Masters of the Bias: How Vionnet, Kleibacker and Galliano Transformed One of Dressmaking’s Most Complex Techniques
For her legendary memoir D.V., iconic Vogue editor Diana Vreeland recalled a surprising scene she witnessed one hot afternoon in a Paris movie theater: “...the lights went on, and I felt a slight movement under my hand. I looked down—and it was a cheetah! And beside the cheetah was Josephine Baker!...She was alone with the cheetah on a lead. She was so beautifully dressed. She was wearing a marvelous little short black skirt and a little Vionnet shirt—no sleeves, no back, no front, just crossed bars on the bias…Ah! Style was a great thing in those days.” Succinctly capturing the mood, movement, and clothes of a specific time is the marvel of a top that Vreeland discusses, designed by master couturier Madeleine Vionnet using fabric cut on the bias.
Follow Martin on instagram here.
Fabrics are woven with a grid-like pattern consisting of warp (vertically running fibers) and weft (fibers that run horizontally) and most garments produced throughout history have done little to toy with this basic engineering. However, those same fabrics, when turned on an angle with the cross-weave hanging at 45 degrees, are referred to as being “on the bias” and possess miraculously different properties that can transform nearly any article of clothing into something else entirely. It is a technique notoriously difficult to work with as the added elasticity bias cutting lends destroys typical seaming—making hems fall unevenly—and changes the intended proportions of a given piece if not fully understood. Though it isn’t uncommon to encounter bias cutting when combing through racks at luxe emporiums, there have only been three designers to date who have embraced this temperamental method and made it a cornerstone of their aesthetic and design process.
Madeleine Vionnet is considered by many to be history’s greatest designer. However, when Vionnet expert Betty Kirke interviewed former employees of Vionnet’s house, they insisted that she was a “technician” rather than a “designer”—a title they associated with sketching and decoration—preferring the former term to express her unparalleled inventiveness. The late Azzedine Alaïa once said of Vionnet in a 2006 New York Times interview, “She is the source of everything, the mother of us all.” She is often credited with inventing the bias cut, which isn’t entirely true, but she is certainly responsible for revolutionizing it. Bias cutting was used before Vionnet’s time for small trims (shirt cuffs, ruffles along a hem, etc.), but she was the first to craft entire garments using this construction technique. As women made strides toward liberation at the beginning of the 20th century, they needed clothes that progressed in equal measure. Vionnet desired freedom of movement above all else, and abolished the corset years before Chanel. “I proved that fabric falling freely on a body liberated from heavy armature was beautiful in and of itself,” she told Marie Lavie-Compin for French Vogue in 1974. “I attempted to bring to fabric a balance that movement in no way altered, but rather magnified.”
“I was the first to use the bias cut, but only when I had my own atelier and was able to do so as I pleased,” said Vionnet in an interview with Madeleine Chapsal in the 1960s. “The bias was supple, easy, and promising. I would take my muslin, and place it perfectly on the bias, then I would make notches along the bias line so as not to lose it, and the bias of the cloth led the way. It guided me.” She draped exclusively on a small wooden doll carved to scale so she could render all of her designs in three dimensions without relying on a pencil and paper first. Once she was satisfied with a creation, her team would cut and prepare the fabric. If that material happened to be on the bias, it would be cut and then hung in the studio for a full week, allowing gravity to pull the fabric to its final length before being worked into a finished piece—a crucial step that, if skipped, would lead to the garment warping over time. The finished result, a timeless Vionnet, poured over the body like a second skin, highlighting the wearer’s best features and eliminating her worst while allowing for unrestricted movement, a principle her future acolytes would explore and advance.
Charles Kleibacker had a rather circuitous journey to the world of high fashion. Hailing from Alabama, he originally studied journalism before a career change inspired by the majesty of couture during his first trip to Paris. During this period, he became enamored with vintage Vionnet gowns belonging to museum archives and local collectors due to their otherworldly complexity that upended everything he thought he knew about dressmaking. Kleibacker studied her bias cutting techniques with fervor, absorbing everything he could get his hands on in an attempt to understand her methods. He opened his own house after returning from Europe in 1963 and set himself apart from the rest of the New York pack in several important respects, particularly his adherence to a style of clothes that had minimal, though incredibly sophisticated construction that often relied on intricate bias cutting techniques inspired by Vionnet.
