Yiqing Yin, the Young Designer Reviving Maison Poiret, a Pioneering Pre-War Paris Label

One morning in Paris, in the summer of 2011, Yiqing Yin hopped onto the back of her boyfriend’s scooter, carrying two gowns. The couple was headed to the jury presentation for ANDAM (Association Nationale pour le Développement des Arts de la Mode), a French organization that, each year, presents a generous award to a promising young fashion designer. Yin had spent hundreds of hours on her entries, one of which was made in limestone gray silk that had been pleated thousands of times to form, in the middle of the bodice, what looked like a statuary head of a god. She was holding the garments close to the engine. They burst into flames. “I went there with two burned dresses,” Yin recalled recently. She won the competition anyhow.

Now, Yin has snagged another great prize: the opportunity to revive the once vital house of Poiret, founded by Paul Poiret in 1903 and moribund since 1929. The son of a bourgeois cloth merchant, Poiret got his start designing for the venerable Parisian brands Jacques Doucet and Worth. At the latter, he made simple dresses known as “fried potatoes,” which served as accompaniments to his boss’s “truffles,” or fancy evening gowns. Poiret’s simplicity initially horrified the haute couture’s stodgy clientele, but when he set up his own company, he continued to liberate the female form, introducing chemise dresses and harem pants to adventurous Parisiennes. One of the Belle Epoque’s great networkers, Poiret, known as Le Magnifique, fraternized with everyone from Apollinaire to Matisse. At the Thousand and Second Night costume ball that he organized in 1911, live parrots perched in bushes and sweetmeat hawkers mingled with the crowd until dawn. The guests were said to have consumed nearly a thousand liters of Champagne and hundreds of lobsters, melons, and goose livers.

Poiret artistic director Yiqing Yin, in one of her designs.

Photograph by Kira Bunse; Styled by Sheila Single.

Poiret’s ambitions were as vast as his appetites. He was the first designer to sell his own perfume, and the first to incorporate interior design into his portfolio, furnishing for the dancer Isadora Duncan a studio with black velvet curtains and doors that she described as “strange, Etruscan tomb–like apertures.” Poiret served as a military tailor during World War I, and by the time he came back to Paris, the Orientalist look he championed had given way to a more streamlined aesthetic that he found hard to embrace. In 1929, he liquidated his firm, selling what remained of his stock by the kilogram, as rags. He died penniless in 1944.

Still, he was a pioneer, both of loose silhouettes and of business practices. “In the art of the ultramodern in dress and decoration, Poiret created a genre Poiret, as definite to the connoisseur as the costume paintings of the genre Watteau or the genre Goya,” Janet ­Flanner wrote in The New Yorker in 1927. “It was no mean historical feat.”

A 1914 photograph by Wilhelm Willinger of Persian-style dresses designed by Paul Poiret.

Photograph by Wilhelm Willlinger/ullstein bild via Getty Images.

Yin is as diligent as Poiret was sybaritic, as focused as he was scattered. But she makes total sense as his successor in her vision of an unfettered sensuality, expressed through draping and shapes that leave some space between the fabric and the skin. “To me, Poiret is femininity,” she told me recently, in her neat, white office in Paris’s 7th arrondissement. “It’s something that’s kind of disappeared from the market. You either have to be dressed in androgynous sportswear or be overtly sexy and vulgar. There’s no middle ground.”

Yin was seven months pregnant, wearing sneakers, black pants, and an enveloping cardigan by Yohji Yamamoto, whose 2005 exhibition “Just Clothes,” at Le Musée de la Mode et du Textile, inspired her interest in a fashion career. Her hair was coiled on top of her head, held in place by a long gold-colored needle. She spoke in a refreshingly candid mix of English and French—she also speaks Mandarin—about a range of topics to which she’d obviously given serious thought. “Fashion, it’s not just bling and sequins and tout ça,” she said. “It’s actually a language. It’s offering people an opportunity to become more themselves.”

Looks from the Poiret Fall 2018 collection.

Photograph by Kira Bunse; Styled by Sheila Single.

