In the wake of the recent departures of Alexander Wang, Raf Simons and Alber Elbaz from their positions at some of the most famous fashion houses, I want to explore this trend of designers abruptly deciding to quit fashion, or at least their current role in fashion, by going back to the first half of the 20th century, when one of the most talented fashion designer of the time made news for her sudden retirement.
Madeleine Vionnet was 63 when, in 1939, at the outbreak of the World War II, she decided to close her fashion house.
For 27 years she had developed many creative and commercial strategies that today still rule the fashion system.
For all her life she tried to become the “doctor of silhouette”, working every single day.
Starting from three essential elements of geometry, circle, square and rectangle, she combined the rational primordial geometric concepts with poetical instincts.
An extraordinary approach, which deeply influenced the future of patternmaking in fashion.
So why did she decide to abruptly leave fashion?
“I used to have 1200 workers. I think I had one of the most important Couture Houses between 1929 and 1930.
I decided to shut it down in 1939 as a result of a difficult economic situation and because I felt I had told everything I could.
I didn’t regret anything. I’ve never blamed myself for my employers or for anything else.
I’m not jealous nor envious, nothing bothers me in my life. When it’s time, I’ll pay my dues.”
Those are the words of one of the best couturier in the world: Madeleine Vionnet.
The answer is an extract of the imaginary interview of Pamela Golbin to Vionnet herself, and her words make clear enough how determined and smart this woman was.
How did she achieve so much success? How did her work become so relevant, avant-garde and inspiring?
The best way to know is to make herself answer these questions.
She once invited in her atelier a journalist, André Beucler, who was asked to write a report about her life and her work.
It was May 29th 1930 and Beucler wrote the article about Vionnet, but unfortunately it was been published. Some extracts had been saved, making a real interview with Vionnet possible.
“We have an addiction for terminologies.
The word Chic for example. It was fashionable too. And now it’s out of fashion.
We have created the word and the garment. What’s the real meaning? Elegance, grace, proportions everything at once. We progress.
The garment is an independent phenomenon and the woman can be naked underneath her dress, when the dress is beautiful. She’s going to be chic anyway.
I hate how the press and the snobs consider fashion. For me the idea of a dress is mental, produced by the sensibleness and by dreams. At the end, after a lot of searching, I finally have the dress in my hands.
I think about it so intensely that I lose my sleep. It’s not easy. A dress should touch the body, following it through its movements, without forcing it.
My clothes come without fastening, corsets, lining and substructures.
I had to search for shapes, which had not been created before. And in order to change, I spend my time trying to adapt my formula, which I developed in the same time I started my job as a couturier: working with three directions of fabric, lengthwise, crosswise and bias.
The bias is the best way a fabric should be cut and it’s the elasticity, if applied in the right manner, that enables the dress to express the body of a woman. This is what we do here.
Did you know that we are making women able to be free from undergarments, bodice and structures, imposed by fake couturiers? Directions of fabrics, bias-cut, lenght-wise on one hand. Focused research, cuts, proportions, balance on the other. Voilà! I’m objecting the words of fashion that doesn’t make sense for a real couturier.”
Vionnet was considered the “architect among dressmaker”.
She was trained in London with Kate Reilly, supplier of the British Royal Family.
Then she returned to France, working for Callot Soeurs and later Jacques Doucet. She opened her atelier in 1912 with a precise idea in mind.
Making a difference in fashion.
“Women should be rational. They should know what they want.
On a flight they have only 15 kilos allowed….gowns, yes gowns for the night. Long dresses suggest width, and width tends to hide. It’s the opposite reaction that can be produced by a tight dress. It’s not more about a production of meaningless Parisiennes, it’s a new way of dressing the body.
Fashion should always be natural and in good faith. While doing his job, a couturier has in front of him the fabric and a woman, and with those two he has to produce something harmonious.
Since these last years, we’ve always thought women’s body as disgraceful object, whose shapes had to be hidden. As of fabrics, we treated them as children, incapable of taking care of themselves.
I wanted to advocate the rehab of those two innocents and show that a fabric, which falls freely on a body without cuirass, could always be considered an harmonious miracle. “
She was a couturier, whose intentions were to make dresses for human beings, not for dreamed models.
She criticized her colleagues.
Chanel was a simple milliner, who erased the real silhouette of the body, a stylist for women.
On the other hand Poiret was the superstar of the parade, an embellisher for theater’s costumes and the father of modern marketing .
Vionnet was the purist instead, the creator of a sublime, contemporary, functional silhouette.
“My first dresses produced a scandal.
In 1906 the models used to wear black underwear, which made them look like hotels mouse. My first revolutionary act was to ask for the suppression of those ridiculous under-garments and to show the dresses as we do nowadays.
The first model, while descending the stairs with a deep neckline dress, caused a scandal. I remember that as if it was yesterday, the murmur mixed with the indignations for the surprise. The old dames and the old vendeuses were shocked.
There was so much difference between my dresses and the others that someone started wondering if my creations were a joke.
While my models were wearing my ideas, showing them to the audience, one vendeuse thanked her politely and turned herself towards her client and said:”About this one, we’re not going to talk about it!”.
M. Doucet suggested me to remove some dresses from the collection. I decided to show my creations to my friends, trying to be reassured.
I told them to say the truth, because I trusted them. They loved the collection and I was sure I didn’t make a mistake. Today I’m glad I didn’t quit. When I definitely quit Doucet atelier, I was feeling to pretend more.
The joy to establish myself, to run my couture house as I wanted, the desire to create my garments and to show them, without being forced to fight, night and day, came as a result. “
Plagiarism was another war that Vionnet fought with all her powers.
Due to her huge success and high profile, she was a great target for copyists, especially from the US, where her creations were exported.
She didn’t become a victim and Vionnet tackled the problem with her usual efficiency and determination. She believed that “Copying is like stealing”, and selling as one’s own work the efforts of others was immoral.
“I don’t like the injustice. People who produces copied fashion in order to become rich, avoiding any efforts, can be considered thieves.”
She started her campaign against the copyists in 1921 with the creation of The Association for the Defense of Fine and Applied Arts.
“The Madaleine Vionnet models are registered and published in France…She will pursue any copyright or counterfeit, even partial, made in disregard of her rights.”
She went further, photographing every creation from the front, back and sides, naming and numbering it, signing it and marking it with a fingerprint.
After closing her couture house, she decided in 1952 to exceptionally give to the Union Française des arts du costume 126 creations, 727 patterns, 69 books of her personal library and a set of documentaries, which included photos and sketches of her works at the atelier.
A special gift made by a woman who was fully aware of the cultural heritage she has produced during her life.
Madeleine Vionnet had real taste.
Taste was for her a feeling which can make the difference between something beautiful, spectacular or simply ugly.
In her case taste was innate. But not talented.
She thought about talent as a funny thing. She used to know her job. She achieved knowledge and that was her real talent. She loved and enjoyed the work, describing it as a gift, a noble joy, which gave her the freedom to create.
She dedicated 12 hours of her tireless energy every day living her life after this motto: “The art of making dresses requires time and patience.”