Paul Poiret : The King of Fashion, the Sultan of Perfume

Sometimes I imagine how our views on fashion would have been different if Paul Poiret, rather than Coco Chanel, presided as the arbiter of style in the post-WWII era. The two designers were among the most influential in the beginning of the 20th century, but their approaches to couture were completely different. Chanel’s famous dictum was “Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.” Poiret, on the other hand, loved fantasy and opulence, introducing elaborate gowns, harem pants and lampshade tunics. He was inspired by the Arabian Night Tales, Persian paintings, Greek art, and the Japanese kimono. He also loved perfume and was the first designer to launch a fragrance collection.

Poiret was born in 1879, the son of a cloth merchant in Paris’s working-class neighborhood of Les Halles. As he wrote in his 1931 autobiography, The King of Fashion, even as a child, he had been fascinated by shapes and colors, and he collected unwanted silk scraps to make dresses for his sister’s doll, turning her into “a smart Parisienne one moment or a Chinese empress the next.” After successfully selling his etudes to the couturière Madeleine Chéruit, Poiret continued his career in fashion by working with prominent designers of the era like Jacques Doucet and the House of Worth. It was just a matter of time before he opened his own boutique.

The more flamboyant aspects of Poiret’s style may obscure today his revolutionary effect on fashion. He made it modern. In his hands, shapes and constructions changed radically, and some of his trademark garments like capes and kimono jackets wouldn’t be out of place in the workshops of Belgian designers. He changed the standards of dressing. He showed that fashion wasn’t a set of rules to follow, but an invitation to a dream.

It was not only fashion that Poiret saw as a way to create a fantasy. Since he was a child, he was fascinated by scents and even tried making his own blends. In 1911, Poiret launched a perfume house, Parfums de Rosine*, named after his daughter. As he explained in a 1922 interview, “To begin with, I have had a very definite purpose as parfumeur… I have tried to create a new aesthetic with my perfumes, as with my clothes, to teach a new way of perceiving odors and scents in general, a new technique in smelling.”

Poiret’s fragrances were as exuberant as his couture.  To mark the launch of his perfume house, Poiret threw a party called La Mille et Deuxième Nuit, the thousand and second night. Dressed in the bejeweled outfit of a sultan, he gave each guest a bottle of perfume. No wonder the couturier became known in Paris as Le Magnifique, after Suleiman the Magnificent.

Ever since I’ve smelled Poiret’s perfumes at the perfume conservatory in Versailles, the Osmothèque, I’ve admired Le Fruit Défendu, a gourmand rose lavishly garnished with banana and vanilla cream, but it was a luscious peach chypre, Nuit de Chine, that stole my heart. It captured all of the verve and drama of Poiret’s style.

To pay homage to Poiret, I headed to the Montmartre Cemetery in Paris. Just as the rise of Poiret was meteoric, so was his fall. Poiret couldn’t adjust to the changing, much harsher, times. As the innocence of the Belle Époque perished in the blood-splattered trenches of Verdun and Ypres, Poiret’s fashions lost their relevance. The house of Poiret closed its doors in 1929, and the designer died impoverished in 1944. The modest mausoleum at the Montmartre Cemetery didn’t suggest that it was a resting place of a famous couturier, whose influence on the world of fashion of the 20th century was likened to that of Picasso. Fame is transient as a whiff of a beautiful scent.

Yet, as proof that nothing disappears without a trace, the Poiret story has a new twist.  The house was relaunched in January of this year under the artistic creation of a Chinese-born designer Yiqing Yin. On the catwalk in March 2018, she showed kimono coats and billowing capes, taking a page from the Belle Époque shapes. Yin’s choice of sumptuous fabrics in jewel tones likewise referenced Poiret, but her execution was modern and her tribute subtle enough for her own personality as a designer to stand out. It remains to be seen how the house will evolve and whether it can regain its fame. For my part, I’d love to see a return of Nuit de Chine.

Images via wiki-images, Paul Poiret and his fashions. The photograph of Paul Poiret’s mausoleum is by Bois de Jasmin.

*Les Parfums de Rosine exists today, but it shares only the name in common with Poiret’s creation.

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25 Comments

  • maja: Such a wonderful article. I had never heard of him until now. So thank you!
    I’ve always been fascinated by the possibilities of the roads not taken both personally and history-wise. Opulence, generosity, Persian paintings, La Mille et Deuxième Nuit, sounds like a perfect dream and lifestyle in between two big wars. Will definitely look for his biography. October 8, 2018 at 8:44am Reply

    • Victoria: He seems like such a character, and reading his bio, I was sometimes bemused, but mostly touched. He really loved his metier and he derived inspiration from so many sources. It’s a quick, pleasant read, so definitely worth checking it out.

