In New York tonight the fashion industry's movers and shakers will be heading to the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute to attend one of the most glamorous events of the year - a gala benefit jointly hosted by Cate Blanchett, Nicolas Ghesquiere and Anna Wintour to celebrate the career of Paul Poiret, the Parisian couturier who, for two decades at the beginning of the 20th century, not only played a key role in the liberation of women by freeing them from the restrictive corsets of the Belle Epoque, but also shaped fashion's future.
"Next to Poiret, Coco Chanel looks like a little dressmaker," the designer Azzedine Alaa once said. "It's one of life's ironies that she ended up with millions while he died without a cent... in complete obscurity." Ghesquiere, the creative director at Balenciaga, calls him a remarkable innovator who ushered in Modernist fashion.
"The historic significance and influence of Poiret's work is breathtaking, and felt in fashion to the present day," says Harold Koda, the curator in charge of the accompanying exhibition at the Costume Institute. This is a rare chance to view the work of Poiret, much of which has never been seen outside the designer's circle of family and friends. Koda, and fellow curator Andrew Bolton, were inspired by the discovery of a treasure-trove of clothing that came up for auction in Paris in 2005, they say, and at the core of this landmark exhibition will be more than 20 costumes and accessories acquired by the museum. These will be presented along with more than 30 other ensembles.
The simplicity of Poiret's designs afforded them a sense of modernity that has been echoed by designers through the decades. Even in the latest collections references to Poiret can be found, from the cocoon coats of Proenza Schouler and John Galliano to the skirts of 6267 and lampshade dress by Thakoon, yet the legacy of Poiret goes far beyond his dramatic silhouettes. Surrounded by artists including Stravinsky, Cocteau and Diaghilev, he was part of a group that struggled to separate itself from the previous century and especially the extravagances of Art Nouveau. Poiret loved Modern Art, commissioning Henri Matisse and Raoul Dufy to create prints while patronising the likes of Picasso, Modigliani and Brancusi. He collected antiquities from Greece and the Tang dynasty and it was ancient history and travel that inspired him most.
Working with Jacques Doucet and Charles Worth, two of the leading couturiers of the day, Poiret focused his trademark style: undemanding silhouettes decorated with exotic patterns. His forte was drapery and he often worked without sketching; pinning and cutting directly onto his models. At first his designs proved too understated for the wealthy Parisian clientele: while at Worth a kimono-esque cloak so outraged the Russian princess who had commissioned it that she likened it to a sack used for the heads of decapitated commoners. This prompted Poiret to set up his own business.
When he opened his couture house in 1903 the silhouette of the day had changed little for more than a century. Women's figures were not only divided in two by a whalebone corset, but also constrained by masses of fabric. Poiret set about freeing women from such constrictions and was soon designing garments for Denise, his wife and muse, inspired by the classical paintings that he'd studied at the Louvre during his youth. …