Yin was born in Beijing in 1985. Her father was a microcomputing entrepreneur, one of China’s first. During the Tiananmen Square crisis, he provided aid to protesting students; after martial law was imposed, the family was forced to leave the country. Because of France’s open-door policy toward Tiananmen refugees, they ended up in a 15th-floor rent-controlled apartment in Courbevoie, an unleafy suburb of Paris. Yin’s parents scraped together the money to send her to Catholic school, which she hated. “They preached values like tolerance, ­sharing, and equality, but I was really picked on because I wasn’t Christian and I was Chinese,” she recalled.

After Shinsegae International—the family-held Korean luxury conglomerate that owns the rights to Poiret—announced that Yin would be the brand’s creative director, a number of articles pointed to her as part of a new Asian vanguard in high fashion. Yin, who holds French and Australian passports, found the idea slightly beside the point. “I reject the notion of a single origin,” she told me. “I think that creation is about rejecting your roots, stepping outside of your comfort zone to not become a slave to your own cabinet de ­curiosités.” She finds common ground with Poiret’s ­history in trying to ­promote a kind of expansiveness. “It’s not about importing ­elephants and ­parakeets into Paris,” she said. “Rather, it’s about generosity, in making Poiret an inclusive brand.”

An engraving of an evening coat by Paul Poiret that appeared in Gazette du Bon Ton, 1920.

Gianni Dagli Orti/REX/Shutterstock. Hair by Christian Eberhard at Management Artists; Makeup by Kathy Le Sant at Open Talent Paris; Models: Annibelis Baez, Julie Trichot, and Martine Dirkzwager at Viva; Produced by Bird Production; Photography Assistant: Christophe Shumacher; Fashion Assistant: Laetitia Gimenez; Dancers: Getty Images; Engraving: Gianni Dagli Orti/REX/Shutterstock.

Eventually, her parents opened a gallery, importing furniture and objects from Asia to France. Yin was so fed up with her school—and its administrators so fed up with her—that, for high school, she moved to Australia, where her father had, by that point, immigrated. Almost as soon as she got there, he left to return to China. At age 14, Yin found herself living alone in an apartment, working in an ice cream shop and a cafeteria when she wasn’t attending class. “I had to be very independent very soon,” she said.

Yin returned to Paris in 2003, and went on to graduate from France’s École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, where she studied sculpture and industrial design before switching to fashion. Her early crash course in self-sufficiency proved useful when, after winning the ANDAM competition, she decided to set up her own company. Working out of a 375-square-foot apartment, she began turning out painstakingly voluptuous clothes that blurred the boundaries between fashion, science, and art.

In 2015, the body that governs French fashion invited Yin to show at the haute couture. At the time, she was moonlighting as the creative director of Leonard, the Parisian brand known for silk jersey dresses in floral prints. She said yes, and quit Leonard shortly thereafter. Her first couture collection established her interest in freehand techniques, asymmetry, and volume. There was a gown of silk and knotted rope that a critic praised as offering “the perfect balance between design and wearability.” A midnight blue, single-shoulder minidress that she made in collaboration with the light sculptor Bastien Carré was encircled by a structure of piano wire and LEDs. It looked as though it were being orbited by a galaxy of stars.

A year later, Yin got a call from a fashion-industry headhunter. “What historic brands inspire you?” she asked. “I think there are only two that I could put my project on hold for,” Yin answered. “Madame Grès and Poiret.” “Okay, well, it’s Poiret,” the headhunter replied. Anne Chapelle, the Belgian fashion executive who was instrumental in the success stories of Ann Demeulemeester and Haider Ackermann, had signed on as CEO. For a year, she and Yin worked in secrecy, trying to figure out how to interpret Poiret for today. “We had to find our shoulder, which was very hard, because Poiret doesn’t have any structured jackets,” Yin recalled, by way of an example. She ended up using a single panel of cloth to create a more disciplined kimono sleeve. Chapelle and Yin unveiled their project in January of this year. “We were full of doubts,” Yin said. “Like, okay, we’re proposing something that is basically antitrend. Will women adhere to that?”

The response to the show helped to answer her questions. “We had 50-some confirmed orders,” Yin said. “People were telling us, ‘Enfin, clothes that women can wear!’ ” The feedback confirmed her instinct that there is a constituency for clothes that tell different stories on different women, that liberate their individuality as much as the original Poiret liberated the female form. She said, “I like to think that the clothes could find themselves in the wardrobes of women of different ages and origins—but who are not scared, who are bold, who are always in search of themselves.”