Paul Poiret (April 20, 1879 to April 30, 1944) was a French fashion designer who was one of those rags to riches to rags stories. His father was a cloth merchant and the family lived in Les Halles, the gritty former-market district of Paris. He was apprenticed to an umbrella maker and he used scraps of the silk to create fashions for his sister’s doll. He peddled designs of his drawings to various fashion houses until he was eventually hired by the prestigious house of Worth. One of his innovative designs was a kimono-style coat. When this design was presented to Worth client Russian princess Bariatinsky, she said, “What a horror! When there are low fellows who run after our sledges and annoy us, we have their heads cut off, and we put them in sacks just like that.” His days at Worth ended. Can’t annoy a princess.
He started his own fashion house in 1903, which flourished due to his brilliant marketing at least as much as his designs. For instance, he became the first designer to expand his branding to include a perfume, Nuits Persane, that he launched in a huge harem-inspired costume ball. He partnered with the photographer Steichen to photograph his designs for publication in the ladies’ magazines of the day, thus kicking off the world of fashion photography. He instituted harem-style pants for women when women didn’t wear trousers, eliminated corsets, freeing women, but also came up with the hobble skirt that forced them to take tiny steps. His nickname was “The Magnificent.”
The bubble burst with the outbreak of war. Poiret worked for the government streamlining uniform production. When he went back to his firm in 1919, he found that it was on the brink of bankruptcy. Times had changed. New designers like Chanel were turning out clothes that were sleek and simple instead of costume-like. They were also far better made than Poiret’s clothes, which were best appreciated from a distance. By 1929, it was all over. His remaining stock was sold by the pound to make rags. His former employer, Worth, opposed payment of a pension to Poiret by the Chambre syndicale de la haute couture. Some grudges don’t pass easily. He became a street artist and died in total poverty in 1944. One designer remained loyal to an old friend; Elsa Schiaparelli paid for his funeral.
Today’s express, tiré à quatre épingles (tearay ah catruh ehpangluh), literally means “held by four pins” but figuratively means “well dressed.” The origin dates back to the Renaissance when pins were a luxury item. If an item of clothing was held by not one, but four pins, it was really something special, and so was the wearer, perhaps in an original design by Poiret the Magnificent.
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