Assessing Paul Poiret, the Latest Heritage House Poised for Revival

Sometime in the 1920s, Paul Poiret had a chance encounter with Coco Chanel. Dressed in black, she was svelte and sobering, even as the rest of Parisian high society was recovering from the war that ended the Belle Époque. “For whom, Mademoiselle, do you mourn?” he asked, eyes dropping to the floor. She deflected his gaze and said, with brutal brevity, “For you, Monsieur.”

Poiret had returned from military service to find his company teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, while his customers and business partners had gravitated elsewhere, probably joining the fast-spinning furor of Chanel’s and Jean Patou’s inner orbit. The thundering excess and exuberance that roared through his palatial home, which played host to his infamous parties, had suddenly surrendered to the cold hard truth: his time was over. Poiret spent the rest of his life taking up odd jobs, once bartending to make ends meet, and died in German-occupied Paris in 1944. In an eerie symmetry, one could argue that Paris is still seized by an unrelenting German force. Karl Lagerfeld has been leading Chanel since 1983 as its artistic autocrat, creative commander-in-chief.

There are, however, plans to bring Poiret back from oblivion — even if it is almost a decade since Poiret was the theme of the Costume Institute’s fashion exhibit. (Read about it in our interview with curator Harold Koda.) It was announced last week that Luvanis, an investment company based in Luxembourg that specializes in the trade of dormant luxury brands, will initiate an online auction to sell Poiret trademarks and archives across a globe. “Interested parties are invited to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement,” the Poiret website instructs, and to “provide details of your organization, or, if you are a private buyer, a brief background of your business interests, notably in luxury.” Arnaud de Lummen, director of Luvanis, has impressive experience with the trade of heritage brands. He helped revive Moynat, one of France’s oldest trunk-makers, as well as Vionnet, whose founder, Madeleine Vionnet, studied under Jacques Doucet after Paul Poiret departed his employ in 1900. Poiret established his own company in 1903.

Arnaud de Lummen calls himself an “entrepreneur, a sleeping beauties reviver.” He’s right on trend. The Elsa Schiaparelli label, whose founder launched a career in fashion after seeing Poiret’s clothes for the first time in Paris, was revived in late 2012. Marco Zanini — who departed from Rochas, another French heritage label — was announced its creative director about a year later (although there are recent reports of discontent). In America, movie mogul and occasional fashion-monger Harvey Weinstein attempted to revive Halston with the help of Marios Schwab, Rachel Zoe, Tamara Mellon, and, at one point, Sarah Jessica Parker. With nearly all of them abandoning their role within two years, the revival has been an indelible failure. “I only own vintage Halston,” lamented Rachel Zoe, “because I want what he touched.” Earlier this year, though, Weinstein once again announced plans to resuscitate a dormant fashion brand. The object of his new desire? Charles James, he of this year’s Met Ball theme. “This label deserves to be a household name in the same ranks as Chanel, Dior, and Oscar de la Renta,” Weinstein stated. “We are beyond thrilled to be spearheading the revival of this brand and bringing it back to the world’s finest retailers.”

A tad ambitious. Chanel and Dior didn’t become the brands they are today by accident — it took an enormous amount of time, trust, and talent, as well as luck and money. Their names managed to stay afloat when the rest of couture’s founding club died off, but none of this growth happened easily. It’s not enough for pre-war couture houses to rely solely on their illustrious history and reputation, nor does it make sense to continue dragging nostalgia from its comfortable darkness when we live in an entirely new time and context. Chanel and Dior adapted, as did Lanvin, Nina Ricci, and Saint Laurent (sort of). If Poiret, or Charles James, are to return to fashion and demand premium real estate in the world’s finest retailers, then the rejuvenation has to find a niche and serve a point. The new Schiaparelli, which currently only produces couture, is still warming up and easing into itself — a curious mix of silliness and surrealism, artistic pastiche and parody — and deserves more time.

Poiret is comfortable in its place, sitting proudly in the footnotes of fashion history. Returning to Paris Fashion Week, however, could prove inhospitable. Poiret’s fashion is rich and textured and florid, but now we have a new range of designers to weave that dream. Dries Van Noten, for example, presents clothes heavy with surface details and colors that melt into each other. His girls travel far in every direction, touching down in locales like Morocco and India, or Woodstock circa 1969, as in his spring collection. There’s a nomadic spirit in these clothes, the kind of self-assured, self-occupied confidence that Poiret is said to have bestowed upon his women. For the excessive romantic, there’s John Galliano, who was recently announced the new creative director of Maison Martin Margiela. “Personally, my dream would have been for John Galliano to be the designer [of Paul Poiret],” Arnaud de Lummen said. It’s hard not to ponder the what-if of this revelation. Where will Poiret find itself? And, more importantly, how will it compete?

Then, of course, there’s the question of potential buyers. Vanessa Friedman, chief fashion critic of the New York Times, dismissed LVMH, Kering and Richemont as potential investors, turning her attention instead toward Asian bidders. Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH, acquired Christian Dior and Céline surreptitiously, therefore Poiret may be too available to arouse deep interest. And why bother acquiring new brands when the tycoon’s current stable of brands has plenty of room to grow? Poiret, according to reports, will likely fall into ownership by the end of the year. The new designer, whoever it is, will be responsible for leading an archeological dig of Poiret’s archive, creating something reverent but contemporary, without reducing his theatrical spirit to cheap costume trickery. We’ll be watching closely.

Luisa Casati in Paul Poiret, circa 1910

Peggy Guggenheim in Paul Poiret, photo by Man Ray, 1923

Denise and Paul Poiret in costume as Juno and Jupiter for Les Fêtes de Bacchus, 1912

Denise Poiret in Poiret’s ‘Faune’ ensemble

Silent-film star Jacqueline Logan in Paul Poiret, circa 1925

Portrait of Paul Poiret by André Derain

Dress by Paul Poiret, 1920

Dress by Paul Poiret, 1920

Lampshade dress by Paul Poiret

Paul Poiret

Dress and jacket by Paul Poiret

Denise Poiret in a double lampshade dress by Paul Poiret

Poiret’s La Perse cape (made from printed Dufy velvet), 1911

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