Costume and textiles scholar, and Worn Through Research Award winner Susan Neill has eighteen years of experience as a museum curator and has also practiced independently. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Anthropology; has curated more than a dozen exhibitions of textiles, ethnographic dress, and historic fashion; and has presented her research at national and international symposia including the Costume Colloquium in Florence, Italy. Her current research interests are couturier Bob Bugnand and the American textile designer Mary Crovatt Hambidge. She works at the Field Museum as an exhibition project manager.
Discovering Bob Bugnand
No matter how long I work in museums or how many costume collections I visit, I get a thrill every time I enter one of those exalted closets. There is a mix of pleasant anticipation – of encountering old friends like a 1960s paper dress or a full-skirted antebellum gown – and the promise of discovery – of garments that spark questions I never thought to ask before. So it was in February of 2012, as I began selecting objects at the Western Reserve Historical Society (WRHS) for an exhibition of twentieth-century dress that became Dior & More – For the Love of Fashion (closed May 24, 2014).
Having worked with the treasure-trove of WRHS in the past, I expected the major challenge would not be in selecting garments so much as it would be paring down a long list of worthy candidates until the most compelling cast remained. Such an exquisite dilemma! As the days passed and haute couture designs by Cristóbal Balenciaga, Pierre Balmain, Christian Dior, Jacques Fath, Hubert de Givenchy, Madame Grès, Lucien Lelong, Jeanne Paquin, Callot Soeurs, and others began to fill out the ranks, I turned my attention to lesser-known couturiers to add dimension to the story. And that is when I met Bob Bugnand.
Ultimately, eight Bugnand designs were located in the collection and two were featured in the show. These evening dresses were made for Elizabeth Parke Firestone (Mrs. Harvey S. Firestone, Jr.), a discerning client who began buying made-to-measure clothing in Paris in the 1920s and amassed an extensive wardrobe by leading designers. Writing exhibit labels proved challenging, since references to Bob Bugnand were cursory. Some basic facts were repeated: 1) he designed for Jacques Heim and Robert Piguet before going out on his own, and 2) Jacqueline Kennedy and the Duchess of Windsor were both his clients. The tidbit that stayed with me came from a letter Firestone wrote in 1970, saying Bugnand had relocated to New York, where he “makes only for a very few people, [and] does all my work” (Orr 2006: 80). (Let’s hear it for graduate research – thank you, Lois Orr!)
Still wondering about Bugnand several months after the exhibition opened, I inquired about pieces in other collections containing Firestone garments and soon a dozen more had surfaced. When I learned his papers had recently been made available through the Special Collections at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT),I knew I had stumbled onto a topic worthy of exploration.
Thanks to the Worn Through research award, I was able to go to New York to examine the Bugnand archives and begin piecing together the arc of his career. Though it is tempting to craft a research melodrama of alternating dead-ends and puzzle pieces fitting together, instead what follows is more straightforward and, I hope, somewhat more useful. These paragraphs offer a basic chronology of Bob Bugnand’s career and my initial assessment of his work, which helps situate him in the context of twentieth-century fashion and can assist in dating his surviving fashions.
To date, 75 Bugnand designs have been identified in 15 collections and I have personally examined 37 of them. Nearly all of the designs are complete garments or ensembles, but the number also includes a few separates. Fully half of the pieces were made for Firestone.
Limited information about additional Bugnand garments is available in a 1991 Sotheby’s catalog featuring pieces from Firestone’s estate. Images and descriptions of several other garments are available through auction house websites. Garments with Bob Bugnand for Sam Friedlander labels are beyond the scope of my current research and are excluded from the data set.
This preliminary study has also been informed by Bugnand’s archives in the Special Collections at FIT and Firestone’s papers at the Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford. Women’s Wear Daily, newspapers, and magazines further document the designer’s life and work.
Fashion designer Bob Bugnand was born Antoine Bugnand in France on Feb. 23, 1924. The city of his birth is unknown, as is the source of his seemingly American nickname. He studied architecture at the Beaux Arts before focusing on couture, then apprenticed with Lelong, and was chief designer for both Piguet and Heim (New York Times Oct. 3, 1958). An undocumented press clipping reports Bugnand also worked with Alwynn Camble, another young designer, for several seasons.
In 1954, Bob Bugnand “opened a Couture house [in Paris] based on the formula of original designs which will not be repeated” (Women’s Wear Daily May 21, 1954). The venture was unusual, if not entirely unique. Rather than presenting traditional collections and incurring the associated expense of production and showings, he instead presented to private clients and buyers original sketches from which they made selections. The press described Bugnand as a “personable young designer” (New York Herald Tribune Feb. 25, 1959). His early enterprise had the capacity to produce fifty original models per month.
