Paul Poiret was known as an eclectic designer in the early parts of the 20th century. He is often seen as a significant influencer on the way the world views fashion in modern times.He was born in Paris in 1879 and lived much of his life in poverty, but he would ultimately become dubbed the “King of Fashion,” as detailed in his autobiography that was released in 1931.As a son of a cloth merchant, Paul lived meagerly in a small apartment with his sisters. While his family was poor, their interest in art and fashion was evident throughout the household. He would spend much of his free time collecting antiques and constructing designs for his sisters’ dolls from leftover umbrella scraps.At the age of 12, Paul’s family moved to Rue des Halles, but ultimately he had to be relocated to a boarding school when his sisters contracted scarlet fever. While Paul was only an average pupil, he already began to show significant interest in fashion.He spent considerable time growing magazines or visiting local museums, theatres, and art exhibitions. When Paul graduated at the age of 18, his father sent him to an umbrella maker to learn the business.It wouldn’t take long for Paul to grow disdain for the trade, but he would always find spare time with either drawing or sewing on wooden dolls that belonged to his sister.
He was a true entrepreneur of his time.Every successful designer indeed has a turning point that made them grow recognition. Paul’s chance came when he was convinced by a close friend to takes his designs over to Mademoiselle Choruit.Upon meeting with her, she immediately became impressed with Paul’s work, so she bought some and later asked him to come back with more. His first conversion. Soon after he meets with Choruit, it wouldn’t be long until Paul gained other clients and make visits to other dress houses in the local area.Paul’s started to gain more experience, and it would eventually lead to an employment offer from a known designer named Doucet in 1896, much to the disbelief of his father. Working at the Doucet studio is where Paul would become start to shine.
His first impressive design was a red cloak that would sell more than 400 copies, and customers enjoyed it so much that they asked for the same design in different color varieties. This moment would essentially lock in Paul in the world of design, and he began to make different ones on a more frequent basis. He was quite fond when he had opportunities to make costumes for theatre plays in the area.
Paul started to devote more time to his work as he worked under the direction of Doucet. During the time he worked with Doucet, more people came to appreciate and know Paul’s work.
At the same time, Paul started to have more difficulty in the relationship with his father. It was true he enjoyed making designs for different customers, but he also wanted to be independent. The strain with his father also took a toll on his working life, so it would eventually end up leaving the Doucet studio.
However, he went on good terms, and it was this time of his life where he became a household name. It was a few months after he left that Paul would then be in the next chapter of his life. He would spend a year in the army but didn’t have the opportunity to do what he loved most, which was design.
However, he was able to leave for a short period to study more on female style and grace. Soon after he had finished his service in the military, Paul came back to Paris and had another employment opportunity with Maison Worth, led by two brothers.
Here is where Paul started to make designs for a more extensive range of customers, not just the wealthy clients who lived in Paris. Again, intrigued by his desire to show become successful, he wanted to make his work available for the general public.
He would end up leaving the Maison Worth and open up his shop. During the same time, his father had passed away, but he was able to get started with some financial assistance from his mother. Almost immediately, his shop started to gain more attention for intricate displays in the windows as people walked by.
Designs Paul Poiret Was Most Famous For
It’s safe to say that Paul’s first design, the cloak, also became his mastery. As he detailed in his autobiography, “The King of Fashion,’ his cloak would start as an Asian influencer in the design world.
At the same time, Paul disliked the constrictive nature of the corset on women and thought the brassiere was much more comfortable. While he would become very well known for freeing women from corsets, he also would claim invention of the hobble skirt and harem pants.
It was Paul who is often credited with the creation of what we better know as trousers for women of the Western world.
The immortal creation of the couturier
A modern woman’s wardrobe is unthinkable without an elegant and sexy pencil skirt. Meanwhile, the history of its creation goes back to the beginning of the twentieth century. It was then that the prototype was created – the “lame skirt” of the year. Paul Poiret named it that way due to the fact that the narrow hem made it difficult to move, and women were forced to mince, moving in small steps. The “lame skirt” was the basis not only for the “pencil” silhouette, but also for the year, the famous and popular “mermaid” silhouette for evening and wedding dresses.
Paul’s legacy continues in museums throughout the world. He is well-known today to have been a leader in liberating woman’s fashion. Although he struggled in the early portions of his life, he desired to make his mark in the world of fashion that would fuel his success.
He always experimented with bold designs and flashy colors, never feeling afraid to have originality. Over his time, it was also his intention to make his work appealing to the masses of women who would have otherwise thought that elegant designs were only for the rich and famous.
He was one of the most famous fashion designers of the 20th century, but he undoubtedly made a long-lasting impact. He will always carry a legacy that defied the fashion trends of his time.
How did the King of 20th Century Fashion Disappear into Oblivion?
They compared his legacy to Picasso’s and called him the “King of Fashion” in America and Le Magnifique in Paris. He liberated women from corsets, dominated Belle Epoque fashion with his lavish draped designs and was the first French couturier to commercialise his own perfumes, now an industry standard marketing concept. Paul Poiret should be a household name, but instead he died in poverty, his genius rejected, his leftover stock sold by the kilogram as rags.
