Schulenberg’s Page: Face to Face with the “King of 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!

September, 1976: on the ninth of the month, Chairman Mao Zedong (Tse-Tung), the head of the Chinese Communist Party, died of a heart attack at the age of 82.

His death left an immediate power vacuum in China with many factions vying for leadership. Years later most of his policies concerning traditional Chinese culture have been disavowed by his followers but officially he is admired by top Communist officials as the savior of the nation!

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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