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.
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.
Photos: Luc Boegly/ courtesy of Musée des Arts Décoratifs.