From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The Dressmaker Madeleine Vionnet
Madeleine Vionnet (June 22, 1876 - March 2,1975) was a French fashion designer. Called the "Queen of the bias cut" and "the architect among dressmakers", Vionnet is best-known today for her elegant Grecian-style dresses and for introducing the bias cut to the fashion world.
Born into a poor family in Chilleurs-aux-Bois, Loiret, Vionnet began her apprenticeship as a seamstress at age 11. After a brief marriage at age 18, she left her husband and went to London to work as a hospital seamstress. Vionnet eventually returned to Paris and trained with the well known fashion house Callot Soeurs and later with Jacques Doucet. In 1912 she founded her own fashion house, "Vionnet". In the 1920s Vionnet created a stir by introducing the bias cut, a technique for cutting cloth diagonal to the grain of the fabric enabling it to cling to the body while moving with the wearer. Vionnet's use of the bias cut to create a sleek, flattering, body-skimming look would help revolutionize women's clothing and carry her to the top of the fashion world.
Madeleine Vionnet believed that "when a woman smiles, then her dress should smile too." Eschewing corsets, padding, stiffening, and anything that distorted the natural curves of a woman's body, her clothes were famous for accentuating the natural female form. Influenced by the modern dances of Isadora Duncan, Vionnet created designs that showed off a women's natural shape. Like Duncan, Vionnet was inspired by ancient Greek art, in which garments appear to float freely around the body rather than distort or mold its shape. As an expert couturier, Vionnet knew that textiles cut on the diagonal or bias could be draped to match the curves of a woman's body and echo its fluidity of motion. She used this "bias cut" to promote the potential for expression and motion, integrating comfort and movement as well as form into her designs.
Vionnet's apparently simple styles involved a lengthy preparation process, including cutting, draping, and pinning fabric designs on to miniature dolls, before recreating them in chiffon, silk, or Moroccan crepe on life-size models. Vionnet used materials such as crêpe de chine, gabardine, and satin to make her clothes; fabrics that were unusual in women's fashion of the 1920s and 30s. She would order fabrics two yards wider than necessary in order to accommodate draping, creating clothes - particularly dresses - that were luxurious and sensual but also simple and modern. Characteristic Vionnet styles that clung to and moved with the wearer included the handkerchief dress, cowl neck, and halter top.
An intensely private individual, Vionnet avoided public displays and mundane frivolities and often expressed a dislike for the world of fashion, stating: "Insofar as one can talk of a Vionnet school, it comes mostly from my having been an enemy of fashion. There is something superficial and volatile about the seasonal and elusive whims of fashion which offends my sense of beauty." Vionnet was not concerned with being the "designer of the moment", preferring to remain true to her own vision of female beauty.
With her bias cut clothes, Vionnet dominated haute couture in the 1930s setting trends with her sensual gowns worn by such stars as Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo. Vionnet's vision of the female form revolutionized modern clothing and the success of her unique cuts assured her reputation. She fought for copyright laws in fashion and employed what were considered revolutionary labor practices at the time - paid holidays and maternity leave, day-care, a dining hall, a resident doctor and dentist. Although the onset of World War II forced her to close her fashion house in 1939, Vionnet acted as a mentor to later designers, passing on her principles of elegance, movement, architectural form, and timeless style.
Today, Madeleine Vionnet is considered one of the most influential fashion designers of the 20th century. Both her bias cut and her urbanely sensual approach to couture remain a strong and pervasive influence on contemporary fashion as evidenced by the collections of such past and present-day designers as Halston, John Galliano, Comme des Garçons, Azzedine Alaia,Issey Miyake and Marchesa.
The House of Vionnet (from 1912 to 1914 and from 1919 to 1940)
The House of Vionnet opened in 1912 at 222, Rue de Rivoli. Madeleine Vionnet provided one-third of the financing while the remaining investment was supplied by one of her client, Germaine Lilas, Henri's Lillas' daughter, the owner of the Parisian department store Bazar de l'Hôtel de Ville (BHV). In 1914, when World War I started, Madeleine Vionnet closed the house and set off to visit Rome.
In 1919, the house reopened after the war. Mr. Martinez de Hoz, an Argentinian, joined Mr. Lillas as main shareholder of the house. During the same period, Thayaht, a futurist artist, created Vionnet's logo and started designing textiles, clothing and jewelry for the house.
In 1922, Théophile Bader, owner of the Galeries Lafayette, joined current shareholders Mr. de Hoz and Mr. Lillas in a new venture called Vionnet & Cie and became the majority shareholder. Few months later, on April 15, 1923, Vionnet's new premises opened at 50, Avenue Montaigne. The so-called "Temple of Fashion", a collaboration of architect Ferdinand Chanut, decorator George de Feure and crystal sculptor René Lalique, incorporated a spectacular Salon de Présentation and two boutiques: a fur salon and a lingerie salon. 1923 was a very active year for the house: Vionnet co-founded the first anticopyist Association (L’Association pour la Défense des Arts Plastiques et Appliqués), hosted in the House’s premises and directed Vionnet & Cie’s managing director; Vionnet introduced fingerprinted labels to authenticate models (each garment produced in Vionnet studios bears a label featuring Vionnet’s original signing and an imprint of Vionnet’s right thumb); Vionnet & Cie entered into a distribution arrangement with Charles and Ray Gutman, who own Charles & Ray Ladies’ Tailors and Importers in New York City. In November, the first collection of Vionnet clothing shown at Charles and Ray was an enormous success.
