 6 enameled buttons, which sold 400 copies. Customers were so pleased with it and they soon requested the cloak in other colors. Poiret made new designs each week that were worn by ladies at the races on Sunday’s. He also created costumes for the theatre. Among his clients were Gabrielle ReJane of “Zaza” and Sarah Bernhardt of “L’aiglon”. He also dressed Ida Rubinstein, Isadora Duncan and Eleanore Duse. It was the coat for “Zaza”, made of tulle and taffeta, and hand painted with giant white and purple irises that launched his reputation. Throughout his career he used the theatre and extravagant parties to promote his designs, the early method of public relations.
Encouraged to go out into society, Poiret met and began a love affair with Madame Potiphar. His relationship with his father became strained and he became more independent. There was also an incident at the theater, when the uninvited Poiret made a derogatory remark about a military scene. With these professional indiscretions, Doucet and Poiret parted ways, but did remain friends.
In 1915 Poiret was enlisted in the Army. As a private he spent the next year in service and it was his task to redesign the military uniform and to streamline production. He also designed a military great coat model that saved two feet of fabric and four hours of labor! He had contacted the Army technical services and after two weeks of delays, a visit to the Ministry of War and a meeting with Georges Clemenceau, his design was finally accepted.
Significant troubles began when his supervisors were not informed of his travel orders and he was listed as an Army deserter. Everywhere he went he was arrested or detained and questioned. He was always released. These constant arrests left him exhausted and humiliated. During this time in the Army, Poiret learned that his first daughter, Rosine, had died from the influenza epidemic that had swept Europe. She was only nine.
House of Worth
In 1901 Paul Poiret joined the House of Worth, under the sons of Charles Worth: Gaston and Jean-Pierre. He was hired to create practical clothing, while Jean-Pierre was creating the jewels, opulent evening gowns and elaborate costumes. Although Jean-Pierre was not happy with the designs, thinking they brought down the standards of the House of Worth. Gaston was happy, and Poiret was so self assured that he did not care. His modern designs soon proved too much for Worth’s cautious public. When he presented the Russian Princess Bariatinsky with his Confucious coat she cried out, “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.” Clearly it was necessary for Poiret to branch off on his own in order to design the fashions he undoubtedly craved.
Paul Poiret was so used to being on the Rue de la Paix, the chicest street on Paris, that he dreamed of owning his own shop. His new shop was financed by his recently widowed mother with a loan of 50,000 francs. A former saleslady at Paquin, Germaine Bailly offered her experience.
5 Rue Arber
On September 1 1903, the Paul Poiret store was opened for business. His store was located across the street from the Paris Opera House. The store was completed in only eight days, but then the money ran out - but each week the windows were redecorated with dramatic displays. Although he was a successful designer with many flamboyant friends associated with the arts, theater and high society, Poiret was still not happy.
In 1902 he had met Denise Boulet when she visited Paris with her parents. Her father was a cloth merchant from Normandy. In 1905, when she was 19, they were engaged. They were married in October of 1905. Denise was a shy, petite girl with no sense of fashion flair and often wore ridiculous hats. Poiret once said “Denise is my miracle”, and he saw the dynamic potential in her slim frame. Very much the opposite of the plump, fashionable women of the day, Denise became his muse. This is when his individual style and designs finally came out. There first daughter, Rosine was born in 1906, Martine in 1908, Colin in 1912, Perrine in 1916 and Gaspard in 1918. Gaspard died soon after birth and Poiret’s marriage ended in a very bitter divorce in 1929 and he then filed for bankruptcy. He lived in poverty for 15 years and died penniless in 1944.
Influences: Orientalism/Historicism/Modernism/Ballet Russes
In 1889, Poiret went to the opening of the Exhibition with his family. “I was drunk with joy. Riding on my father’s shoulders, I looked on at the fairy revelations, of the luminous fountains, and I was incapable of tearing my eyes from it, as to-day I am of forgetting its memory. I have often asked myself whether my taste for colour was not born on that night, amidst the phantasmagoria of pinks, greens and violets.” (Quote from “King of Fashion”)
Poiret’s adventurous uses of simple classical design created an elegance and freedom of movement evocative of the ‘empire’ line from the late 18th century. New styles of art and design (i.e. Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Fauvism and Orientalism), inspired the vibrant colors and exotic fabrics of his designs. Denise wore one of these high-waisted dresses (fashioned from the designs of 1820s), without a corset to the baptism of Rosine. Although it was considered startling behavior, it was soon to become the norm.
Poiret was most fascinated with the Near, Middle, and Far East. Poiret’s Orientalism was first demonstrated in his use of brilliant colors. He also incorporated geometric designs, ethnic detail and oriental themes. His most enduring use of Orientalism was more in his design: using straight shapes resembling the kimono and kaftan. By using the geometric simplicity of regional designs, Poiret shaped the Western dressmaking approach. In 1911 he visited Russia and his designs began to emulate Slavic and Russian designs.
He was to begin the art of design by draping his fashions, and took his designs to the form of art. His designs were challenging, provocative and outrageous, but it was to turn Paris on its ears. He once said “I am an artist, not a dressmaker.” Poiret was avant-garde. He created a “robe de minute” (minute dress which could be made in half an hour) that Denise wore in 1911 for their European Fashion Tour. The prototype was made in 1908: it was 10 years before it’s time.
Poiret was fiercely patriotic. Although he was an undisciplined draftee, he unveiled a series of designs that reflected the period of intense French pride. He created gowns with panniers and crinolines, and costumes of medieval and Renaissance fashion. Poiret’s designs were ruled by his artistic interpretation, such as this Fancy Dress Costume from 1911.
