An Eye for Fashion

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The Thousand and Second Night Ball (1911), a decadent Persian-themed party thrown by designer Paul Poiret. If guests arrived out of costume they were given a costume to wear!

Monday, April 24, 2023. A quiet Sunday in New York with mostly Sun, but lots of cumulous clouds in the distance, passing through or stopping to gray the skies and make way for some rain. I’m looking for some warm Sun in Manhattan. It’s beautiful at this moment with buds blooming and trees fresh with brand new leaves waving in the passing breezes.

I’ve been thinking about my friend Schulenberg whom I haven’t seen in 20 years, and haven’t spoken to in more than five or 10. He lives in Fresno, California and he’s come to the seniority of not being inclined to travel much. I’m coming to that seniority myself although I’ve never been inclined to travel.

However, I sit at a desk with 18 (I just counted them for the first time since I put them up years ago) framed drawings, a few photographs, and several of Bob’s portraits or sketches. I first met him in the mid-’60s. I was an aspiring actor who needed some photos to leave with agents, etc., and Philip Carlson, another actor friend of mine, told me about Bob whom he described as an illustrator who does do photographs.

Bob’s portrait of … you guessed it … DPC as a Cary Grant-type (uhuh)! Bob used all of the techniques and lighting that fascinated him in the late 1930s when he was a kid growing up in Los Angeles and profoundly affected by the film industry and its world. 

I can still remember our meeting. He came to my apartment where I was living with my wife Sheila. I was nervous about having my picture taken. I was never impressed with my looks, to put it honestly. I always see the geek in me. However, on the day Schulenberg came by, I’d got this far — a photographer with camera in my living room.

In retrospect, there was little reason for me to be concerned about cameras and poseurs. Because Bob is a naturally effusive fellow, quite friendly by nature, and quite observant (down to the smallest detail). He sees everything. He notes the details, and his knowledge in general is vast. And I am always amazed.

And there’s the sketchbook — thousands of pages; some of which we’ve published here on the NYSD. He always had the sketchbook under his left arm wherever he went. Furthermore, when he arrived at his destination, he would inevitably open up the sketchbook and begin sketching his environment and/or the person or people he was in the room with.

I tell you that detail because he was/is a man of indefatigable energy and industry and CONVERSATION. His frequent sketching his environment was/is training himself to focus not on the sketch/portrait but on what he was seeing to recreate on paper or canvas. Same with the telephone; it’s simply a device for conversation and dipping into Schulenberg’s eye for things.

Bob in his Hollywood Hills, CA home, decades after our first meeting. Photograph by Bob Stone.

Over the years he and I have had long conversations of an hour or more, because there’s so much to learn from that eye and mind of his. An hour isn’t long for Bob. Plus he’s naturally very good natured and patient with people. It’s all the artist at work. 

Bob out on the terrace of Barbra’s first NYC apartment on Third Avenue.

He once told me the longest phone conversation he ever had was with Barbra Streisand back when she was an aspiring actress then unknown but about to take off for the moon: nine hours on the phone. Two indefatigables. All kinds of ideas and thoughts about Barbra was surely passed on by the man.

I’m telling you all this because over the weekend, researching something in our archives, I found this Diary he’d written about Paul Poiret, the French fashion designer of the early 20th century Paris. According to Schulenberg, Poiret was It: the fashion designer of his age. The piece explains this and why — how it was affected by the time and the politics of the time.

He also reflects on the nature of fashion; how and even why it changes — because like everything else in our daily lives, we’re experiencing right now the changing fashions, the looks, the sensibility, and the mores. And it’s all reflected, even predicted, in fashion design.

September, 1976. Meanwhile, in Manhattan, the Fashion Institute of Technology was displaying an exhibition of the work of French couturier, Paul Poiret, the self proclaimed “King of Fashion,” and indeed, during the early 20th century he virtually was!

Paul Poiret (1879–1944).

Before Poiret, women’s bodies were constrained and formed by constricting undergarments.

Poiret, inspired and influenced by a wave of Orientalism designed clothing that did away with all that.

Paul Poiret, 1912, by George Barbier.

When the flamboyant impresario Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes hit Paris with the exotic ballet Scheherazade, the die was cast and the deed was done!

Sergei Diaghilev.

Orientalism had reached its apogee and it influenced everything!

Especially Poiret!

Costume design for the Blue Sultan in Scheherazade, c.1910. Illustration: Leon Bakst.

Poiret  was a masterful marketing genius and was the first couturier to branch out into home decorating with the École Martine, an experimental art school for young working class women who went on guided excursions to parks and zoos where they drew plants and animals.

Poiret bought the best of these drawings and had them adapted into designs for use by Atelier Martine to be used for fabrics and wallpapers.

Eventually the designs were expanded and used for carpets, glassware, ceramics and lighting and other items for home decorations.