In 1924, architect and designer Boris Lacroix was appointed art director of the House. From 1924 to 1937, he designed furniture, logos, printed textiles, handbags, accessories and took part in the planning of Vionnet’s perfumes.
In the mid-twenties, the house was extremely active in the USA. In 1924, Vionnet & Cie signed an exclusive production and distribution agreement with Fifth Avenue retail store Hickson Inc. In February 1924, the Vionnet New York Salon opened at Hickson and an exclusive collection of gowns was presented. In 1925, Vionnet & Cie was the first French couture house to open a subsidiary in New York: Madeleine Vionnet Inc., located at 661 Fifth Avenue. The salon sold ‘one-size-fits-all’ designs with unfinished hems, to be adjusted to fit individual clients. Vionnet also produced ready-to-wear designs for US wholesale. Arguably the first prêt-à-porter ever made from Paris haute couture, the garments bore a label signed by Madeleine Vionnet along with “Repeated Original” as a trademark name.
During this time, in France, Vionnet opened a salon in the Grand Casino at Biarritz. in 1925, the house launched its first limited edition perfume comprising four fragrences named alphabetically: ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’ and ‘D’. The geometrical bottle was designed by Boris Lacroix while the scent was made in collaboration with the House of Coty.
In 1927, Vionnet opened a school within her House to aid the new apprentices in learning how to use the bias. In 1929, Vionnet leaded the establishment of a new anticopyist Association, the P.A.I.S organization directed by Armand Trouyet, managing director of Vionnet & Cie.
In, 1932, the House acquired a new five-storey building at 50, Avenue Montaigne housing 21 workshops along with a clinic to take care of any accidents, a dentist surgery, and a gymnasium. At such time, the house employed 1,200 seamstresses. Vionnet was one the most important Parisian fashion houses of the the thirties. When the second world war approaches, a reorganization of the House was contemplated but eventually, Vionnet decided to close her House. On August 2, 1939, Madeleine Vionnet showed her farewell collection.
In 1952, years after the closing of her house, Madeleine Vionnet donated most of her archives to the UFAC (today part of the Musée de la Mode et du Textile in Paris) including 120 dresses from 1921 to 1939.
Relaunch of the House of Vionnet (since 1995)
The Lummen years
In 1988, the Vionnet label was acquired by the Lummen family who reopened the house in 1996 at 21, Place Vendôme in the former premises of Madeleine Chéruit and Elsa Schiaparelli. The family primarily focused on accessories and the launch of new perfumes ("Madeleine Vionnet" in 1996 and "MV" in 1998).
Although the owners refused to develop ready-to-wear collections under the Vionnet name, first rumors of a fashion relaunch emerged in February 2003 when Sheikh Majed Al-Sabah, owner of Villa Moda, a Kuwaiti luxury department store, announced to the press a strategic collaboration with the house. New Vionnet collections were to be designed under the helm of Maurizio Pecoraro. In an article published in The Times, titled "Reinventing Madame Vionnet," Sheikh Majed Al-Sabah discussed extensively its plans for the relaunch. But due to the Iraq war, the relaunch did not happen then.
Eventually, in July 2006, following years of speculations, Arnaud de Lummen, CEO of the house, announced a return on the fashion scene. He promised "a unique and genuine approach to bring forward the Vionnet vision" and not a simple revival. Sophia Kokosalaki, then at the peak of her fame, was appointed Creative Director of the house. A debut clothing collection was launched for Spring/Summer 2007 - the first Vionnet clothing collection in 67 years.
The collection was unveiled in December 2006 in the US edition of Vogue (magazine). From early 2007, this first new Vionnet collection became exclusively available in the house atelier in Paris and within Barneys New York flagship stores in the USA. Sophia Kokosalaki designed one more collection for the label before to be replaced in May 2007 by Marc Audibet, in an unexpected move from the house.
Marc Audibet, appointed as artistic advisor, presented its sole and unique collection for the house in October 2007. In her review of the collection, Suzy Menkes, fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune, stated: "Audibet has deeply understood the essence of Madeleine Vionnet." However, in a new unexpected move, Marc Audibet resigned from the house who then appointed a pool of designers, without revealing their identities.
From 2006 to 2008, Vionnet produced made-in-France "demi-couture" collections closed to haute-couture in the prices featured and the techniques and textiles used. Vionnet involved historical partners of the house, such as the couture embroiderer Lesage.
The Marzotto years
On February 24, 2009, Matteo Marzotto announced the acquisition of the label and the creation of a new and independant structure in Milan where Vionnet is now operated. Matteo Marzotto, former General Manager and President of Valentino SpA, is one of the heirs of the Marzotto Group, a powerful textile group established in Italy since 1836. Matteo Marzotto also announced that some additionnal strategic development is to be provided by Gianni Castiglioni, CEO of the fashion brand Marni.