“I am an artist, not a dressmaker,” the acclaimed French designer Paul Poiret once claimed—and rightfully so. Known as the “King of Fashion” at the height of his popularity in the 1910s, Poiret was an avant-garde visionary. His brand was the first to employ modern marketing techniques and to expand beyond fashion into cosmetics, perfumery and interior design.
Born in Paris in 1879, Poiret sold his own dress designs as a teenager before learning the craft of couture from Jacques Doucet. At Doucet, his first piece of clothing—a voluminous red wool cloak with gray crepe de chine lining—was an instant hit, selling 400 copies, a record for the time. Poiret designed for the House of Worth for two years, but his contemporary clothes were too cutting-edge for Worth’s conservative clients. In 1903, Poiret opened his own maison de couture.
First order of business at the House of Poiret? To liberate the female body. He threw out the petticoat and the corset, designing loose-fitting draped dresses, kimono coats and other pieces inspired by the East. His wife, Denise, a quintessential garçonne, served as muse and model. She was often seen wearing the latest Poiret designs: a lampshade tunic, a hobble skirt or elaborately embroidered harem pants.
Thanks to his unconventional designs and new marketing methods (many of which are de rigueur for today’s fashion designers), business boomed. Poiret was the first designer to present his clothing in flamboyant window displays at his namesake storefront. He was also the first designer to realize the importance of celebrity, and outfitted many of Paris’ top stage actresses in his designs.
Other firsts included collaborating with leading artists and photographers, hosting lavish theme parties where guests were dressed in his designs, and taking his collections on tour, initiating the first trunk shows. Poiret commissioned Erté, George Barbier and Raoul Dufy to illustrate his designs, and hired Edward Steichen to shoot pictures of his finished gowns. The images, which were shot at artful angles and beautifully backlit, were published in the April 1911 issue of Art et Décoration. Et voilà: the world’s first modern fashion photo shoot was organized by Poiret.
In 1911 Poiret launched two new brand divisions, named for each of his daughters. At Les Perfums de Rosine, he developed perfume and cosmetics. La Maison Martine, the home, interior and textile branch of the House of Poiret, included an art school for working-class girls. At École Martine, the young women sketched animals and botanicals that were turned into innovative textiles and wallpapers.
Poiret designed entire rooms with striking prints and bold colors inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, and worked with esteemed local makers to realize his vision. For wallpapers, he turned to the French company Defossé & Karth and the designer Paul Dumas. Adolphe Chanaux made his furniture. In nearby Venice, Murano created his hand-painted glassware. His deep pile carpets were hand-knotted by École Martine students.
World War I abruptly ended Poiret’s reign. He enlisted as a military tailor, and when he returned to Pairs in 1919, the couture house he’d established was almost bankrupt. New designers like Chanel produced different types of clothing, simpler pieces that were expertly made. Unable to keep up with the times, his fashion brand floundered. Poiret did everything he could to keep afloat—including collaborating with Schumacher. In 1930, Poiret became the first designer to create a series of patterns for Schumacher. The capsule collection featured nine vibrant prints of feathers and ribbons, pineapples and banana leaves, florals and botanicals, and even antelope galloping through a majestic landscape.
Although Poiret died a pauper, his legacy remains strong today. In 2007, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Fashion Institute Gala’s theme was “Poiret: King of Fashion.” In 2018, Schumacher brought back his original designs for the brand. The wallpaper and fabric prints are surprisingly modern and fresh, illustrating that some things never go out of style. These timeless designs imbue interiors with a joie de vivre that Poiret would be proud of.