Style | Swellboy

Swellboy on… a genuine French fashion genius

The brilliant life of a French frock designer in the early 20th century

Swellboy on… a genuine French fashion genius

Image: Brijesh Patel

October 14 2010
Nick Foulkes

Every time Paris fashion week comes around we get the same old litany of pretension and arrogance welded together in the cause of flogging frocks. But even the most outrageously narcissistic of today’s fashion designers cannot hold the feeblest of scented candles to the bygone greats of the past.

I am sure there are people who know more than me, but as far as I am aware modern fashion began in 1858 when Charles Worth quit the respected Paris haberdasher Gagelin. He had suggested that they open a small dressmaking department; they answered back that Gagelin was not “un vulgaire couturier”, thank you very much.

Big Mistake. Charles Worth packed in the day job, invented haute couture and started the whole designer label thing, which has endured to this day.

But it is Paul Poiret who strikes me as the prototypical prima donna. Poiret was a round, fastidiously dapper man not unlike the but-for-one-vowel-homonymous Poirot as portrayed by David Suchet: all spats, canes and pale gloves (probably made of paperlike dogskin in that shade known as feuille morte).

Poiret was without doubt a genius. Maybe even the greatest fashion designer of the 20th century, he innovated in business as much as in style. A decade before Chanel, he used the new synthetic esthers to create a perfume business, setting up a laboratory, a glass factory and even a factory to make the packaging. It was taken seriously enough for Coty wanted to buy it.

Unafraid of what would come to be known as brand extension, he was signing licence agreements before Pierre Cardin could write his own name. He also set up a decorating business a good few years before Signor Armani had the brainwave of opening Armani Casa, and even when he had lost control of his own business and his influence was waning he broke new ground designing a cut-price collection for the famous Paris department store Printemps, a trick that hifalutin designers are still up to unto this day.

However, if I had to single out the Poiret creation that I like the best, it would be his memoirs. Utterly brilliant; written in the 1930s, by which time he had suffered financial reverses and had been eclipsed by Chanel, the book contains not one scintilla of self-doubt. But rather than being irritating, it is endearing. Moreover, it is written in such a tone that I cannot but think that Poiret had his Gallic tongue firmly in his cheek.

The language is so rich, textured and enjoyable that it is the first book that has had me laughing out loud in a very long time. Take the Sunday afternoon when the young Jean Cocteau pays a visit and finds Poirot busy resting in bed, after what the older man describes as “a tumultuous Saturday”. “He came into my room and said that I had remained a simple garden flower.” It must have been brilliant being a French frock designer in the early 20th century: tumultuous Saturdays and young poets dropping round to compare one with the floral world. But then Cocteau seems to have been particularly keen on his horticultural and arboreal synonyms when describing Poiret, saying of him on another occasion that he looked like some sort of “huge chestnut”. As far as I can recall, Poiret made Cocteau an ambulance driver’s uniform during the Great War.

Poiret had admirers aplenty and one can only imagine what he means when he says of one of the more famous ones, “I never had any but friendly relations with Isadora” (Isadora Duncan, the famous danseuse), “but she held a very high place in my heart. We had several times held communion in the sacrament of beauty.”

Communion in the sacrament of beauty – priceless.

On another night out with Isadora (this time a Bacchic-themed party in the woods near Versailles) for which Poiret dressed as Jupiter complete with buskins, Ms Duncan, “drunken with wine and with the splendour of the scene, as much as with the popularity she enjoyed”, leapt up on the stage. Whereupon Poiret moves seamlessly into the third person when writing of himself: “Jupiter, unable to resist this suggestion, mingled with their measure, and all who saw him dance as dance the gods. It was a delirious improvisation that lasted only an instant, and I have been told that certain of the guests were moved to tears at so much beauty come together.”

Moved to tears… it goes without saying that M Poiret was a married man with numerous children.

I can’t help thinking that modern fashion and modern fashion magazines really ought to spend a little more time holding communion in the sacrament of beauty; as much as anything, it just sounds like a huge amount of fun.

See also

People, Paul Poiret