Sunday, 28 June 2009

The Couturier of Couturiers

Few designers have the honour of being labelled the "Couturier of Couturiers", but the revolutionary Madeleine Vionnet was one of them. Like the visionaries Gabrielle Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent would after her, Madeleine Vionnet pioneered completely new ideas that would write new chapters in fashion's history.

Madeleine Vionnet founded her fashion house in Paris in 1912, on the rue de Rivoli. She later moved it to avenue Montaigne, but both are iconic Parisian addresses.

Vionnet's avant-gardism saw her inventing the bias cut, her greatest contribution to fashion design. Cutting patterns along the bias forces the fabric to cling to the body and move with it - a "trick" John Galliano champions today - creating Vionnet's trademark look of draped, form-conscious clothing that was sleek, flattering, and body-skimming.

If you look closely at a Madeleine Vionnet evening dress, especially the beaded ones, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a red-carpet Versace gown. Such was Vionnet's talent for being ahead of her time: eschewing corsets, padding, stiffening, and anything that distorted the natural curves of a woman's body, her clothes were famous for accentuating the natural female form.

Vionnet was always conscious of women’s bodies. She dispensed with corsets and other constricting garments and used barefoot models to present her first solo collection. Not until Gabrielle Chanel's first collections appeared, would high fashion be so comfortable and liberating. Though simple, Vionnet's dresses were never plain; the use of a Cartier necklace as a halter strap is a classic Vionnet innovation.

This original combination of comfort and glamour made Vionnet's clothes a favourite among Hollywood royalty - Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Katharine Hepburn were all fans.

Vionnet's mastery of sinuous line, proportion and, above all, how to dress the liberated and dynamic female body, would influence generations of fashion designers, including Cristobal Balenciaga, who like her had an essentialist viewpoint. He considered Vionnet as a mentor.

In a long list of firsts, Vionnet was also the designer who created the one-seam dress, an example couturiers such as Balenciaga, Azzedine Alaïa and Yohji Yamamoto have attempted to develop ever since.

Opening her first boutique in Paris at 50 avenue Montaigne in 1923, she followed it by opening a store in New York in 1925. Her house grew to employ 1,200 seamstresses, and was the first to create prêt-à-porter designs from Haute Couture, for the American market.

When World War II broke out, Vionnet was forced to close down her house, but there were no regrets. She told journalists that there was no reason to feel sad, as she had already invented every silhouette she could imagine, and that there was therefore nothing left for her to design.

Vionnet's use of the bias cut and purist geometry set her apart and made her one of the most celebrated couturiers of her day. She strived to liberate women from buttons, zips, corsetry and show-off embellishment. Hers was the language of extreme sophistication, where decorative elements such as rose motifs and fringes, drapes and twists formed the structure of her much-coveted dresses, rather than being mere appendages.

Vionnet was in search of the perfect silhouette, in the best possible of tastes, acknowledging that: "Taste is a feeling that makes all the difference between what is beautiful and what is merely showy – and also what is ugly! It is transmitted from mother to daughter. But some people don’t need to be educated: they are innately tasteful. I think I am one of them.”

Saturday, 27 June 2009

There Was An Old Woman Who Lived In Her Shoe...

The wonder of Christian Louboutin's talent never ceases to amaze me. I have been collecting his souliers for years now, and they have proved through time to be the most hardy, reliable, and loyal shoes in my wardrobe. No matter how high the heel, how rough or diverse the terrain, there they are to pick me up and keep on moving.

I have worn Louboutins to picnics in the country, à la Isabella Blow. I once found myself at the same English country garden party as her; she was bedecked in a Philip Treacy head-dress, Alexander McQueen cocktail dress, and zebra-skin (actually, perhaps just zebra-print) Manolo Blahnik shoes, with the most vertiginous heels. Every other female guest was in Little House on the Praire skirts and forgettable flats, wary of boring down into the soft, grassy lawn, yet there she was in full fashion regalia, gliding over the grass and molehills, modelling the best of British fashion.

Louboutins have carried me through to sandy beaches, when even the prospect of sinking into the sand would not deter me from a little elevation; although, I must admit, I opted for a red-soled wedge espadrille, rather than a skyscraper, spindly heel.

And, of course, they have accessorised most - for that, read every - outfit in my wardrobe. Louboutins quite simply go with everything.

Part of a Louboutin shoe's appeal is its instantly recognisable sexy red sole, which came about after Louboutin used to paint the soles of his early designs with nail varnish to give them an extra edge.