Interior of one of the boats decorated by Paul Poiret in the Seine, during the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs, Paris 1925. Photo: Hollandse Hoogte / Rogier Viollet, Paris
Credit: Gemeente Museum Den Haag

Originally, Poiret apprenticed to an umbrella manufacturer.

There was even an interior design service and everything was sold at La Maison Martine, which was located at 107, rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré until 1924 when it relocated to 1, Rond-Point des Champs Élysées.

Branches were opened throughout Europe and department stores in the US  and Germany sold Martine merchandise.

Poiret was also the first designer to include perfumes. He initiated Rosine, named for his young daughter, by inviting Paris society to an elaborate party he called The Thousand and Second Night. Everyone was requested to come in fantastic “Persian” costumes and if they arrived out of costume they were given a costume to wear!

Rosine and her mother. Sadly, Rosine died young of an ear infection.

Poiret’s wife Denise was elaborately dressed as a concubine and reclined in a golden cage until, with a gold key, her husband released her.

This silhouette was adapted to evening wear.

Poiret also invented the hobble skirt, which was so narrow at the hem that the wearer could only take small, mincing steps.  This was ironic that he had liberated women from constricting corsets only to limit their ability to move!

After the horrors of the First World War the fantasies of Paul Poiret seemed inappropriate and he appeared to lose his intuitive sense of what was the current zeitgeist!

In October, 1926 Vogue published an illustration of a dress by Gabrielle Chanel.

It was a simple black crêpe de Chine and was something of a surprise since black was traditionally seen only for mourning clothes.  But the magazine raved about it citing Henry Ford’s comment about the popular model T car:

You can have it in any color as long as it’s black!” They declared that every closet should house a “Chanel Ford”!  The Little Black Dress known as LBD was born.

 The style caught the public’s imagination.  It was young, streamlined and very modern — everything that symbolized the 1920s!

Poiret sold his business in 1929 and was seemingly forgotten.  He died virtually penniless in 1944 and couturière Elsa Schiaparelli paid for his burial.

So I invited Ric Mendez to come with me to FIT to see the Poiret exhibit.  Since we were going to participate with the new 801 Madison boutique we might expand our own ideas … and hope to not become penniless!

At the show we became acquainted with Margaret Bucknall, an English woman who introduced herself as a writer.  Afterwards we invited her to join us for coffee at a donut shop.  Margaret had also spent some time in Paris but had never specified for how long a time but she was amiable and full of conversation.

A few days later, Steven Lirakis was in Manhattan from Newport, Rhode Island. He had married my close friend, Bernadette Sabatier, someone I’d known since she was a young teenager in Paris.

I’d been a friend of her older brother and when she first came to the US she stayed with me. She decided she was going to hitchhike the East Coast and see the Real America! I had my doubts and she requested I not tell her brother. After a while (and some exciting experiences) she ended up in Newport, R.I. where she’d gotten a job as a waitress.

“Don’t tell my brother!”

Her brother Bernard was a very proper sophisticated Parisian designer who’d bought a restaurant as a sideline. He was so discreet that even when paged for a phone call at the Cafe Flore in Saint Germain-des-Près he used a pseudonym, Rabatier! I think he thought it was vulgar to have one’s name announced publicly!

The news from Bernadette in Newport accelerated. She said that she was seeing a young man who worked in a boatyard.

“Don’t tell my brother!”

It continued. She told me that he only had one pair of khakis and jeans.

“Don’t tell my brother!”

And finally he invited her to come with him to Manhattan where his mother had moved to meet her. As it turned out she lived in a beautiful duplex on Park Avenue. They ultimately married in Paris in a proper ceremony with a second celebration in Bagneres de Bigorre, the Pyrénées town where the Sabatiers had a country house.

Steven’s Boston grandmother even attended with her driver!

On Lexington Avenue on the Upper East Side there was Minimundus, a wonderful shop that sold nothing but miniatures — dollhouses, furniture, furnishings, everything for the miniaturist or collector.

I have always loved miniatures and so did my father and grandfather.

My grandfather had been in the oil business with E. L. Doheny at Elk Hills, California and he built me a miniature oil derrick. He also wore a gold watch chain that was decorated with tiny working tools!

They fascinated me!

My father once built a miniature house with studs and a stucco exterior, but it unfortunately wasn’t a dollhouse because it couldn’t be opened up to put anything inside! It was just a model of a house.

There are amazing miniaturists working today. I’ve become hypnotized looking at photos of their work on Instagram. There are some that appear to be so realistically life sized that even when it’s explained to be a miniature it’s difficult to believe that it’s not an existing real room or landscape!

Chris Toledo of Los Angeles is only one of these miniature masters!

With my professional illustration obligations and then the ensuing design projects that were starting, I was having a very full schedule or I would have loved to try my own hand at miniature-making.

Possibly in my next lifetime!

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