Let's talk about Poiret. He was very eccentric, wasn't he, and superstitious?
A lot of them were. Even Chanel was completely superstitious. She had this thing where she would wear a four-leaf clover on her chain-belt, hide it in her skirt pocket and rub it all the time. Where Poiret was truly eccentric was his constant reiteration that fashion was as good as art, which designers don't do anymore, with the exception of maybe of [Yves] Saint Laurent. Pierre Bergé has succeeded in positioning him as an artist-couturier who has a great creative gift that needed to be protected and encouraged.
Was Poiret a womanizer?
He was. But when he finally writes his autobiography ["King of Fashion"], it's after he divorced Denise, so you have to go earlier. When you read the press clippings at his most creative moment, which was the decade before WWI, you realize how central she was in his modernity. It says something about her that he was dating great beauties before he left Paris, disappeared a few months and came back with Denise, a middleclass woman who was not Parisienne, which for the French made every distinction. Poiret was a bon vivant who moved in a world of artists, theater people, as well as the Paris aristocracy…
Did you say Paristocracy?
No, but say I did! So when he comes back to Paris people are astonished because she was from the provinces. He said within three months, because of me, Denise will be the queen of Paris. That was his megalomania. But it came to pass. Back then, marriages were often primarily for political, economic or social advancement. It wasn't really about love. But for Poiret, I think it was. If he didn't have a free-spirited woman with the sort of lithe, 20th-century body that Denise had, then he wouldn't have had the ability to suggest the viability of some of his most revolutionary clothes.
What's most fascinating about Poiret, who was so far ahead of everyone before WWI, is his repudiation of his own advances when fashion finally caught up with him. Around 1920, for one brief season, he advocated the corset again. Here's the man famous for making a sort of T-shirt dress to free women from the corset, basing a collection on the corset!
He was a contrarian by nature?
Yes, and it hurt him. Because rather than refine what he had staked out as his approach to modernity, he devalued it. To be different became more important than being right. Also, until he closed his house in 1928, he would present his collections on models with slightly different builds, so that if you were a client, there would be something in every show that would be flattering to you. But by the ‘20s, you had the majority cleaving to the look a la garconne and the very diversity of his offerings made him appear out of touch.
He was asserting his authority.
Yes, he enjoyed an unflagging level of acceptance, which today would have to be supported by commerce. Toward the end, however, I think he was over-indulged by the press and in the popular consciousness as the king of fashion. When you look at it editorially, fashion had moved away from him. He was always described as “artistic,” which was like a free pass. If he hadn't, he might have had to adjust. Even though everyone said he was a bad businessman, he came up with so many marketing strategies. He was the first to do a fragrance in house, create a whole lifestyle of furniture, interiors, even food—through a cookbook—like Martha Stewart. He was the first to collaborate with artists the way Marc Jacobs does.
If he were working as a contemporary designer today, would he be as relevant?
In terms of his innovations, yes. But I don't think he would have gotten to first base with his business sense. Although it isn't as if we don't have designers today who are somewhat indifferent to commercial pressures, Poiret really didn’t seem to care. He was an extravagant hedonist, throwing lavish costume parties, starting nightclubs in the courtyard of his house. He partied with the people he dressed. Come to think of it, he might be considered the first uber-event planner.
It sounds like he was the Andy Warhol of his day.
But without the irony.
Knowing all that you know about historical designers, who are you drawn to the most?
Madeleine Vionnet and Balenciaga. Balenciaga took a traditional approach to making clothing and kept evolving it and evolving it until it became something no one had ever done before. Vionnet took the bias, which had never been deliberately exploited before, and used it in an unprecedented construction of a cut. Neither of them is as important as Chanel or Armani or Saint Laurent in determining how most of the 20th century dressed, but I think they're more interesting to me simply because they were so obsessive in their pursuit of taking textiles, essentially two-dimensional, and transforming them into three-dimensional dresses in a way that was completely new. That's what I love.
What's your personal satisfaction in doing these shows?
My particular interest is the 20th century, pre-WWII. And what's been really fun is to establish a dialog between past and present designers. [Balenciaga designer] Nicolas Ghesquière came and wanted to know all about Poiret because, as you know, Balenciaga is a sponsor. Working with Karl [Lagerfeld] was extraordinary. Andrew and I both felt that his hyperbolic vision of the vocabulary of Chanel was necessary to make the Chanel show livelier, so that the lay person would understand all those signature elements that Karl has established as the canon of Chanel style. But we had to really engage him to allow us to use his designs because he feels clothing belongs on the street, that it's deprived of an important component if it's no longer part of life.
I can see that. He does seem very involved in youthful pursuits.
He calls us the Necropolitan Museum of Art, and he's right. We're about the past, but it was really interesting to have our conversations. We'd send him presentations to keep him up-to-date so he wouldn't be surprised. Heaven forbid if he said the Chanel show was crap.
Which he would totally say.
Yes, he's very frank. Also, walking through the Madame Grès exhibition with Saint Laurent was incredible. He came twice. He visited first with Pierre Bergé, and the second time with his posse because he thought it was important for them to see it. Versace, too. Gianni didn't have an aesthetic that I really understood as I'm very much about Martin Margiela—Wabi-sabi and process, and all of that—but walking through the show with him was incredible. Or to talk to Issey Miyake about not much, then suddenly he's expounding on the Bauhaus, the industrial process and how everybody can have something with great design. And Azzedine Alaïa. Years ago, we were in his studio and he had this big piece of muslin on the table, which he rolled back in a very provocative and playful way to reveal a dress in process. It was like a meditation on fractals, a gown made of thousands of diamonds, all identical but graduated. He said he had been working on it for five years. It wasn't a dress, it was a study in analytical geometry. It still gives me goosebumps. Those moments are the high points.