Born in working class Paris to a cloth merchant, as a teenager, Paul Poiret apprenticed in an umbrella shop where he collected scraps of silk to fashion clothes for one of his sister’s dolls. Around this time he also began taking his fashion sketches to Louise Chéruit, one of the first women to control a major French fashion house. She purchased a dozen designs from him and before long, Poiret found himself working for the most prominent couturiers in Paris.
At the House of Worth, then the biggest fashion house in Europe, he was responsible for creating simple and practical garments, or what his superior called, “fried potatoes”; side dishes to Worth’s opulent ball gowns. But Poiret’s designs would quickly prove too unconventional and modern for the oldest and most revered of couture houses.
He was prompted to end his relationship with the company when he presented the Russian Princess Bariatinsky with a new coat cut like a kimono. “What a horror!” she said upon seeing the design. “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.”
He didn’t take the Princess’ comments to heart and continued on his path to break with the established conventions of dressmaking. He began with the woman’s body, trapped in a corseted waistline since the Renaissance. He looked to Greek, Japanese and Middle Eastern silhouettes, shifting the emphasis away from strict tailoring and towards the art of drapery.
A revolution in dressmaking was on its way; the “S” silhouette (forward-projecting breasts and protruding bottoms) was out. Poiret wasn’t alone in starting the revolution. A handful of female designers were also advancing the uncorseted silhouette (you might remember the Belle Epoque Body-con Dress that was too Sexy for Paris), but it was Poiret who became most widely associated with the new look.
Other designs Poiret became most recognisable for was his cocoon coats, lampshade dresses, sultana skirts, harem pants, fringed capes and turban hats, all inspired by an expression of orientalism, a reference that you can often recognise in Yves Saint Laurent’s work from the 60s and 70s.
Poiret was also the first couturier to promote the concept of a “total lifestyle” brand, establishing his own cosmetic and fragrance company as well as an interior decorating business under the House of Poiret. Reigning supreme in Paris haute couture between 1903 and World War I, his instinct for marketing and branding was unmatched by any other Parisian designer.
When he unveiled his perfume brand, “Parfums de Rosine” (named after his daughter), he held a lavish fancy dress party for the cream of Parisian society that would keep them talking for months.
The event was known as “The Thousand and Second Night” and the gardens of his home were filled with lanterns, tents, and tropical birds.
Poiret himself dressed as a sultan and each of his guests took home his new perfume, “Persian Night”.
Designers has always used sketches to illustrate their designs, but Poiret was the first to use photography. An April 1911 issue of the magazine Art et Décoration is considered to contain the first ever modern fashion photograph shoot. In an attempt to promote fashion as fine art, photographer Edward Steichen chose to snap dresses by Poiret.
He was invited to show his designs at 10 Downing Street for the British Prime Minister and London’s elite. The Americans called him the “King of Fashion”; designer of choice to some of the brightest celebrity icons of the day such as Marchesa Luisa Casati and Joan Crawford.
But then the ugliest of mankind’s inventions took centre stage. World War I lured a proud Poiret from his fashion house to serve in the French army as a military tailor. By the time he returned, his business was on the verge of bankruptcy.
A certain Coco Chanel had arrived on the scene with her sleek and simple clothes that suited the post-war mood. Utility and function overruled luxurious and sensual. He was criticised for his “poorly manufactured clothes” and irrational construction. Unable to merge modernism with his own artistic vision, in the midst of a stock market crash he began losing support from his business partners and even his friends. A year before the closure of his business, after 23 years of marriage, he divorced his wife who he had once called “the inspiration for all my creations … the expression of all my ideals.” The far from amicable divorce sent him further into debt and after his fashion house closed, he was reduced to taking odd jobs as a street painter. Over the next 15 years before his death, his ground-breaking designs would be entirely forgotten, his couture house’s leftover stock sold by the kilogram as rags.
Penniless, he tried selling drawings to customers at Parisian cafés. Taking pity on the sorry state of their former colleague, the association of haute couture even discussed giving him a monthly allowance to keep him afloat, but the idea was rejected by his former employer, the House of Worth.
In the end, only two people helped Poiret from encountering complete ruin. A former employee, France Martano, fed him regularly at her family’s Parisian apartment to make sure he never went hungry. She showed him kindness when everyone else had forgotten him, even though years before, Poiret had erased her from his memoirs after she left him to become an independent couturier in Paris.
His other friend Elsa Schiaparelli, and greatest rival of Coco Chanel, paid for his burial and ensured his existing works would eventually find their way into the hands of collectors and museum archives.
The revival of the Poiret brand came in early 2013 when Chung Yoo-kyung, a grand-daughter of one of the Samsung founders and responsible for bringing many luxury brands such as Givenchy, Céline to South Korea, embarked on a journey to start a high-fashion house. In 2015, she acquired the Poiret trademark at auction for an undisclosed sum, including the fashion house’s archives. Designer Yiqing Yin and founder of a Paris-based couture label was been hired to design the new Poiret collection.