“WHEN I PUT MY SIGNATURE ON A DRESS, I REGARD MYSELF AS THE CREATOR OF A WORK OR ART.”
Paul Poiret is ranked among the outstanding artistic personalities in fashion history. With his new lines, developed in the first two decades of the twentieth century, he pointed the way towards a modern era. He was not only a couturier for the avant-garde but also a visionary and entrepreneur, one who was prepared to take risks, pressed forward into foreign territory, and won a great deal, but, in the end, also lost everything.
Poiret began his career with a commercial apprenticeship, while sketching and drawing in his spare time. Madame Cheruit – who bought fashion sketches from him – introduced him to Jacques Doucet (1853-1929) who gave him the opportunity to learn the basics of haute couture while working in his studio. There he learned Doucet’s technique of designing directly on the body, a method which he was to retain all his life. In 1899 Poiret was entrusted with the task of designing a coat for the famous actress Rejane, and his design caused a furor. When Poiret parted company with Doucet because of conflicts of loyalty, Poiret used the opportunity to develop his esprit nouveau for the House of Worth, which he did for two years prior to opening his own haute couture salon in 1903.
His fashion boutique, with its extravagant ambience and theatrical models in exotic, expressive, and colourful designs, found a favorable response among the avant-garde. Poiret’s creations were often worn by his wife, Denise Boulet. In 1906 she appeared in one of his first, corset-free dresses, and photos taken around 1910 show her in thin chemises a la Grece. Dressed in an Orient-inspired costume, she caused a huge sensation at the “A Thousand and One Nights” party organized by Poiret. Poiret’s “lampshade” tunics and “Turkish” harem pants were also a media event – the scandal of the 1910/11 season.
Poiret saw himself as an artist and considered the fine and applied arts as parts of a unified entity. He had an excellent understanding of how to spotlight his fashions through social events: his models made public appearances, and he hosted tours, showed films of fashion parades, and initiated book projects with Paul Iribe and Georges Lepape. All of which had the intention of not only illustrating his modish creations but also of interpreting fashion in a free and artistic manner. He commissioned Erte to do drawings for him, and in 1911 he collaborated with the painter Raoul Dufy (1877-1953) to design fabrics. These activities were decidedly innovative, as was his penchant for starting businesses: he established a perfume factory with a couturier (Rosine, 1911), set up a craft school and craft shop (Ecole Martine, 1911), and opened a workshop for packaging design (Collin, 1912). With his instinctive feel for the wishes of his chic female clientele he became highly successful and was soon the owner of a complex of houses in the heart of Paris.
During World War I, Poiret’s fashion house was closed, and after its reopening he had difficulties adjusting to the new conditions. By 1925 he was in financial ruin, his businesses were sold, his painting collection was auctioned off, and in 1929 his salon was declared bankrupt.