Poiret and his creations were fundamental to the development of modernism, but he then rejected it because of his beliefs and philosophy of art and beauty and continued to embrace his idea of artistic unconventionality and workmanship. He said that women should wear what suited her most, i.e. color, style and preference. Poiret’s philosophy would later be his ruin. “I find my gowns satisfying only when the details of which they are composed, disappear, in general harmony of the whole”, Poiret quote.
View Poiret's creations at:
- Metropolitan Museum of Art
- V & A
- Museum at Fit
- Overview of the King of Fashion exhibit in the Kremlin, 2012
Poiret and Paul Iribe and George Lepape
In 1906, Poiret became spellbound by a new weekly; Le Temoin (The Witness), authored by Paul Iribe. Poiret was very impressed with the way Iribe drew the female form, and thought they would exhibit his costumes well. The first of two albums, “Les robes de Paul Poiret racontees par Paul Iribe” (The dresses of Paul Poriet told by Paul Iribe) was made using the stenciling technique known as pochoir; a stencil process of adding color to a line drawing resulting in brilliant, saturated colors. Iribe is the one who actually designed Poiret’s rose motif used on the “La Rose d’Iribe” dress and Poiret’s label. His limited edition albums were launched and Poiret had started a new way to advertise. “Les Robes" was finished in October 1908.
For his second album, Poiret worked with Georges Lepape. “Les Robes de Paul Poiret vues par Georges Lepape” The Things of Paul Poiret as seen by Georges Lepape” would use the same stencilling technique. This album was finished in February 1911, and he would work with Lepape for many years.
At one time Lepape would show Poiret four sketches he had in his pocket. The drawings showed thin figures with short hair and red lips dressed in trousers. (The sketches were actually drawn by his wife Gabrielle). Poiret said, “Good. You have just given me the idea for a divided skirt.” In his memoirs however, Poiret remarks that both Iribe and Lepape were merely illustrators for his designs and not creators of the designs themselves.
Perfumery, Business, and Design School
In 1911 Poiret started two new businesses. He expanded as a couturier to include perfume and interior design. His perfume business was named Les Parfums de Rosine (The Perfumes of Rosine) after his oldest daughter, and the interior design business was called Les Ateliers de Martine for his second, newborn daughter. Les Parfumes de Rosine became a perfume enterprise parallel to his fashion designs, a success from the start. Poiret kept the attraction of his new enterprises by drawing attention to their daring and unique qualities.
Poiret opened a new school, L’Ecole Martine, and recruited about 15 young, very poor girls, aged 12-13, who had to be artistically predisposed. They would be given autonomy to draw from nature and be called the “Martines”. Every day they were taken to the outskirts of Paris and encouraged to draw what they desired. Poiret never critiqued or influenced and he would just choose the drawings he thought were the finest to be used to print patterns on fabric by Raul Dufy. Their drawings were very theatrical and original; today many of the objects created by the "Martines" are valuable collectibles.
Soon the Atelier Martine was opened at 82 rue du Fauboug Saint-Honore. They presented fabric, wallpaper, furniture, decorative panels and embroideries. Poiret’s decorative arts were a primary influence on the evolution of Art Deco.
The first important commission for the Martine workshop came in the beginning of 1916 from Mademoiselle Spinelly. They were to decorate the hall, living room and bathroom of Floquet, near Champ-de-Mars. The remainder of the apartment would be decorated by Paul Iribe. Martine supplied murals, rugs and accessories and the furniture was designed by Guy-Pierre Fauconnet.
Mlle Spinelly poses in front of the mural painted on the wall of her atrium hall by the Martine Workshop. She appears to be biting into the painted apples on the tree. This photo was used to promote “Le Fruit Defendu” and was accompanied by the statement, “Mlle Spinelly prefers “The Forbidden Fruit”. (From the blog: Let Me Fashion.)
It is said that Poiret helped to create the perfumes, but it was actually Henri Almeras the second perfumer, who was still a trainee at the time. The first five perfumes were actually trademarked by Poiret on June 20 1911 - just four days before his renowned “Thousand and One Nights” Ball.
Besides the work of the Martines, package and advertising design was also suggested by artists including Erté, Raoul Dufy, Georges Lepape, Guy-Pierre Fauconnet, Jean-Lois Boussingault, Jean-Emile, Laboureur, Girardclos, and Bernard Naudin. Prose for advertising was contributed by Andre Mary, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Roger Boutet de Monvel. Nothing was ever shown to a customer unless it had gone through Poiret first.
In Part Two: A Thousand and Second Night Party
- “The King of Fashion”, Paul Poiret, 1931, Yvonne Deslandres, Lippincott
- “Paul Poiret and his Rosine Perfumes”, Christie Mayer Lefkowith, 2007, Editions Stylissimo
- Encyclopedia Britannica
- Old Magazine Articles, oldmagazinearticles.com
- “The Flapper”, Nov, 1922
- “The Triumph of the French Traditions”, Oct 1913
- “Les Robes de Paul Poiret racontees par Paul Poiret”, Paris, 1908 (Printed by the Societe Generale d'Impression)
- “Les choses de Paul Poiret vues par Georges Lepape”, 1911, Paris (Printed by Maquet)
- “My First Fifty Years”, Paul Poiret, London, 1931
- “Paul Poiret (Fashion Designers)”, A. MacKrell, New Jersey, 1990
- “Poiret”, Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007
- “Flapper”, Joshua Zeitz, New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006
- Human Fashion: Art Deco Sartorientalism in America:Persian Urban Turbans and Other Versions, Jaimee K. Comstock-Skipp Williams College, United States