First in fashion

He was one of the most influential designers of haute couture at the dawn of its existence and the man who took fashion from the 19th century to the modern era.

­To mark 100 years since Paul Poiret’s visit to Russia, the Moscow Kremlin Museums is to open a vast retrospective display of the French couturier’s works.

The future revolutionary of fashion, Paul Poiret, the son of a humble shop-keeper, started his career as a modeler in the fashion houses of haute couture gurus of the time – Jacques Doucet and Worth. But his models proved to be too radical for the clientele of the established designers. He opened his own Fashion House in Paris in 1903 and gained immense popularity almost overnight. Women were happy to adopt a more relaxed and creative attitude towards their clothing  – something that had been unthinkable just a few decades earlier. He liberated women from the rigid corseting and petticoats which had imprisoned them for decades and this new freedom of attire came to reflect the social processes which saw women becoming more independent and liberated.  

Poiret was also an artist and a prolific director, turning his fashion shows into enchanting theatrical performances for the haut monde. Poiret’s firm produced not only clothing, but also interior utensils, furniture, decorations, and fragrance – he was the first fashion designer to launch his own perfume. Paul Poiret, the self-proclaimed “King of Fashion”, was the creator of his own kingdom and was the first to adopt marketing strategies which still hold the key to success for fashion businesses today.

Poiret became a true pioneer of women’s fashion, bringing in cocoon dresses, harem pantaloons and lampshade tunics. They seem to have directly from the stage of Diaghilev’s magnificent Ballets Russes, which were influential at the beginning of the 20th century and became sources of inspiration for fashion designers of the time. Buoyant colors and revolutionary shapes swiftly won the hearts of women in France and far beyond.  

Russian women, among them members of aristocratic families, adored Poiret’s styles, and the feeling was mutual. On returning from his trip to the Russian Empire in 1911, he created a collection inspired by his visit and aptly called ‘Kazan’ after one of Russia’s great cities. It became the first collection by the famous international designer to be inspired by traditional Russian costume.   

He also changed the course of dressmaking by bringing draping -rather than tailoring and pattern-making – to the fore, and introduced the new silhouette – streaming, loose-fitting dresses were meant to make women more sensual and free.

The epitome of Poiret’s vision of the modern woman was his wife and muse – Denise. However bright, enduring and well-grounded, his success did not last after the end of the Second World War. His dominance of the fashion scene passed to another French designer who conquered the world of couture and even exceeded its boundaries – Coco Chanel. But, as the exhibition shows, if it had not been for Poiret, the world might never have seen the famous little black dress.

The exhibition “Paul Poiret, King of Fashion”, featuring more than 150 photographs, prints, illustrations, dresses, bottles of perfume and accessories by the prolific couturier, will be on view at the Moscow Kremlin Museums from September 7 until January 15.

­Elena Monakhova, RT

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