By Shine Anthony-Dharan
NEW YORK, 5 JANUARY 2008 Many of us will receive a
wonderfully wrapped, achingly heavy coffee table tome this Christmas
season. The smug looking gift-giver can come in and enjoy her nutmeg latte
safe in the knowledge that everyone loves books. And what could be less
offensive than one of the recent spate of designer monographs? Even people
with no interest in fashion are happy to display these costly monuments
artfully around their home. I, for one, recently spent at least five
afternoons in Barnes & Noble picking out great odes to art, interior
design, and fashion that I will probably never read. Am I interested in
these books? Sure. But more importantly, I want people to know that I am
interested in these books.
Like most people, I usually pick out coffee table tomes simply because
they look good. Abbevilles The Art of Florence is so splendidly
smart on top of the Steinway. The sparkling gold cover of Neue Galeries
Gustav Klimt compliments the Asian screen in the bedroom
perfectly. And Rizzolis Murakami is just so now. More than
anything, I would love for people to walk into my home and think me an art
buff. Whenever anyone comments on a book, I have to stop myself from
making such self-damaging remarks such as, "Oh, War and Peace ? I
try to read a little every day from Knopfs new translation."
Thankfully, a few of my acquisitions have turned out to be as
interesting as they are decorative. The first, Poiret by Yale
University Press, celebrates the varied accomplishments of one of the
twentieth century's most influential designers. The second,
Lanvin by Rizzoli, chronicles the life of a sadly forgotten
couturier whose house has recently undergone a major revival to become one
of the hottest labels of the moment.
More than any other couturier of the
decade, Paul Poiret (1879 - 1944) divined and defined the aesthetic of the
early 1900s. Known simply as the "King of Fashion," he was influenced by
the major artistic trends of the early twentieth century, especially
orientalism and neoclassicism. At fashion school we all sat about
eagle-eyed at seminars illustrating his many creations, the hobble
skirt, harem pants and the lampshade tunic. Were the women of the
1910s really so experimental we wondered? This cloth bound tome would
certainly lead us to believe so. Page after page of gloriously theatrical
and avant-garde couture explain why contemporary designers such as
John Galliano of Dior and Nicolas Ghesquière of Balenciaga continually
cite Poiret as an inspiration.
John Galliano: Christian Dior Spring
Photo courtesy of Christian Dio r
The book opens with a series of illustrations of Poiret fashions by
famed artists such as Georges Lepape. These colorful images personify
Poirets vision of the ideal woman: youthful, free-spirited, and bohemian.
The houses clients included mavericks such as Sarah Bernhardt, Peggy
Guggenheim, and Gertrude Whitney. Although best remembered for liberating
women from the corset, Poiret revolutionized dressmaking by moving it away
from tailoring and towards draping.
Inspired by both antique and regional dress, Poiret cut his garments in
straight lines and constructed pieces around rectangular shapes. Fifty
years later, Issey Miyake founded his career using the same silhouettes.
Poirets modernism has long been overshadowed by his passion for print and
embellishment. Many of the oriental and Mughal inspired ensembles
illustrated in the tome could have walked straight off Belgian designer
Dries Van Notens Spring 2008 runway. Ethnic referencing may be de
rigueur in fashion today, but in 1910 it was considered pretty
Poiret was the first couturier to pioneer the sale of couture alongside
accessories such as perfume and objects for the home. Many of his products
were out-sourced: Paul Dumas manufactured the wallpaper, Adolphe Chanaux
the furniture, and Murano the glassware. This lifestyle approach to
fashion brings to mind contemporary designers such as Giorgio Armani who
through his Casa Armani arm produces high-end furniture and house
wares to compliment his fashions. Hopefully Armani will meet a happier end
than Poiret whose famously spendthrift ways led to his ruin in 1929.
Whilst Poiret was catering to the artistic elite, another couturier was
producing couture for a more conservative crowd. Rizzolis meticulously
researched new monograph Lanvin is the most beautifully arranged
monograph of the year. Like Poiret, Jeanne Lanvin (1867 - 1946) embraced
the historicism that aligned her with the artistic and decorative arts
movement. Inspired by the French royal courts of the 18th century and the
period of the Second Empire, Lanvins clothes were romantic and beautiful,
and she dressed many of her clients from infancy to debut to motherhood.
Photo courtesy of Rizzoli New
Rizzolis tome is a genuine eye opener. Whereas Poiret is
arranged as a museum catalogue, Lanvin cleverly intercepts
surviving garments, original sketches, and the artistic inspirations
behind them. An angelic blue gown with gold embroidery is shown next to
the frescos of Fra Angelico
that inspired it. Velazquez portraits of Spanish infants (Lanvins
inspiration) surround photographs of her charming childrens ensembles. As
always with fashion, an understanding of a designer's thought process is
vital to fully appreciating her work.
Lanvins experiments in interior design surpassed those of Poirets in
terms of aesthetics and longevity. She collaborated with Armand Rateau on
a line of highly intricate, art deco inspired decorative objects for the
home. Her exceptional bedroom, boudoir, and bathroom, commissioned from
Rateau between 19921 and 1925, are now installed at the Musee des Arts
Decoratifs in Paris. In 2006, a bronze Rateau chair commanded $2,006,600
at a Christies auction. Unfortunately the book only touches on this
aspect of Lanvins career, and it certainly would have benefited from
illustrating some of these beautiful objects that she helped create.
Photo courtesy of Rizzoli
Many of Jeanne Lanvins signature touches, the delicate appliqué work,
the jeweled necklines, and the virtuoso embroideries, are reflected in the
houses collections today. After Lanvins death in 1946, the house limped
along surviving on the sales of perfume until 2001 when former Yves Saint
Laurent designer Alber Elbaz took over the design reins. Elbazs
ultra-feminine aesthetic immediately turned the house into one of the most
desirable and influential labels in contemporary fashion.
Photo courtesy of Rizzoli
Revealingly, the book makes no mention of Lanvin collections between
Jeanne Lanvins death in 1946 and Alber Elbazs appointment in 2001.
Although designers such as Cristina Ortiz had maintained the house's
ready-to-wear collection, the label had in fact sunk into fashion
oblivion. The last chapter of the tome illustrates Elbazs work for the
house, and this time one can trace how the house archives have
inspired his critically acclaimed collections.
Jeanne Lanvins work is so neglected that even as someone who works in
fashion, I was amazed at just how influential she really was. Christian
Dior may today produce a Poiret inspired couture ensemble for the press,
but mass market interpretations of Elbazs Lanvin collections have
affected how millions of women dress today.
Alber Elbaz: Lanvin Winter 2007
courtesy of Lanvin, Paris
Poiret and Lanvin are two very different tomes about
two very different couturiers who worked at the same time. Of all the
designer monographs I have seen this year, these two are without doubt the
most fascinating. Not only do they hold their own as fashion texts, each
is tastefully bound and presented. Ideal gifts for almost anyone, both are
now happily retired on my coffee table.
By Dean L. Merceron
contributions by Alber Elbaz and Harold Koda
Rizzoli New York (October 2007)
By Harold Koda, Andrew Bolton and Nancy J.
Hardcover: 224 pages
Yale University Press /
Metropolitan Museum of Art (June 2007)
Shine Anthony-Dharan is a British fashion writer and designer
based in New York. He covers fashion, beauty and interior design for
Culturekiosque.com. Mr. Anthony-Dharan last wrote on Ralph Lauren: Fashion for Most
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