Artists & Perfumers: 83 posts

Articles about perfumers, artists and other interesting personalities. Also, please see Interviews.

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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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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Leonard Foujita : The Japanese Star of 1920s Paris

In the summer of 1913, an artist arrived in Paris. He was 27 and discovering the city of lights had been his obsession since he was a child in Meiji-era Japan. Foujita Tsuguharu was from a well-off family, the son of a general in Japan’s imperial army and a graduate of the prestigious School of Fine Arts in Tokyo, but he arrived in the French capital as a complete unknown. His goal was to learn, paint and be inspired by the city.

He moved into a studio in Montparnasse and soon met artists like Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, Chaim Soutine, Fernand Léger, and Pablo Picasso. He worked as a copyist at the Louvre, took dance lessons from Isadora Duncan and staged exhibitions with other painters. In Japanese, Foujita meant “a wisteria field,” but in the Montparnasse circle he soon became known as Fou-Fou, Mad to the power of two. Foujita didn’t mind. He welcomed the notoriety by cultivating a flamboyant image complete with a bowl cut, earrings and a lampshade as a headdress. He added Léonard to his name for a French inflection and as a tribute to Leonardo da Vinci. In the Paris of the Roaring Twenties, he was a star and a natural, more successful than either Picasso or Matisse.

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Monsieur de Givenchy : Cinema, Fashion, and Perfume

The great couturier Hubert de Givenchy passed away at the age of 91 on March 12th. It’s fitting that in remembering him every obituary mentions his collaboration with Audrey Hepburn. It was thanks to her that he found fame, recognition, and a chance to design the wardrobes of Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Princess Grace of Monaco. Today we take for granted celebrity endorsements, but in the 1950s it was novel. Yet, the collaboration between Givenchy and Hepburn was different from today’s business ventures between Hollywood stars and designers. The duo inspired each other, serving as each other’s muses. Givenchy’s clean, elegant lines and innovative techniques left a lasting imprint on fashion.

Hepburn contacted Givenchy to design her clothes for Sabrina (1954). Givenchy was in his 20s, running his first boutique on Plaine Monceau in Paris, having previously trained with Elsa Schiaparelli. Givenchy had an impressive career working for Christian Dior, Jacques Fath, Lucien Lelong, Pierre Balmain and Robert Piguet, but he was unknown. Hepburn felt that his designs would be perfect for a young woman who returns from a sojourn in Paris. The Hague exhibit told the story of Givenchy initially refusing the offer. As he told at the interview recorded for the museum, “I was busy preparing my next collection so I told her I wouldn’t be able to do it, but she was very persistent. She invited me to dinner, which was unusual for a woman to do back then, and it was at dinner that I realized she was an angel.”

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