18KingofFashion photo mga

By Samantha Critchell

Associated Press

NEW YORK — Paul Poiret was a pioneer in modern fashion, doing away with the corset and embracing the notion of personal style. He was among the first to use draping in dressmaking and he had no problem putting pants on women.

So, how come so few people have heard of him?

"Fashion has a very short memory," said Harold Koda, curator at The Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute. "His fame came before World War II so only historians and other fashion designers really knew of him."


But in 2005 the Met purchased at auction almost two dozen of the outfits Poiret created for his wife-muse Denise in the early 1900s, and Koda was reminded of his influence on what we wear today. When describing the Poiret pieces, Koda repeatedly uses the word "modern."

The Costume Institute is exhibiting, "Poiret: King of Fashion." Visitors will recognize the shapes, if not the names of the designer and his style posse.

"Poiret transformed fashion from the 19th century to the 20th century, especially with his draping," said associate curator Andrew Bolton. "He created the modern form of today."

The switch to the looser draped silhouette from a tailored garment was partially a practical move as Poiret did not know how to sew, Bolton explains, but it also was a reflection of his avant-garde attitude that rejected anything with a strict structure.

He gave women a freedom in their wardrobe they’d never had before, first abandoning the petticoat in 1903 and then the corset in 1906.

But Sally Singer, Vogue’s fashion news director, points out that the exact shape Poiret was most famous for — a ballooning middle and a shackled leg — hasn’t been in style for some time, likely accounting for some of his obscurity.

"Fashion has been rather body conscious from the 1980s on thanks to the fitness revolution, so the last 20 to 30 years of dressing has been about showing off your curves," Singer said. "But that’s changing in recent fashion."

The upcoming fall collections are clear reverberations of Poiret’s style, she explains.


"It’s a good moment for Poiret right now," Singer saidAnd, she adds, it’s time for the industry to embrace Poiret’s philosophy that fashion should be a bit dramatic. "The one thing people can learn from Poiret is that when you dress up, dress up. Be interesting. Be like his wife who people would look at on the street. It’s about standing out for all the right reasons."

It also seems that Poiret created the business model of the lifestyle brand so many fashion houses are still trying to emulate. He didn’t advertise but he gave his very best clients catalogs filled with gallery-worthy illustrations by Paul Iribe and Georges Lepape of stylish women wearing his designs. He also collaborated with the artists as well Raoul Dufy on textile designs, many of which were influenced by Orientalism, putting them ahead of the East-meets-West trend that’s still a force in fashion.

He mingled with his famous customers, including Isadora Duncan, at fabulous parties and traveled the world on "cultural initiatives" to spread his version of French fashion to style-conscious women in places such as New York and Morocco. If Poiret did the same things now they’d fall under the categories of celebrity dressing and trunk shows.

Poiret also branched out into fragrance, accessories and interiors similarly to Coco Chanel, who saw her star rise in Paris in the 1920s as Poiret’s began to dim. When Poiret died in 1944, he was penniless. Unlike Chanel, Poiret didn’t have the marketing savvy to put his name on all his products, and, at the end of his career, he didn’t even have the rights to his name — one of the first victims of fashion licensing.

Poiret often designed things specifically with the intent that Denise would be the model, the Costume Institute’s Bolton says. "She was willing to advance his boldness because she’d be bold enough to wear them."

On display is one of Denise’s evening gowns from 1907 that had an empire waist, pink-and-purple vertical stripes, gold trim and a thigh-high slit. She’d wear that dress without a slip underneath, according to Koda, which was quite risque at the time.

That gown, however, would fit right in on a Hollywood red carpet in 2007.

White linen daytime dresses with coral-colored trim from the 1910s seem the basis for today’s popular shirtdress.


It’s all the embellishment, metallics and layering that largely contributed to Poiret’s fall within the stylish set.

"He was of the school that rich looked rich," Koda said, which didn’t fit with the roles women were taking on in the years after World War I. Women needed functional clothes and even though it was Poiret who freed them from rigid silhouettes and conformist fashion, his flashy style suddenly seemed outdated, he said.

Chanel came along with her chic little black dress and the rest is history. "The difference between Chanel and Poiret was irony," Koda said. "She could be ironic. She understood that the greatest luxury could be to appear simple."

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