      If anyone wants to read it in French, the title is En habillant l’époque. October 8, 2018 at 12:05pm Reply

  • Heidi Czerwiec: Nuit de Chine was a peach chypre? How does it compare/contrast with Mitsouko? October 8, 2018 at 9:12am Reply

    • Victoria: It does have similar notes, but no, it doesn’t really smell like it. Nuit de Chine was spicier, heavier, darker, almost more of an oriental than a chypre. But it did use peach notes. October 8, 2018 at 12:06pm Reply

  • Daisy: So very interesting. It does leave you thinking about what if…. October 8, 2018 at 10:12am Reply

    • Victoria: It does, doesn’t it? October 8, 2018 at 12:06pm Reply

  • Debi Sen Gupta: Lovely piece of history. He may have become irrelevant during his time but left his mark on history. October 8, 2018 at 11:32am Reply

    • Victoria: He definitely left a big mark, and it’s fascinating to consider how many innovations, shapes, techniques that we take for granted today were pioneered by Poiret. October 8, 2018 at 12:09pm Reply

  • Brenda: This story is a fascinating one…second only to the intriguing photographs. Whenever I learn of a fall from grace, such as this one…it tends to haunt me for some time. I get lost in wondering about how hard that person might of fought to stay afloat, who helped and who didn’t, what was in their control and what, simply, wasn’t. Poiret’s last fifteen years may have been sad and disappointing ones…but, perhaps they were dotted with memories when he had been able to see his dreams and
    imaginings come true. It’s utterly fascinating to me that part of his creativity was creating a fragrance! Trailblazing…I so enjoyed this article…Thank you. October 8, 2018 at 11:41am Reply

    • Victoria: You’re onto something, because when he wrote his biography in 1930, he was already past the peak of his fame (although not quite completely destitute and forgotten yet). Reading it, I felt that he was indeed remembering the highlights and reliving the memorable moments of his career. October 8, 2018 at 12:11pm Reply

      • Victoria: And this might tell you something about his character. When he received the advance for his book, he immediately invited his friends to a lavish dinner and spent nearly all of his earnings on it. October 8, 2018 at 12:12pm Reply

  • Ariadne: Love this post and will make Poiret’s autobio my very next read. Just finished Loulou & Yves. Heartily recommended reading. Documents a complementary collaboration in the couture world that was also reflected in a perfume. October 8, 2018 at 2:08pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, I’ll definitely take a look. October 10, 2018 at 1:16pm Reply

  • Aurora: From your description, he must have been a larger than life character. How sad it is that so little is left of his legacy, I would love it too if his perfumes were made available again. October 8, 2018 at 3:18pm Reply

    • Victoria: If you’re in Paris and near the Montmartre Cemetery, do stop by and take a look at his mausoleum. In fact, it’s close to the grave of Marie Duplessis, La Dame Aux Camellias. October 10, 2018 at 1:18pm Reply

  • gunmetal24: I am fascinated to read about resurrected fashion houses. Thanks for bringing us something new to learn about 😊 October 8, 2018 at 4:28pm Reply

  • Alicia: What an article! Beautiful and touching. Paul Poiret will not be forgotten. In 2005 the Metro-
    politan Museum of Art in NY bought what was
    left of his estate, and two years later presented an extraordinary exhibit of his works. It seems to me that he was a great romantic, not in his aesthetics (after all he is the designer who uncorseted women, not Chanel) but in the dreams and fantasies of his soul. It was the time of the Ballets Russes, Bakst, Erté, Dufy. He designed and made the costumes for the ballet Scherezade. Then came the great debacle that was going to change all the arts: the First World War. The Romantic soul, whatever was left of it in Europe, didn’t survive it. By the time of WWII
    his fortune was crushed. Not his dignity. He didn’t smile to the invaders. How I hope that he survived to see the liberation of his city that August of 1944, the year of his death. No, he will not be forgotten because ” while Poiret may have been fashion’s last great Orientalist, he was also its first great modernist.” (Harold Koda,The Costume Institute, The MetroPolitan Museum of Art).
    All the best, Yiqing Yin. Thank you, Victoria. October 8, 2018 at 4:35pm Reply

    • Victoria: The end of his life was sad, but his spirit lives on in his clothes, designs and even the imprint he left on fashion as business. I’m curious to see what happens to the house next. October 10, 2018 at 1:20pm Reply

  • Ariane: The Metropolitan Museum had a memorable exhibition about Poiret in 2007. There was a catalogue that may still be available. I remember how colorful and imaginative his clothes were! October 8, 2018 at 5:26pm Reply

    • Victoria: I also have a book that accompanied that exhibit. October 10, 2018 at 1:20pm Reply

  • annemariec: Lovely piece, thank you! I prefer simplicity to ornamentation and I remain attached to Coco Chanel’s aesthetic (not to her as a person; if I could meet her I doubt I would like her). But we need both don’t we – simplicity and ornamentation, practicality and fantasy. Each illuminates and builds on the other. October 9, 2018 at 5:08am Reply

    • Victoria: I enjoy both, depending on my mood. I have to say that Poiret also had some brilliantly simple and refined designs. I’d happily wear his kimono-inspired coat today. October 10, 2018 at 1:21pm Reply

  • Qwendy: So nice to see your piece on one of the designers in my Pantheon …. never enough said about or shown of his work, still not enough people know him as the Genius he was. Chanel (they were bitter rivals) had an uncanny knack for sensing what was coming and was feisty and shrewd, but Poiret was a Visionary in so many ways.

    The gorgeous book that accompanied the show at the Met is easily had in the US for twenty bucks and there are a bunch of very interesting things to read, of course the autobiography in English King of Fashion.

    I was unaware that his name had been bought, too bad they have not decided to actually redo his several still perfectly modern pieces and/or also use some of his most inventive details and concepts. I found the clothes unworthy of the name, too bad.

    Look up the Villa Paul Poiret to see how ahead of his time he was …. Someday I will make the pilgrimage to it, so glad you visited his grave, V, I had no idea he was there! I have always wanted to smell his perfumes at the Osmoteque too …. you lucky duck! Xxx October 11, 2018 at 9:29am Reply

    • Victoria: Many of his clothes indeed look remarkably modern! October 15, 2018 at 9:08am Reply

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