The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of the House of Poiret
How do you resurrect the past? More so, how do you resurrect the past in a way that is respectful yet relevant? Most often in recent years the rebirths of long closed heritage fashion houses have lent heavily on replication—copying classic pieces almost line for line. While the originals have often had high values on the secondary market, when remade in modern fabrics and using modern techniques they often lose their luster. How then to revive the “King of Fashion”, Paul Poiret? This is the challenge that South Korean department store franchise Shinsegae and Chinese couturier Yiqing Yin have set out to face.
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In January 2018 Shinsegae announced they were bringing back the storied house of Poiret under the creative leadership of Yin. Beijing-born Yiqing grew up in Paris and won the prestigious ANDAM prize in 2011, soon after graduating from the École nationale supérieure des arts décoratifs in Paris. She launched her own haute couture maison in 2014 and since 2015 she has been one of the 14 official members of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. Known for her use of texture and draping combined with forward-thinking technical experimentation, Yin’s couture designs have garnered attention but bear little resemblance to those of Paul Poiret—her draped dresses recalling instead the work of Madame Grès, while her more experimental pieces are in the same vein as Iris van Herpen. In a press release, Yin relayed her goals for the brand: “I would like to make Poiret a house that tells the story of encounters and emotions: the territory of a new, contemporary luxury that interacts with its time. At the heart of my project is a philosophy that takes into account the garment and its cut, as an extension to the approach taken by Paul Poiret in the early 20th century: to liberate women’s bodies and minds.”
Shuttered for almost ninety years, the House of Poiret was established in 1903. Paul Poiret was born in 1879 in the lower-class neighborhood of Les Halles in Paris to a family of cloth merchants. Apprenticed to an umbrella maker as a teenager, he stole the silk scraps to make miniature dresses for a small dressmaker’s mannequin and soon he was selling sketches of these designs to the major Parisian dressmakers and couturiers—Chéruit, Doucet, Worth, Paquin, Redfern, and Rouff. At age 17 Doucet hired him to design, before later moving to Worth after his military service. Though told at Worth to design “simple and practical dresses,” Poiret’s youthful spirit and exotically inspired eye were ill-equipped for creating bland ensembles. Once able to strike out on his own (using a loan from his mother), Poiret’s singular style soon became evident—a completely new, uncorseted silhouette; an obsession with Arabia and the East; a vivacity of color—which have all influenced Yin’s designs for the updated Poiret label, in often subtle ways.
As mentioned by Yin in her press release, Poiret did seek to liberate women’s bodies in one way—from the corset. His loose-fitting dresses, coats and wraps held as their starting point the kimono and were specifically designed to go over an uncorseted body. Contrarily, Poiret also “shackled” women—in 1908 he introduced the hobble skirt, whose narrow cut made a woman “mince along the boulevard with all the grace of some of the most curious birds one is permitted to see at the Zoo.” He later wrote, “Women complained of being no longer able to walk, nor get into a carriage… Have their complaints or grumblings ever arrested the movement of fashion, or have they not rather, on the contrary, helped it by advertising it? Everyone wore the tight skirt.” For Poiret fall/winter 2018—Yin’s first for the house—she looked not to his hobble skirts, but to the loose-fitting, cocoon shapes that he adapted from Eastern styles for modern opera and motor coats. Shawl-collared and enveloping, Yin’s coats and dresses are a departure from Poiret’s in their simplicity of line and lack of ornamentation.
Perhaps best remembered about Paul Poiret is his love of fantasy and the exotic. While he also famously looked back to the Directoire period for inspiration for his uncorseted gowns, Poiret was particularly fascinated with Arabia and the East—translating the fantastical harem outfits worn in 19th-century “Orientalist” paintings into fashions. As part of his “style sultane” he launched the “jupe-culotte” or harem pants in 1911—a shocking introduction as women at that time never wore trousers (even voluminous ones shown under a long tunic, such as his). Never wary of controversy, Poiret played up the hedonist and debaucherous undertones of his garments by hosting “The Thousand and Second Night” party on June 24th, 1911 for over three hundred guests who were all required to dress up in “Oriental” costumes. For all the elaborate intricacies of his beading and exotic touches like turban, Poiret was as attracted to regional dress for the simplicity of much of it. Through his analysis of Japanese and Middle Eastern dress, he became passionate about clothing cut along straight lines and constructed from rectangles. In today’s culture—where Paul Poiret’s “Orientalism” can be understood by many as cultural appropriation—it is his love of the straight silhouettes and pattern pieces of regional dress that can most easily find a place within Yin’s rebranding. The very modernity of these simple shapes has been easily translated into loose shifts that marched down Poiret’s catwalk for fall/winter 2018.
Poiret himself was a master colorist—arising out of an era where “all vitality had been suppressed” in the fashion palette, the couturier sought to “put a little gaiety, a little new freshness, into their colour schemes.” Working with the silk dyers in Lyon he had fabrics created in the most vivid and pure tones possible. As he wrote in his autobiography: “I carried with me the colourists when I took each tone at its most vivid, and I restored to health all the exhausted nuances. I am truly forced to accord myself the merit of all this, and to recognize also that since I have ceased to stimulate the colours, they have fallen once more into neurasthenic anæmia.” The only truly master colorist to follow in his path was Yves Saint Laurent, who similarly also shared a fascination with Morocco and “the Orient.” While Yin’s own label haute couture collections have employed a more neutral, earth-toned color palette, for Poiret she has expanded into her precursor’s favored shades—acid yellow, vibrant blue, rust, raspberry—all tempered by a heavy dose of white, black and gray.
On first glance Yin’s designs for Poiret lack the spice and exotic mystery of much of Paul Poiret’s most famed looks, reflecting that Yin and Shinsegae have chosen instead to start the brand afresh, using the name solely for its fame. Yet with quiet study it is apparent that Yin has taken the aforementioned specific elements of Paul Poiret’s work and refined them for a contemporary audience. This was shown spectacularly when Rihanna wore the second-to-last piece from the collection to the Ocean’s 8 premiere in London in June 2018—gold metal-yarn woven around her body, dripping off her shoulders to a cocoon shape in the back, and baring a luscious décolletage. A shimmering superstar look that brought the press to their knees—in much the same way Paul Poiret’s novel designs once commanded the media’s attention (and also recollected a dress of gold tissue worn by one of his models to the theater in 1910: “The heavy, half-transparent stuff clung so closely to her figure, moulding it, that every line was fully revealed”.) By subtly rephrasing some of Paul Poiret’s signatures, Shinsegae and Yiqing Yin look like they could have found an artful way to make Poiret relevant for the 21st century.