The Rise and Fall of Fashion’s OG Party Boy: Paul Poiret

From rags to riches then riches to rags; for those familiar with French fashion history and the history of couture, you are likely to be acquainted with Paul Poiret. Coined by the Metropolitan Museum of Art as the “King of Fashion” and fashion’s first great modernist, Paul Poiret’s designs and loose-fitting silhouette was a diametrical design opposition to the curvaceous feminine fashions of the Edwardian era. 

Early 1908 Silk Satin Wedding Dress (Typical of Edwardian Fashions), Source – The Victoria and Albert Museum
Paul Poiret Ivory Silk Satin Divided Dress, c.1911, Source – The National Gallery of Victoria

In comparison to other late 19th and early 20th century designers, Poiret’s sparkle was short, but it truly burnt bright. Poiret came from humble origins, born to cloth merchants in the poorer Parisian neighbourhood of Les Halles in 1879. But, from a young age, he clearly demonstrated a natural aptitude for dressmaking. In fact, when Poiret was in his teens, his fashion illustrations were bought by many modiste’s and dressmakers in Paris. Which clearly boosted Poiret’s name within the fashion circles. So much so that by 1898, when he was just 19 years of age, Poiret was apprenticed to Jacques Doucet, one of Paris’s leading couture houses. 

Jacques Doucet Evening Dress, c.1906-7, Source – The Metropolitan Museum of Art Pinterest

Poiret had a brief stint at the House of Worth in 1901 to 1903, before he left to establish his own fashion house. The emphasis on “brief” is very significant here, as his sleek designs clashed greatly with that of Charles Frederick Worth and his conservative clientele. Through Poiret’s own fashion house, his creativity was unleashed. Significantly, his designs shunned the corset, the world’s most notorious undergarment, and a prolific piece worn everyday by women young and old since the 16th century. In contrast to the nipped-in waist and over-accentuated bust and hips, Poiret opted for a straight cut free-flowing style. Throughout his life, his designs were evidently influenced by East Asia and the Middle East with his most famous pieces being that of the kimono-style coats, pantalons and the lamp dress. 

A fancy dress costume believed to have been worn to Paul Poiret’s “The Thousand and Second Night” party, Source – The Metropolitan Museum of Art Pinterest
Paul Poiret Evening Coat, c.1912-1914, Source – Palais Galliera

Vogue writes that Poiret’s interpretation of traditional East Asian dress like the Kimono was an early reference point for minimalism overlaid with ornamentation.

But it wasn’t just his original designs that made a name for himself. Paul Poiret was somewhat of a marketing maestro. In fact, we could be so bold as to suggest that Poiret was the original Jay Gatsby. Poiret had one of the most prominent boutiques in Paris, in which he leased out part of the building to artists and musicians, constantly attracting the greatest and on-trend creatives of the time. In this abode, Poiret threw elaborate, intense, glittering, and flamboyant parties to launch and advertise his dress designs. Essentially, he had a grip on influencer marketing and brand launches before the big fast fashion brands of today. 

George Berbier Illustration of Paul Poiret’s Thousand and Second Night Party, c.1912

Poiret’s inner circle of artists and creatives also meant that his pieces were being literally snapped up by burgeoning fashion photographers, a new medium that was gaining traction across the west. His elegant dresses were therefore frequently shown in magazines and periodicals like Harpers Bazaar.

The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 exploded onto the Parisian fashion scene, and Paul Poiret would likely never recover. He left his fashion house to serve within the French military, and when he returned in 1919, his once flamboyant brand had lost its feathers. You would think that his designs and party-going sensibilities would have easily transcended through to the Roaring 20s, but sadly this was not the case. Emerging designers like Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli were capturing Poiret’s past clientele, with his old designs seen as out-dated against modernism’s reign.

Chanel fitting actress Romy Schneider in her atelier in the 1960s, Source – Harpers Bazaar

 Poiret officially closed his fashion house in 1929 and was riddled in debt. In 1944, Poiret died in poverty, with not even enough money to cover his funeral expenses. Despite his clear success, his slapdash approach to fashion had clearly burnt some bridges. The Chambre Syndicale de Haute Couture, headed up by Charles Frederick Worth (his former employer), refused to pay Poiret a monthly expense in his time of need, and refused to pay for his funeral too. His gravestone and memorial was funded by Elsa Schiaparelli, ensuring that his legacy never left this world. 

Photograph of Paul Poiret c.1913, Source – Wikimedia Commons

Due to its early demise and 26-year reign, Paul Poiret’s designs have become the ultimate collector’s items, with his many of his pieces within the permanent collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although, perhaps we could see a resurgence of the house of Poiret in future. In 2010, almost 80 years after Poiret closed, the rights and trademark were bought by the Luxembourg-based company Luvanis. Luvanis are a private-investment company that specialise in both the incubation and revival of long-dormant brands. Other than Poiret, they own other names such as Charles James, luxury 19th-century Parisian trunk makers Moynat and Au Depart, and French couture house Vionnet. 

Paul Poiret Silk Satin Dress, c.1910-1911, Source – Kyoto Costume Institute

So where does that leave Poiret? Well in 2018, another huge luxury conglomerate Shinsegae International (who distribute Givenchy, Moncler and Celine), bought the rights from Luvanis and they officially confirmed that Poiret will be launched once again with the Paris based Chinese couturier Yiging Yin as its artistic director. Poiret launched its 2018 ready to wear collection with bated breath. Sensuality was at the heart of the collection, with cocoon shapes, sumptuous fabrics, custom graphic jacquard prints, and architectural cut rectangular tailoring. In 2019’s ready to wear, the Yiging Yin focused on gradients of red, orange, and yellow draping with framed by electric blue and black fabrics. Her designs were in collaboration with painter Bernard Frize. The designs were free-flowing yet sculptural, andjust like Poiret’s future legacy we cannot anticipate how the fabric would shape and move next. 

Poiret A/W 2018 Ready To Wear, Source – Vogue
Poiret Spring/Summer 2019 Ready To Wear, Source – Vogue

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