Born Paris, France, 1879
Died Paris, France, 1944

Every man’s idea of the grand couturier – extravagant, arrogant and larger-than-life – Paul Poiret lived an extraordinary life. He began humbly, became rich, famous and autocratic, and yet died a pauper in a charity hospital. His father was a small-time cloth merchant and, when he was still in his teens, Poiret was apprenticed to an umbrella maker from whom he used to steal off-cuts of silk to make oriental dresses for dolls. He taught himself to sketch and managed to sell some designs to Mme. Cheruit at the Maison Raudnitz Soeurs.

In 1896, having been consistently selling designs on a freelance basis to most of the top houses in Paris, Poiret agreed to work exclusively for Doucet. This elegant, refined and charming man had a great effect on Poiret, who set out to emulate him. Doucet was, in fact, instrumental in helping Poiret to gain success when, after an uphappy period (1900–1904) with Worth, he wished to work for himself. Doucet recommended the famous actress and fashion leader, Rejane (one of his own customers), to patronize his ex-designer. She did, and Poiret’s name was made. That was in 1904 and during the next 10 years Poiret’s power as a fashion arbiter grew even beyond his ambitions and hopes.

Even at Worth Poiret had shown signs of the new spirit of fashion, which had displeased M. Jean but interested his more forward-looking brother, M. Gaston Worth. Once on his own, Poiret’s development was swift and determined. By 1906 he had loosened the shape of clothes and was producing soft, amorphous shapes. In 1909 the Ballets Russes arrived in Paris and Poiret’s love of the exotic was stimulated. He began to produce his oriental line, using turbans, aigrettes and harem pants. He always refused to admit the influence of the Ballets Russes and Bakst on his designing at this time but, as Beaton said, this is ‘reminiscent of the Cubists’ denial that they had ever seen African art’.

Poiret’s ‘hobble skirts’, brought out two years later, made him notorious. Although as a fashion they were only briefly successful, the public outcry they caused, with condemnations from the Pope and hundreds of cartoons, brought Poiret world renown. Everyone wanted his clothes. In 1908 he produced a beautiful and exclusive book, with 10 full-page coloured illustrations by Iribe, called Les Robes de Paul Poiret; in 1911 he published a second book, Les Choses de Poiret, with illustrations by Lepape. Not only was he now the most successful couturier in Paris, he was also a huge social success. His garden club, L’Oasis, became the venue for lavish and exotic fancy-dress soirées and ever more extravagant entertainments.

Poiret toured Germany and Austria and returned to Paris excited by the new approach to design and craftsmanship he had found there. Determined to put his own less rigid and less pedantic ideas into practice, he founded the Atelier Martine in 1911. Named after a daughter, this studio took untrained girls and allowed them to express their individuality in designs for textiles, wallpaper and furniture. The designs were then realized by skilled craftsmen. Atelier Martine had a real influence on design at the time, as did Poiret’s encouragement of Dufy to embark on textile design. In 1912 he took his wife, his clothes and his model girls on a promotional tour of Berlin, Vienna, Brussels, Moscow and St. Petersburg. This was followed in 1913 by a tour of America. Poiret disliked the United States: it lacked culture and sophistication and its designers blatantly plagiarized his designs.

On his return to Paris in 1914 he persuaded the other couturiers to join Le Syndicat de Défense de la Grande Couture Française to protect the copyright of their designs. He was its first president. World War I forced him to close his doors and, after the war, he found that enthusiasm had waned for his lampshade tunics with wired hems, his ospreys, and the heavy tasseled capes and slave-market jewels which had become his hallmark. By 1924 his day was done. The post-war woman wanted Chanel, of whom Poiret said ‘What has she invented? Poverty de luxe.’

In emulation of Doucet, Poiret had built up a superb art collection. In 1925 he was forced to sell it. By 1929 he was bankrupt and penniless. His wife divorced him the same year. The chain store Printemps offered him a job in 1933 to design ready-to-wear clothes, but the venture failed due to his completely irresponsible attitude toward money. Jacques Worth squashed a motion that the Chambre Syndicale should give him a pension. He made a living taking small parts in films, wrote his autobiography, My First Fifty Years, in 1930 and moved to the South of France. During World War II he became so poor that he was forced to make himself a suit out of a beach peignoir. He died of Parkinson’s disease.

What were the achievements of this man whom Cocteau described as ‘like some huge sort of chestnut’? He claimed for himself that he had freed the bust but shackled the legs, and certainly he led the way in a general relaxation of shape, a loosening of the corsets and a reduction in the number of underclothes a woman had to wear. If he was not an outstanding innovator in terms of the cut and construction of a garment, he was the first couturier to make lecture tours and the first to launch a scent. He was a brilliant self-publicist, in the words of Ernestine Carter ‘adventurous, often ridiculous and outrageous, always courageous’. He dominated fashion and fashionable thinking for almost two decades. In many respects there is justification for seeing him as the great catalyst of 20
th-century fashion. He changed the shape of the clothed female body, he banished the tightly corseted curves of the previous generation and he created the slender modern woman. Without this man, both ‘shrewd and fatuous’ as Mrs Chase remarked, could there have been a Chanel?

Major perfume: Rosine (1911)