Genius at work: Paul Poiret (1879-1944)

‘Chez Poiret’, cover of Les Modes, with designs by Paul Poiret, drawn by Georges Barbier, April 1912. Gemeentemuseum Den Haag

‘Chez Poiret’, cover of Les Modes, with designs by Paul Poiret, drawn by Georges Barbier, April 1912. Gemeentemuseum Den Haag

Paul Poiret was an influential fashion designer in Paris. Nicknamed ‘Le Magnifique’, he produced innovative fabrics and clothing for both women and men that incorporated bright colours, Japanese-style kimono sleeves and graceful drapery. His dresses for women were all designed—shockingly for the time—to be worn without a corset. The Gemeentemuseum in the Hague has designed the exhibition ‘Art Deco’ as a fitting tribute to him, and to the many other creators of this iconic, early 20th century style.

‘Art Deco’ features furniture, stunning jewellery by Cartier and paintings by Kees van Dongen, Sonia Delaunay, Picasso, Dufy and Iribe. But the exhibition’s highlight are the dozens of garments by Poiret. There is ‘Toujours’, a velvet, ankle-length dress with grosgrain ribbon, created in 1911, and a stunning 1912 silk dress in deep blue. My favourite is a Poiret from 1923 called ‘Braque’, after the painter. It is a white silk dress with large black geometric patterns.

Poiret incorporated avant-garde art styles like Cubism and Constructivism in his designs and hired painters like Picasso, Modigliani, Raoul Dufy and Paul Iribe to work for him. Garments by other designers are also on display, most notably the cream-coloured pleated silk ‘Peplos’, designed by Mariano Fortuny in 1914.

Part of Poiret’s genius lay in his comprehensive vision. When he opened his house Maison Martine in 1905, he concentrated on interior décor and fabrics. In addition to his corset-free clothing and shoes, he introduced new features such as the home bar and sunken baths. His bright fabrics with large floral patterns, and the use of luxury materials such as fur, velvet, silk and satin, caused a sensation, as did his perfume line. He also pioneered ways to sell his creations by inventing the cat walk, and toured with his models around the country. He designed costumes for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and for the new medium of films.

But it was his ambitious vision that also led to his downfall. At the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (from whence comes the term ‘art deco’), Poiret showcased his work by outfitting three barges on the Seine. The first promoted his perfumes, the second was a restaurant, while in the third, with the tapestries of Dufy as back drops, daily fashion shows where held. This, plus the new styles of designers such as Coco Chanel, led to bankruptcy in the late 1920s. It is said that when Poiret first saw Chanel’s iconic little black dress, he said to her, “But who are you in mourning for?” Chanel fired back, “For you.”

‘Art Deco’ is on at the Gemeentemuseum in the Hague until 4th March 2018.

Shelley Anderson, 9th December 2017

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The TRC is dependent on project support and individual donations. All of our work is being carried out by volunteers. To support the TRC activities, we therefore welcome your financial assistance: donations can be transferred to bank account number NL39 INGB 000 298 2359, in the name of the Textile Research Centre, Leiden. Since the TRC is officially recognised as a non-profit making cultural institution (ANBI), donations are tax deductible for 125% for individuals, and 150% for commercial companies. For more information, click here
 
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