[Three women dressed in gowns by Paul Poiret] in Gazette du Bon Ton, 1920 - No. 7, Paul Poiret (design), Jean-Louis Boussingault (artwork), Rijksmuseum, Public Domain Mark

Paul Poiret was the son of a cloth merchant, born near Les Halles in Paris. From a very young age, Poiret started selling his drawings to major Parisian couture houses, until he was hired by designer Jacques Doucet in 1896, and later moved to the House of Worth. The modernity of his designs was not understood by the conservative cliente of the maison Worth.

Poiret established his own house in 1903, and his style was extremely recognizable: kimono coat and loose-fitting designs that created a new silhouette. In 1907, he launched the ‘colonne’ line, creating alternatives to the current proposals for women’s clothing. The designs belonging to this line were characterised by a long and straight skirt, to which was attached a belt in gross-grain; this belt was not only an aesthetic choice but allowed to wear the dress without the need of a corset. In fact, in his autobiography En Habillant L’Epoque, the couturier declared to have ‘freed women from the tyranny of the corset’.

‘Sorbet’ evening dress, 1912, Paul Poiret, Victoria and Albert Museum, CC BY
‘Sorbet’ evening dress, 1912, Paul Poiret, Victoria and Albert Museum, CC BY

He also was a forerunner in marketing and branding strategies: he minutely designed the display of his shop windows, organized sensational fashion shows and huge parties to draw attention to his work and moved into other areas, such as interior design and perfumes. In 1911, he introduced 'Parfums de Rosine', the first of which, 'Nuit Persane', was unveiled with an event called 'la mille et deuxième nuit' (The Thousand and Second Night), inspired by the fantasy of a sultan's harem, held at the couturier's home.

Page from ‘Les choses de Paul Poiret', 1911, Paul Poiret (design), Georges Lepape (artwork), Victoria and Albert Museum, CC BY
Page from ‘Les choses de Paul Poiret', 1911, Paul Poiret (design), Georges Lepape (artwork), Victoria and Albert Museum, CC BY

His designs were shown on La Gazette du Bon Ton, an important French fashion journal, illustrated by artists like Georges Barbier, and Paul Iribe.