Bugnand apparently met Firestone, one of his most important clients, in May of 1956, after which she commissioned this evening dress now in the collection of The Henry Ford. In a letter the following spring, Firestone told the designer the red evening gown was her favorite and ordered a second version in white, which resides at WRHS.
By the summer of 1957, Bugnand expanded his business from sketch-based exclusive designs to include traditional seasonal presentations (Women’s Wear Daily July 23, 1957). Though Firestone did not attend the showing of forty models in his fall collection, she did place a significant order while in Paris that September. She commissioned a black velvet dress called Blackmail; the Florence dress of blue wool; the Jaguar coat ensemble; and Platinum, a gray flannel suit with embroidery, mink trim, and a matching chiffon blouse. Regrettably, none of these have been identified in collections.
Paris Without a Passport
Bugnand opened a custom-order salon in New York on East 62nd Street in the fall of 1958. This additional location enabled him to better serve existing American clients while also making his designs accessible to women who did not make seasonal trips to Paris to have clothes made. With another unconventional strategy, Bugnand simultaneously reinforced the allure of French fashion – the cachet of garments designed in Paris, constructed of French fabrics, and made in the couture tradition – while removing the obstacle of transatlantic travel.
According to the press, Bugnand seemed to have found “a magical formula for selling made-to-order clothes to American women,” though it was actually more of an innovative business practice than alchemy or even sleight of hand (New York Times Feb. 25, 1959). The “magic” happened by making and fitting a muslin of the desired dress in New York, flying the muslin to the designer’s Paris workroom where it was used to make the dress, and then flying the finished model back to New York for final fittings – voila! The entire process took only about three weeks. To uphold their prestige, Bugnand collections were shown first in Paris and presented again several weeks later in New York.
Jacqueline Kennedy (Mrs. John F. Kennedy) was a Bugnand client during this period, though whether she placed orders in Paris or New York is unknown. The future First Lady used his fashions helped shape her public image. She chose a simple pink wool dress by Bugnand for the Life magazine cover story, “Jackie Kennedy: A Front Runner’s Appealing Wife” (Life August 24, 1959). Numerous photographs demonstrate his black-and-white houndstooth wool suit with black braid was a workhorse on the campaign trail during her husband’s presidential run in 1959 and 1960. The graphic, easy-to-wear combination was featured in the popular exhibition, Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years, and is the sole Bugnand design in the Kennedy Library. Notably, the catalog for the Hamish Bowles-curated exhibition contains the only scholarly reference to Bugnand published to date (Metropolitan Museum of Art 2001: 47).
Haute Couture Years
In the summer of 1960, Bugnand’s reputation advanced considerably when he was recognized with membership in the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne and opened his salon at 372 rue St. Honore in Paris. Women’s Wear Daily anticipated his inaugural showing could “be the big opening of the year,” noting the designer “already in New York has a fine reputation for elegant young clothes which have a sophisticated zip” (July 25, 1960). Though the collection received mixed reviews, the New York Times lauded his “trompe-l’oeil tricks” – reversible jackets and overskirts that transformed dresses for wear after five. Remarking on his evening clothes, the paper reported, “Bugnand can be aptly called the bead boy. His lady-like dazzlers included one hound’stooth [sic] check done in jet, another in a fabric patterned like an old Victorian rose wallpaper and covered with shining bugle beads” (July 28, 1960). Sparkling eveningwear was the designer’s hallmark and featured prominently in all his collections.
Burchard Galleries auctioned one of Bugnand’s characteristically brilliant confections in 2012 (below). The calf-length gown commissioned by Firestone may well have been from the designer’s Spring 1959 collection, about which the New York Herald Tribune reported his “[s]hort evening dresses sparkle like the ceiling of the Hayden Planetarium. They’re almost all bare topped with semi-full skirts and what appears to be the labor of forty seamstresses worked into their elaborate surfaces” (Feb. 25, 1959).
Many fashion-conscious women in the United States learned about Bob Bugnand in the pages of Vogue. The magazine first mentioned him in its April 1960 issue. A larger feature two months later called readers’ attention to his design for a new night look described as “a plaid overlay of baguette beads, worked on Argyll [sic] lines in navy-blue and clear crystal on a dress of white silk net” (Vogue June 1960). Also noted were its navy blue patent leather belt and “underplayed shaping….” This dress survives – albeit unlabeled and without the belt – in The Ohio State University Historic Costume & Textiles Collection.