Because of his dedication to both traditional craft and the philosophy of fluid clothing cemented by Vionnet, Kleibacker preferred to produce a limited number of styles every season that slowly innovated and evolved the lines he conceived as opposed to dramatically changing course, according to New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style by noted fashion historian Caroline Rennolds Milbank. Because of the careful engineering that went into each of his garments and the associated cost (his clothes usually sold for between $1,200 and $3,500, which roughly translates to between $9,300 and $27,300 in 2017 dollars), his business remained small, but enjoyed a loyal clientele that grew accustomed to the impeccable fit and luxe textiles (four-ply silk crepe, lustrous silk jersey) he provided. His clothes were remarkably soft, faithfully following the body for remarkable comfort, which stood in stark contrast to the hyper-structured looks of everyone from Balenciaga to Paco Rabanne that saturated the 60s. However, the properties of movement that he refined over many years foreshadowed the work of designers like Halston who would dominate the 1970s and even a plumber’s son named John Galliano who would come to define the big business of modern luxury.
John Galliano is as much a student of fashion as he is a designer who has wielded enormous influence over the past 25 years. Whether it was for his eponymous line, his brief stint at Givenchy, his long tenure as the head of Christian Dior or his current position as the chief designer of Maison Margiela, Galliano has remained a steadfast proponent of bias cutting even if its inherent fluidity didn’t necessarily jive with the house style of his employer. Much like Kleibacker, he is an admirer of Vionnet’s work making it a point to reference her at least in passing in nearly every collection he’s ever presented.
Galliano was a sensation from the moment his Central Saint Martins graduate collection hit the catwalk. His immediate success, in no small way helped by Anna Wintour’s support, combined with his talent gained him intense media coverage even when his actual business was quite small. Galliano’s technical drive led him to the bias cut technique, which soon became one of his favorites. He described the process, “like working with liquid, mercurial oil,” for its tendency to slip and glide in unexpected ways. In one of his early shows, Galliano’s Circus Spring/Summer 1997, Galliano was shown working with close collaborator and gifted pattern maker Bill Gaytten (who replaced Galliano at his namesake label a few years ago after the now infamous scandal that saw him ousted from Dior) on a Vionnet technique by which bias cut pieces were woven into a cutout, star-like shape that spiraled away from the center to form the rest of the gown. It is a mind-bending example of the craft that only the exceptionally skilled could even attempt.
When Galliano first took the helm at Dior, he introduced a silhouette that quickly became a visual indicator with the 90s: the slip dress. A slinky, form-hugging garment, the slip dress was inspired by classic lingerie designs. For Princess Diana, Galliano created a navy blue bias gown for the 1996 Met Ball which helped launch his blockbuster career. But, despite his imminent success and the positive reception of Princess Diana’s gown, Galliano continued to look back on his favorite bits of couture. He revisited and reworked some of the most demanding practices and techniques, making them more efficient to execute, particularly the bias cut. Because bias cut dresses and gowns fit so snugly, seaming can become a distraction, so Galliano and his team solved this issue by concealing what few seams were present—fabric was often cut to create as few as possible—in the lines of surface applications. In that same Galliano’s Circus collection, a sparkling number in sheer material had a trompe l'oeil horse’s head rearing across the bust with the outline of its muscular neck doubling as a place to hide the primary center seam—a brilliant example of form and function merging.
Through several generations, bias cutting has acted not only as a way to emancipate the bodies of women, but as a way for designers to free their own creative ambition. It remains an amorphous concept that can be molded and reinvented by disciplined designers, pushing fashion into the future. So far, Madeleine Vionnet, Charles Kleibacker, and John Galliano have made their indelible contributions to the technique, but it’s difficult to say if any such champions will come along again. As fashion moves away from this sense of craftsmanship and instead toward creating garments that will adorn the feeds of social media, will the dedication and skill required to execute the former be lost? And, most importantly of all, will anyone care? The community of truly extraordinary designers and the audience that appreciates them has always been small yet devoted. Let us hope it remains so.