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.”

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