Culture: 299 posts

Art, travel, books, history

Paul Poiret on Selecting a Signature Perfume

Who was the first fashion designer to launch a perfume? It was most certainly not Coco Chanel and her No 5. The first couturier who linked fashion and perfumery was Paul Poiret. His rise in the world of fashion happened at the turn of the 20th century. Although his success was as meteoric as his fall was swift and tragic, he left an indelible imprint on fashion and created a modern sense of couture and dressing, the very road that Chanel and other fashion designers would follow.

Poiret’s autobiography, King of Fashion: The Autobiography of Paul Poiret (V&A, London 2009) reveals him as a complex character that he was. While in its pages he can come across as pretentious and self-congratulating, his passion for art and fashion is moving. So is his openness to taking risks or even bearing opprobrium. “Do not kick up a fuss for something that is not admissible today, because  tomorrow it will be,” he writes. He knew what he was talking about it, since one of his first designs, a kimono coat elicited a vehement rejection from a Russian countess. “What a horror! When there are low fellows who run after our sledges and annoy us, we have their heads cut off, and we put them in sacks just like that,” she said. This kimono-coat was to become one of Poiret’s hits.

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Paris Autumn Walks : The Basilica of Saint Denis

If I made a map of my favorite walks in Paris, the routes would invariably lead to an old church, a cemetery, a café or a market. They would circumvent the glamorous Paris of the tourist brochures and explore the places where the ancient and the modern city coexist, where the mysteries linger, and where one can satisfy one’s hunger, literal and figurative. Paris is often associated with spring, romance and blossoming, but my Paris is autumn, fallen leaves and the light streaming through the stained glass windows.

The Basilica of Saint Denis, Basilique royale de Saint-Denis, is one of those large French Gothic churches that to a non-expert eye are hard to tell apart. Even the fact that it has only one tower instead of the usual two can get lost as one contemplates its imposing size. Yet, the space inside the basilica is so elegant with its slender windows, graceful columns and candlelight filled enfilades that I’d take a stroll here over visiting Notre-Dame. It’s worth a metro ride to Saint-Denis, a northern suburb of Paris that manages to be both bland and seedy. My Paris explorations often end up here.

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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.

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The Mirror and The City : Jafar Panahi’s Ayaneh

A little girl is waiting for her mother on a busy sidewalk in Tehran. All other first graders have already been picked up by their parents, while she, a girl with her arm in a sling, is still alone. Her quilted pink jacket hangs open; her blue school satchel is dragging on the ground. She peers at the people passing by, attempts to make a phone call and then decides that she’s going home on her own. A school mistress’s friend offers to give her a lift on his bike, but she hops off midway thinking that she has spotted her mother on the bus.

And so starts Mina’s adventure in Jafar Panahi’s film The Mirror. She gets on the wrong bus. She hears people’s stories. She’s worried about not being able to find her mom. And then suddenly, she stares straight into the camera, rips off her arm cast, her pink coat and her white headscarf and announces that she doesn’t want to play anymore. The camera swivels to show the bus full of shocked and confused film crew, with Panahi himself burying his head in his hands. We’re as shocked as they are. What’s going on?

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Fall Reading : Odyssey, Celestial Bodies and Obsessions

Autumn can be described as “golden,” “melancholy” or “rainy,” but I like the Japanese epithet of autumn as “the season for reading,” dokusho no aki. There is something particularly inviting about the image of sitting down with a book and a steaming cup of tea on a rainy day. Or I like to take a favorite book of poetry to a park and read a few stanzas as I wade through the fallen leaves. This fall, however, I’ll more likely be reading at train stations and airports as I have several trips lined up. Whatever the circumstances, I made a list of books to read. For the Bois de Jasmin fall reading list, on the other hand, I want to share the books I’ve read and enjoyed. As always, I look forward to your lists and recommendations.

Homer, The Odyssey

I’ve decided to re-read The Odyssey after I finished Mary Beard’s Civilisations: How Do We Look/The Eye of Faith. Beard observes that certain works of literature influenced our culture to such a great extent that we take it for granted. Two of the most important books in the history of Western literature, as well as the oldest, are Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey. I’ve selected The Odyssey, because it was my favorite when I was a student, and the copy we had at home was a French translation by Leconte Lisle circa 1860’s. It’s a translation in prose, but I found it beautiful and suspenseful.

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