Preparing my holidays in the south of France, I had taken note of an exhibition taking place in Grasse at the Musée International de la Parfumerie celebrating the French couturier, Paul Poiret: Paul Poiret – Couturier Perfumer. Before visiting it, I doubted I could possibly write about this exposition here for two reasons: would it be fashion-related enough? And would it be worth it? To my greatest relief and surprise, it was! The newly opened (2008) Musée International de la Parfumerie managed to orchestrate a small yet wonderfully illustrated display.
Grasse is known to be the capital of perfume, the whole city has been living of and for this activity for centuries. The city’s museum obviously chose to look mainly at the couturier’s work as a perfumer, yet it sharply links it to his fashion enterprise.
Paul Poiret (1879-1944) ruled the world of fashion during the Parisian Belle Epoque period with his audacious creations, liberating women from corsets but also ironically hindering their legs. Inspired by the Ballets Russes and modern art, he reinvented the feminine silhouette, wrapping it within astonishing textures and colours. The Magnifique organised sumptuous parties that strategically helped him promote his professional activities and where he mingled with the high society and all the artists that counted. The couturier was ahead of his times, understanding the power of public relations, advertising and by-products: perfumery was one of his key investments.
Before Paul Poiret, the perfume industry was independent and between the hands of celebrated and specialised houses such as Guerlain or Coty. In 1911, the couturier founded his own perfumery, Parfums de Rosine (his eldest daughter’s name) and therefore became the very first designer to sell perfume. Orientalism, history, arts, literature, theatre and even patriotism (in the wake of World War I) highly inspired his scented creations that had to embody five indispensable features: a catching name, a beautiful bottle (he would collaborate with many artists to do so), an elegant label, an exquisite box and seductive additional ornamentation: there again, he would apply advanced marketing concepts to his work. Also in 1911, Paul Poiret founded the Ateliers Martine (his second daughter), inspired by the Wiener Werkstatte workshops. The Ateliers featured a decoration business, a school that educated girls from modest backgrounds and who were invited to express their artistic skills, and a creative studio. The Ateliers Martine took over the promotion of the Parfums de Rosine, imagining original supports such as fans, perfumed cards and samples.
Paul Poiret’s fashion and perfume activities were closely linked with shared inspirations: the Ballets Russes’ Sheherazade spectacle that stimulated his exotic clothing and the Aladin or Maharadjah perfumes, or the naive Russian folklore’s motifs that could be found on his textile prints and perfume packagings. Within the display, a few garments are put aside the perfume artefacts to illustrate these relationships.
After World War I, Paul Poiret was confronted to a new taste, a new fashion led by Gabrielle Chanel and Jean Patou’s simplified and neutral creations. The Maginfique continued to propose lavish and exotic designs for both his garments and perfumes that only seduced faithful eccentric customers. The 1929 Crash definitely brought an end to his activities leaving him lonely and ruined when he died in Cannes (close to Grasse), in 1944.
The display cleverly brings us from the couturiers’ débuts to his death, with many artefacts from the Poiret house itself but also many paintings, videos and photographies that enable to contextualise the period and the designer’s life with much precision. The scenography is very clear and, as I said, even though the exhibition space is quite small, there is much to admire and learn.
I knew Paul Poiret’s work as a couturier but was not greatly aware of his perfumery activities and I was enthralled by their history and how innovative they were. And how charming, these perfume bottles can be…!
I was also truly captivated by the couturier’s professional path, how the Magnifique so sadly declined…It is an aspect that is very well and movingly analysed within the display.
Today, all luxury labels launch their own perfume: it is a trivial tool of democratization. With perfume, luxury becomes accessible to all: we can all have our doze of Chanel or Dior. Brands have brought to its extent Paul Poiret’s concept. However, did Paul Poiret see things this way? Did he intend to democratize couture with his perfume? I wouldn’t be quite sure about that. In the exhibition, it is rapidly said that perfumes in general were very expensive and destined to the elite. I can only imagine that the couturier’s perfumes also addressed themselves to high society representatives, able of acquiring his refined and artistic bottles. To Poiret, perfumery was probably not a means of offering luxury to all but simply a way of expanding his activities, as the ambitious and avant-garde creator he was.
The exhibition takes place until the 30th September 2013: all information here.
The small but complete exhibition’s catalogue: Parpoil, Catherine. Paul Poiret – Couturier & Perfumer. Paris: Somogy Editions d’Art, 2013.
Bolton, Andrew and Koda, Harold. Poiret. New-York: Yale University Press, 2007.
Poiret, Paul. King of Fashion: the Autobiography of Paul Poiret. London: V&A Publishing, 2009.
Pouy, Jean-Bernard. Perfume: A Global History. Paris: Somogy Editions d’Art, 2007.