Firestone ordered an iteration of the design with short sleeves and a more conventional gathered skirt. In December of 1961, a Bugnand design graced the Vogue cover, accompanied by enchanting copy, “In a season of stupendous night-looks, one of the greatest: a rangy net sweater, beaming with glitter and crystal, and pulled down on the hipline of a long white silk satin dress.” This garment also resides at Ohio State.
Despite having salons on both sides of the Atlantic, a growing list of clients, and accolades from the fashion press, Bugnand did not rely solely on custom-made clothes to make ends meet. He also sold designs to manufacturers, though there is minimal documentation of those transactions. Some American department stores prided themselves on selling faithful copies of the latest Paris fashions. For example, at a fall 1960 event, Orbach’s showed “translations” of styles by Bugnand, Balenciaga, Givenchy, Grès, Nina Ricci, Cardin, Fabiani, and other designers, claiming they were “so exact…done with such unhurried perfection…they’re actually re-creations” (New York Times Sept. 14, 1960). A few months later, Bugnand announced his own ready-to-wear line named for the French national flag, the Tricolor Collection, which was targeted to select stores (Christian Science Monitor Nov. 7, 1960). When Bugnand began designing cocktail and evening dresses for the wholesale house, Sam Friedlander, in 1962, he stayed true to himself as a designer. According to the New York Times, “The beading and jet trim usually reserved for couture fashions trimmed moderately priced clothes” (June 12, 1962). Other designs for the manufacturer even included fur trim.
As the fashion world evolved, Bugnand continually revamped his business strategy to keep pace. Sometime in the mid-1960s, he closed the doors of his Paris salon and moved his entire business to New York, presumably to be closer to loyal clients such as Firestone and the socialite and philanthropist Judith Peabody (Mrs. Samuel P. Peabody). In 1965, the New York Times reported that Peabody –an avid supporter of the American Ballet Theater, New York Shakespeare Festival, and the Dance Theater of Harlem – had single-handedly “boosted the stock” of couturier Bob Bugnand by invariably appearing in his designs at parties and premieres (New York Times June 7, 1965).
Though it is unclear how Bugnand felt about leaving Paris to work full-time in the United States, the designer seems to have approached his work with good humor. The earliest dated garment with his signature New York label is the sequin-covered minidress dubbed Scuba Duba from 1968. [Image 11 WRHS 92.43.45a label] [Image 12 OHCT 1990.576.3]
He continued to create and show collections and worked closely with long-time clients. Bugnand sent Firestone sketches of new collections and custom designs and often offered suggestions, which she sometimes heeded. [Image 13 WRHS 92.43.46] In the summer of 1975, Bugnand shifted his course again by opening a shop in Westhampton, Long Island, where he sold ready-to-wear resort clothes along with his custom designs. He continued to create collections as late as 2001 and he died at age 81 in 2005. No obituary has surfaced.
This preliminary investigation shows that designer Bob Bugnand’s career reflects the changing realities of Paris couture from its “golden age” in the decade or so following World War II through the end of the century. Although he was steeped in the couture – or perhaps because he understood its realities – Bugnand committed himself to the world of fashion and all its unpredictability. His longevity seems to be due to a combination of passion, flexibility, resourcefulness, and a commitment to his clients, to whom he gave what they wanted and needed, in a way they felt good about. His designs never shock, occasionally amuse, and invariably appear effortless. “I am always happy,” he said, “when I have succeeded in making a woman look her best. I consider it a personal victory…” (Christian Science Monitor Nov. 7, 1960). Making a woman the focal point – rather than her clothes – earned Bugnand earned a loyal following.
Once again, I am grateful to Worn Through for the research award that facilitated my inquiry into designer Bob Bugnand. Likewise, I appreciate the dozens of generous individuals in museums, archives, auction houses, and vintage sales who fielded my inquiries and provided information and access to materials. I intend to publish an article on Bugnand’s career and would appreciate any additional leads you can provide. It is my hope the overlooked designer will soon receive the attention he deserves.
Bowles, Hamish. 2001.Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Bugnand, Bob Collection. Special Collections and FIT Archives, Gladys Marcus Library, Fashion Institute of Technology.
Firestone Family Papers. Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford.
Orr, Lois. 2006. “Elizabeth Parke Firestone: Her Couture Collection and Her Role as a Woman of Influence.” M.A. thesis, University of Akron. http://sc.akronlibrary.org/files/2010/12/Elizabeth-Parke-Firestone.pdf
Sotheby’s. 1991. Collectors Carousel: Including Couture Clothing from The Elizabeth Parke Firestone Collection and The Lydia Gordon Collection. Auction catalog for Dec. 19, 1991. New York: Sotheby’s.