Fashion geeks in Paris are going gaga for this
The Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris is officially closed on Mondays, but lately that’s become the preferred day of pilgrimage for people like John Galliano and Marc Jacobs, who’ve been filing in for private tours of a stunning new exhibit on Madeleine Vionnet. Known as “the couturier’s couturier,” Vionnet was a pioneer of the bias cut and draping in the 1920s and 30s, and her work exemplified a kind of refined simplicity that’s particularly relevant right now. Here, a chat with the museum’s chief fashion and textiles curator, Pamela Golbin, who conceived the show and spent two years overseeing the restoration of 250 of Vionnet’s featherweight constructions.
A lot of designers and fashion insiders worship Vionnet in a way that’s almost religious. Have there been any really dramatic reactions to this show? Any fainting spells?
Almost! I was scared at first because all these designers, some of whom are normally very talkative, have been struck dumb as they saw the clothes. They weren’t saying a word. They know Vionnet’s work really well, but only through pictures, and this is the first time they get to see the actual dresses. Finally they’ve all said it’s even more amazing than in the books.
Why is Vionnet considered so modern?
There’s a quote of Karl Lagerfeld’s from 1974, where he said, “Whether designers like it or not, they’re all influenced by Madeleine Vionnet.” One crucial thing is her ability to distill the essence of a dress. She did that through the simplification of these three archetypal forms: the square, the rectangle and the circle. And basically through her entire career, from 1912 to 1939, she was exploring the endless combinations of these three forms. If she’s still modern today, it’s tied to the rigor and discipline of her sticking to the simplest forms that exist. Also, the purity of her creations expresses a kind of authenticity and truth that a lot of people are looking for right now, not just in fashion.
Vionnet was short and heavyset. How did that affect the way she approached clothes?
She didn’t like her body. And I think it’s important to say that, because as a result, she worked on women, but not on herself. Unlike Chanel, who was her own muse and only did what fit her.
Didn’t she dismiss Coco Chanel as a modiste?
Yes, a simple hatmaker. And she called Paul Poiret a costumier [costume designer]. She knew what her worth was and didn’t have a problem saying it loud and clear.
Tell me about her crusades against counterfeiting.
She was major pioneer in protecting intellectual property. Counterfeiting was just as rampant then as it is now—especially among Americans! But she couldn’t stand the idea that someone would steal her work. She said, “To copy is to steal.” So she started suing all the people who copied her. She won her first lawsuits in 1921 and started putting her thumbprints on her label, so all her clients could tell if it was a real Vionnet.
What would she think of today’s fashion collections?
Well, she thought she invented everything, so she might not be impressed by a lot of what’s out there. But she’d probably get very interested in the innovations in fabrics that she didn’t live to see. I think she’d be very excited about Lycra.
Photos: Luc Boegly/ courtesy of Musée des Arts Décoratifs.