While working on a prototype in his studio in the early stages of his career, Louboutin was inspired by a work of pop art, and searched for a way to match the shoe to a colourful sketch.

"But something was missing," Louboutin has said. "Thank God I had this girl with me who was painting her nails. Grabbed her nail polish - thank you to Chanel for that! I grabbed the nail polish and I painted the sole. I did not really choose the red sole. It's more like the red sole came to me and had to stay with me. It started as a happy accident, which I kept. I was very inspired by pop art so all my drawings were really full of colors. It didn't take me long to learn from my customers that the red soles were very popular with men. This red sole was a bit of a green light."

Indeed it has been a green light to many a woman's purchase in Christian Louboutin's appropriately red-soled boutiques around the world.

A woman can never have enough shoes, because, after all, "A woman carries her clothes, but it's a shoe which carries a woman."

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Icons of Style

Every day I read the international fashion press, and it seems to me that no sooner do we have a new celebrity in vogue, than we also simultaneously find ourselves with a new "style icon".

If you agree that by definition an icon is a sign or representation that stands for its object by virtue of a resemblance or analogy to it, then how is it possible that we find the latest reality TV star, who - and yes it is a cliché, but yes it is true - doesn't know the difference between a kitten heel and a stiletto, in the same sentence as the words "chic", "modish", "elegant"...?

True class and voguish sense are not an automatic side effect of temporary celebrity. They are the natural instincts of women whose style has endured and inspired, even when their era has passed. Perennially chic and effortlessly glamorous, these women's wardrobes go beyond the trends of the day; their dash and daring is original and homemade, not copied from the pages of a magazine. Their sophistication is innate.

My all-time favourite arbiters of style include:

Audrey Hepburn
Carmen Dell’Orefice
Cate Blanchett
Comtesse Jacqueline de Ribes
Charlotte Rampling
Daphne Guinness
Diane von Furstenberg
Diana Vreeland
Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel
Isabella Blow
Julia Restoin-Roitfeld
Kate Moss
L'Wren Scott
Lady Thatcher
Loulou de la Falaise
Marella Agnelli
Michelle Obama
Nancy Cunard
Princess Caroline of Hanover
Queen Elizabeth I
Sofia Coppola be continued

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Bag Lady

Yesterday I had the misfortune to find myself locked out of my apartment...distracted by the prospect of purchasing a very cute navy blue mini-sailor dress I had discovered in a local boutique, I had run out of the house without my keys, grabbing only my mobile, handbag, and iPod on the way out.

A locksmith thankfully managed to open my front door in a couple of seconds, but in the temporary panic prior to the great relief of being back on the right side of the door, I was forced to wonder whether I would have been able to survive the rest of the weekend with only a Chanel 2.55 bag, and the omnipresent Blackberry, for company?

A Chanel 2.55 handbag is many things: classic, perma-stylish, and most importantly, ever-chic. But a rucksack it is not. It cannot hold a change of clothes, industrial quantities of cosmetics, a varied choice of heels...let alone a silk sleeping bag, or anything else one would need to set up a fashionable camp.

Originally issued in February 1955 (hence its name "2.55") this much-loved accessory
was actually designed to hide Coco Chanel's love letters - she kept her lover's billets doux in the zippered pocket on the inside of the front flap. Her money, meanwhile, she stashed in the back outside flap.

Instantly recognisable, the Chanel 2.55 has become an iconic symbol of elegance and voguish sense, and remains one of the world’s most sought after bags - hence spurring many (poor) imitations. Like Tom Ford after her, however, who has always maintained that when you are copied by others, you know you are doing something right, Coco Chanel used to say: “I would shed tears the day no one copied me.”

The style elements that have kept this accessory at the top of the fashion charts include its famous quilting, inspired by the quilted coats worn by jockeys at the race track, horse racing being a sport Coco Chanel loved. The trademark chain, however, was an idea from the childhood she spent in a convent orphanage, where the nuns kept their keys on a chain tied around their waist. It was also a novel invention, enabling women to carry their handbag on their arm instead of in their hand, as was fashionable at the time. Coco Chanel realised that her clients might prefer to hold their Champagne coupes, nibble on canapés, and peruse their opera programmes, than hold onto their handbag.

As Coco Chanel said so succinctly: “In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.”

In order to be unforgettable, one must also always be different, which is perhaps why I always remember to dash out of the house with a 2.55 on my arm...but the keys often get left behind.