Saturday, September 12, 2009

An Antidote to Paris when it Sizzles: The Cool Couture of Madeleine Vionnet.

By the European correspondent

Most travellers know better than to visit Paris during the month of August when the city literally sizzles with heat and the most crucial hotel amenity is air conditioning. However the upside of my recent summer sojourn to the French capital was the discovery of the fabulous Les Arts Decoratifs museum at 107 Rue de Rivoli, wherein I spent several delightful, temperature-controlled hours perusing the brilliant couture designs of the late Madeleine Vionnet. Fittingly, the latter’s own couture house was originally located on the same street as the museum (number 222) where it debuted in 1912. It continued to attract an elite stream of wealthy clients at this address (with a four-year hiatus during the war years of 1914 – 1918) until the company’s move to Avenue Montaigne in 1922. Included in her roster of celebrity customers were Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn and Greta Garbo.

As a fashion editor I am, naturally, familiar with the Madame Vionnet name and reputation; she is regarded by many as the greatest dressmaker of the 20th Century and is known as ‘The Queen of Bias Cut’. Her fashion philosophy was simple and yet revolutionary for its time; to free women from the constrictions of corsets, padding and stiffening and instead to accentuate the natural female form. She spent a great deal of time and energy in order to achieve this fashion fluidity; she even created miniature creations on tiny mannequins in order to experiment with different techniques.

This was the first opportunity I had to observe Madeleine Vionnet’s unique couture creations at close proximity and the experience left me overwhelmed by the impressive talents of this dedicated designer. Described as an “artistic visionary” in the exhibition brochure, her creations do seem to transcend fashion and enter the realm of intellectual design and construction.

The exhibits engendered in me feelings of awe, admiration and respect: they also evoked a sense of déjà vu because I recognized elements from these exquisite constructions in the numerous fashion runway shows I’ve attended over the past two decades. Whether the designers responsible were ‘paying homage’ to this remarkable woman or (to put it less diplomatically) copying her trademark style, it is obvious that a number of them have been directly influenced by Madame V.

The Madeleine Vionnet signature was the purity of line and cut in her form-conscious silhouettes. She incorporated elements of architecture and the aesthetics from Ancient Greece into deceptively simple draping and folding of sumptuous silks and crepes that glide over the female form with grace and fluidity. One of the exhibits is a single ingeniously-cut and draped piece of fabric that spirals around the female form to create a flattering and flowing evening gown that’s simply cinched at the waist (and so held together) with a jewelled belt: sheer genius. In addition to her innovative use of the bias cut, she is renowned for her use of the halter neck, the draped cowl and the chiffon handkerchief hem – all of these trademarks evident throughout the exhibition.

The hand of Andree Putman is evident in the sumptuous and yet practical exhibition design: cleverly placed mirrors for instance, enable the observation of intricate detailing on the reverse of the garments that are displayed to maximum effect on mannequins. A photograph of the original model wearing the outfit accompanies each vintage piece, providing an additional historical reference point. (It was interesting to note the prevalence of a much more curvaceous silhouette than is currently en vogue).

Madeleine Vionnet – who died at age 98 in 1975 -- donated 122 ensembles, 750 dress patterns and 75 photo albums and volumes of memorabilia to the Union Francaise des Arts du Costume from her personal collection. She closed her couture house in 1939 at the outbreak of war.

The exhibition continues until the end of January 2010.

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Crap and Couture, Notes From the Back Row