A misty blue light swirled along the tiled nave of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. It was the moment when Paul Poiret, a historic designer of Orientalist clothes that swathed the body, was being coaxed back to life.
This exotic figure, with his lavish lifestyle, who reached his zenith in the early 20th century, is being resuscitated by Yiqing Yin, a designer of Chinese origin who has been selected by the brand’s new South Korean owner, Shinsegae.
Having eagerly collected the Gazette du Bon Ton (1912-1925), with its delicate fashion drawings from Poiret’s Art Deco period, I was fascinated to see how the original designer’s flamboyant work, captured by the pens of Georges Barbier or Erté, might be revitalised. Poiret’s fashion fame included ridding women of corsets in 1906. But I was also aware of a famous drawing from the 1920s, when Poiret was running out of clients and money to stage his extravagant parties. The cruel cartoon had Coco Chanel arriving as Poiret slinked off the page.
Yiqing showed me how she had used the drape of fabrics to match her 21st-century vision of a Poiret revival based on fluidity. That meant that the clothes could be worn in different ways, with the material creating varied shapes.
“There’s such an abundance of skills and generosity of creation – and such a rich heritage with archives and stories,” said the designer, who captured some of Poiret’s sumptuous grandeur with her colours: hot pink, burnt umber, dusty blue, and patterns splashing black on a rich red. By contrast, there were some geometric lines that looked almost like piano keys.
Clothes for the modern world cannot be as lush as in Poiret’s heyday. But Yiqing’s concept of ‘slipping and sliding’ the clothes, especially at the shoulders, gives a hint of sensuality.
The thoughtful designer, who has previously given her perfume of the East to the Léonard label, is now working with Anne Chapelle, who manages the Haider Ackermann brand, among other labels. But relaunching a forgotten name is a complex issue. Should Yiqing Yin make the clothes seem more of the current moment? And is it wise to try to reboot the Poiret concept of making fabric slip across the body?
Explaining the construction of one outfit, she said, “This wrap coat is two separate pieces. The architecture comes from different rectangles. The hunched back is very characteristic, and basically I started from that major coat in Poiret’s history. I really love grand flowers, so I mixed them in the painting. Then I made it into a jacket and used the reverse side, with the raw elements, to show the accidents and hesitation of the human hand.”
All those ideas were, of course, taken from haute couture. When Poiret’s unique creations were worn by art lover Peggy Guggenheim, she would have had clothes made to measure and to her taste.
Turning this vision of the past into a collection for Autumn/Winter 2018 was fairly convincing. Anyone looking for drape and unusual colours could find something genuinely easy to wear. Even an oversize black top pulled over a long pleated white skirt, splattered with black, had an artistic glamour.
But where will Poiret go from here? Yiqing shared the questions she asks herself. “What shall we keep? What is still relevant today? What is relevant for tomorrow? What can be kept to be at the service of women – because that’s what Poiret was: in the service of women and the arts.”
“And what are the new languages to convey that,” she continued, “and to pursue this message, push boundaries, hijack different genres, challenge different conventions – because all that is what Poiret did. Today, it’s not just about liberating the female form, but also the female spirit and the mind. I want to propose a new sensuality that is not in excess; that is conscious and paradoxical.”
Let’s hope that Yiqing can answer her own, wise questions.