Thursday, May 14, 2009

Madeline Vionnet

[Returning to our survey of fashion designers. Still spinning, still knitting, blah blah blah.]

"There is something superficial and volatile about the seasonal and elusive whims of fashion which offends my sense of beauty." - Madeline Vionnet.

Something tells me, Mme. Vionnet would have gotten along fine with modern hand-knitters. She wasn't interested in changing 'fashion' every season to sell more clothing. She was interested in creating classics that would stand the test of time. She succeeded. People still copy her clothing regularly, and still look fantastic wearing it.

Born in the Loire Valley of France (our first French designer!), Mme. Vionnet went to work as a seamstress' apprentice at age eleven. From the rest of her bio, I am convinced that this act, which put her into the industry at literally the ground floor, affected not only her approach to fashion and design, but her approach to business. And let me tell you, for all that Mme. Vionnet was a kickass designer, she may have been a better businesswoman.

After working a series of gradually better jobs in the fashion industry, she opened House of Vionnet in Paris in 1912. When World War One started, she closed the house in 1914 and moved to Rome for the duration. (Exhibiting solid common sense that she showed later in her business.) Those two brief years didn't really give her a chance to dig in and change the industry forever; that came later.

Once the war was over, she was back in Paris with a couple backers, to hire some of the most famous architects and interior decorators of the day (Chanut, de Feure, Lalique) for the interior of her atelier. It became known as "The Temple of Fashion". There, Mme. Vionnet dug in and started to crank out designs that would revolutionize how clothing was made, and produced ideas that are still ripped off by fashion designers today. (Seriously. Look at this stuff. You could wear it to a cocktail party today and no one would look twice. Every year the collections contain clothing based on these ideas.)

As you can see, Mme. Vionnet was one of the hands-on designers; she didn't draw a picture and hand it off to a minion to actually make happen, like most designers work today. No. She sat at a table with a miniature, or got a full-size dressmaker's dummy, or even worked on live models. She was known as "The Queen of the Bias Cut" but I personally think of her as "The Master of Fit". Because that's what these dresses are really about. Proper fitting.





When she wasn't designing (I don't know where she found the time), Mme. Vionnet got down to business. Among other things she was the first to push for copyright and anti-copying laws, and for prosecution of the grey market knockoffs. To that end, each of her tags contained her thumb print and signature, to show that it was produced by her, in her atelier.

In the fashion history geek world, these tags are famous, and a dress with the tag intact will still sell for thousands of dollars. The top tag is for original designs; the bottom tag is for her ready-to-wear line.

Then, with her reputation established, Mme. Vionnet really got busy.
-She was the first to licence things under her name, and in 1924 allowed the production of furniture, accessories, bags, and fabrics with her name and logo on them. (In modern design houses, the bulk of their income is from these licensing deals, not the original designs. EVERYONE does this now - because Mme. Vionnet came up with the idea. Tommy Hilfiger tee shirt, anyone?)
-She was the first known fashion house to open a New York branch, in 1925. (Obviously, everyone does this now.)
-She began selling ready-to-wear in 1925, making 'one size fits all' draped styles. As with so much else, she is the first known designer to do this. She called her off-the-rack 'repeated originals'. (Again, this is where most fashion houses make money now. No one makes money off made-to-order any more. Where would they be without Mme. Vionnet to show them how to make money?)
-Her treatment of her employees was also ahead of its time, offering paid maternity leave, day care, and health care on site. She also opened a school to teach design. I believe this harks back to her own days as a seamstress' apprentice; she knew how bad that job could suck.






In 1940, with another world war approaching, and that rock-solid common sense for which she was known, Mme. Vionnet again closed her atelier, and retired, leaving a legacy of original design that would be mined for ideas for the next seventy years. And will continue to be looked to for inspiration in the future, I am sure.

If you own anything with a bias cut to it, or anything licenced with a designer's name on it, and I bet you do, ultimately, you own the work of Mme. Vionnet, goddess of cut and fit and woman of intelligence and sense. Without her I'm not sure modern fashion would exist.

ETA: Josephine Baker was a singer, dancer, and ass-kicker who liked to wear Vionnet's clothes, sometimes even to dance in. If you've never heard of her, check her out. Badass of the Week needs to do an article on her; personally I think she was one of the most kickass women of the 20th Century.

14 comments:

Louiz said...

You're right, none of those items would look out of place today. Smart designer, smart business practices. Fabulous clothes. Am enjoying this series:)

Anonymous said...

I am enjoying this too. Every day I get a new favorite designer.

Pam

Regenia said...

These make my heart flutter :D

Barbara said...

These clothes are the definition of classic. I'd kill for any one of them.

Julie, you are a font of fascinating information. The Goob's a lucky kid to have such a mom.

maaeli said...

I guess that's pretty close to the definition of timeless design...

TinkingBell said...

And if only I had the figure I would be lining up to wear them - In fact - when I was skinny I think I did...

Cindy said...

What happened to her during the war, did she survive by relocating to the US?

Roxie said...

Dayam! And she did it without a husband? My mom was wrong! A woman DOESN'T need a man to get through life!

Love, love, love your class lectures, and those pictures - oh dear Goddess!

bobbins said...

I was privileged to attend a fitting workshop by Connie Amaden Crawford (http://tinyurl.com/o577qb) and at the end she wowed us by showing the bias draping technique she learned from Vionnet's last apprentice... She took a piece of bias muslin and pinned a perfectly draped skirt using the entire square. Amazing and I felt as if I was observing history.

Thanks for letting me share - not everyone would understand geeking about this...LOL

Donna Lee said...

Gorgeous and timeless clothes. I have never been a fad follower. I like my classics. I had never heard of her and now I think I'm in love.

Leonie said...

It is amazing how timeless some of those pieces are. What a wonderful designer.

Amy Lane said...

I'm not surprised Ms. Baker would know such a woman--very cool!

Anonymous said...

Thanks. It's lovely and the first place I've found with good photographs of the clothes and after all, it's the clothes that really count, isn't it? I'm on the steering committee for the Millinery Artisan Guild, and we'll be having someone who'd worked with Vionnet speak to us next week at our annual meeting, this year in Seattle, so I was doing some research in case some of our members might be unfamiliar with her work. This is a great help, and I really enjoy your style of writing. Thanks again, Daria

Ayisha said...

Great post Julie, had no idea this woman was responsible for so much, way cool finding that out. Now I have to check out Betty Kirke's book on Vionnet, it's at my local library fortunately. I hope it's full of more information about her life as well as her work. Thanks for sharing the information on her :)