Sometimes I imagine how our views on fashion would have been different if Paul Poiret, rather than Coco Chanel, presided as the arbiter of style in the post-WWII era. The two designers were among the most influential in the beginning of the 20th century, but their approaches to couture were completely different. Chanel’s famous dictum was “Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.” Poiret, on the other hand, loved fantasy and opulence, introducing elaborate gowns, harem pants and lampshade tunics. He was inspired by the Arabian Night Tales, Persian paintings, Greek art, and the Japanese kimono. He also loved perfume and was the first designer to launch a fragrance collection.
Poiret was born in 1879, the son of a cloth merchant in Paris’s working-class neighborhood of Les Halles. As he wrote in his 1931 autobiography, The King of Fashion, even as a child, he had been fascinated by shapes and colors, and he collected unwanted silk scraps to make dresses for his sister’s doll, turning her into “a smart Parisienne one moment or a Chinese empress the next.” After successfully selling his etudes to the couturière Madeleine Chéruit, Poiret continued his career in fashion by working with prominent designers of the era like Jacques Doucet and the House of Worth. It was just a matter of time before he opened his own boutique.