Paul Poiret

Paris, France

Legendary fashion designer, costume designer, and painter Paul Poiret was born in Paris in 1879. His father was a cloth merchant, and it was above his shop in Les Halles that the family lived. In Poiret’s youth, he was apprenticed to an umbrella maker. In 1898, the established dressmaker Madeleine Chéruit purchased a dozen of Poiret’s sketches for dress designs; that same year, he was hired by couturier Jacques Doucet. By the time he left for military service in 1900, he’d risen to head of the tailoring department. In 1901, he was hired to design practical pieces for the revered Worth fashion house. Around the same time, he began to paint portraits, landscapes, and still lifes.

In 1902, Poiret established his own highly successful fashion house, where he amassed a famous clientele. Initially based at 5 rue Auber, it moved to 37 rue Pasquier in 1906 and 9 avenue d’Antin in 1909. In 1905, he married his muse and creative partner, Denise. Poiret’s aesthetic was Neoclassical, Orientalist, romantic, and even subversive; his designs were often colorful and flamboyant. His dresses featured an Empire-style high waistline, tubular shape, and long skirt—also known as the “hobble skirt”—and he advocated the replacement of the corset with the brassiere. He was nicknamed “Le Magnifique” in Paris and the “King of Fashion” in America.

Beyond his design skills, Poiret is known as a marketing pioneer. He used the theatrical stage to reveal his more avant-garde designs and may have been the first designer to use launch parties to promote new projects. These elaborate, often costumed events took on themes like “Arabian Nights,” essentially becoming tableaux vivants. In 1911, he launched a decorative arts company called Martine (after his second daughter) and a perfumery and cosmetics company called Rosine (after his first daughter), becoming the first couturier to offer a complete lifestyle concept.

Poiret’s theatrical style was hugely influential prior to World War I, but his popularity waned after the war. During the 1920s and 1930s, he collaborated with a variety of artists and designers, at the same time facing serious financial problems. During the 1930s, he mass-marketed his designs through inexpensive collections for the Printemps stores. During his final years, he gained some additional income through the exhibition and sale of his paintings.

Poiret died in Paris in 1944.