THE CHANEL EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
December 19, 2019.
Darth Vader Chanel, 2015, acrylic on canvas © Alec Monopoly / Guy Hepner.
A LONG TIME AGO, IN A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY...
What if Gabrielle Chanel had established her haute couture house in the Star Wars universe, and fallen to the Dark side of the Force? Let us pretend for a minute she did, and dig into Chanel’s comeback.
In 1939, Gabrielle Chanel aka Darth Coco shut down her fashion house at the onset of the Second Galactic War, and fired her employees, leaving these sewing stormtroopers to fend for themselves. Officially, she had not wanted to dress widows. Perhaps was she also punishing her employees for going on strike a few years earlier. Revenge is a dish best served cold.
Chanel spent the war enjoying a romance with a German Sith Lord officer from her room at the Ritz Hotel. After Paris was liberated, suspected of being a Nazi spy, and fearing reprisals from the Rebel forces, she fled to Planet Switzerland where she stayed in exile for more than a decade.
But the Chanel Empire was not defeated yet.
Bored of her quiet Swiss life, a 64-year-old Darth Coco went knocking on the Wertheimer family’s door, founders of the Bourjois cosmetics business, and owners of the Chanel perfume business since 1924. Their conversation must not have been easy… For the treacherous Chanel, driven by anti-semitic prejudices, had considered the Wertheimers thieves. She had tried —but failed— to oust them from her namesake affairs by using anti-Jewish laws during the War.
Fortunately for her though, for lack of an haute couture line to sustain the brand image, Chanel perfume sales had decreased after 1945. So the business-minded Wertheimers decided to overlook Coco’s former hatred, agreeing to financially support her once more.
“I am your father”... This now-cult line revealed to our bewildered ears Darth Vader’s parentage of Luke Skywalker. Shocking, right? Now you know what it felt like for the fashion world when the evil, yet brilliant fashion designer officially announced she was ready to take back the Parisian haute couture scene in 1954. No one saw it coming.
Could the Sith Lady do it again after fifteen years of inactivity? Would not she be outdated? That was the burning question.
On February 5, 1954, fashion journalists and editors flocked to the couture house’s headquarters at 21, Rue Cambon to see her return collection, eagerly awaiting the answer. Their disappointment was to match their anticipation. “Chanel Comeback Fails to Come Off,” “For the First Time Chanel Lost a Game While Betting on the Five,” and “At Coco Chanel: A Bad Joke” were some of the headlines. Chanel earned a majority of negative reviews that deemed her fashion designs too mired in the past, having a distinctive 1930s flavour.
Few remained faithful Chanel supporters. Even fewer foresaw her spectacular fashion future. The Evening Express was one of them: it titled, “Watch Out M. Dior, Mlle Chanel May Be One Step Ahead of You.”
Episode V received mixed reviews when it originally came out, but ended up being one of the most critically acclaimed and profitable movies of the whole Star Wars saga. Similarly, Coco Chanel was to overcome criticism, and become as famous a fashion designer as Darth Vader a villain.
She progressively rebuilt a powerful Empire in the postwar era. While Chanel’s designs and style had undeniably been popular in the interwar years, they did not reach their iconic status until after 1954. The tweed suit, the two-tone shoes, and the quilted leather bag (also called the 2.55 bag) all belonged to her postwar stylistic innovations.
She died a legend in 1971.
In this alternative Star Wars story, the dark side of the Force won, the evil Chanel Galactic Empire crushed the Rebellion, and sprawled across the luxury Galaxy. Only Chewbacca escaped the Imperial Troops for there would otherwise be Wookiee fur handbags in every Chanel store.
Brachet-Champsaur, Florence. "Gabrielle dite Coco Chanel, 1883-1971," in Dictionnaire historique des patrons francais, ed. J.-C. Daumas, Paris: Flammarion, 2010, pp. 158-160.
Briot, Eugénie. "Famille Wertheimer," in Dictionnaire historique des patrons francais, ed. J.-C. Daumas, Paris: Flammarion, 2010, pp.720-723.
De La Haye, Amy, and Shelley Tobin. Chanel: The Couturiere at Work. London: V&A Publishing, 2009.
Floch, Jean-Marie. L'Indémodable Total Look de Chanel. Paris: IFM/Regard, 2004.
Vaughan, Hal. Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel's Secret War. New York: Vintage Books, 2012.
Veillon, Dominique. La Mode sous l'Occupation. Paris: Payot & Rivage, 2014.
LIVE LELONG AND PROSPER
March 23, 2020.
Paolo Sapio, Spock Portrait of Star Trek, painting © Saatchi Art / Paolo Sapio.
Thale Lassen, Lucien Lelong as Spock, digital collage, 2020.
—"LIVE LELONG AND PROSPER!," said the saleswoman, palm forward and fingers parted between the middle and ring fingers.
—"Peace and Lelong Life," answered the chic client, returning the hand gesture as customary.
No doubt this would have been the ritual salute at Lucien Lelong’s haute couture salons had they existed in the Star Trek multiverse…
Let us pretend for a minute they did, and dig into Lelong’s history.
YEAR 1918, Sol III, also known as Earth. Returning form the First World War a wounded hero, Lucien Lelong took over his parents’ dressmaking business. So eager to work, was he, that he welcomed his first customers in uniform. He turned the family firm into one of the most successful haute couture houses of the interwar years. The Lelong name was to epitomize Parisian elegance for thirty years.
Did Lelong have any Vulcan heritage? We will never know. Regardless, our Mr Spock of haute couture followed the path of pure logic, and established a modern business inspired by scientific management principles. He oversaw every operation of his house from the design studio to the workrooms, fitting rooms, salons, as well as press relations and advertising divisions.
As commanding officer of the Lelong Space Ship Enterprise, Lelong started with a fleet of 20 workers. At the height of his career, he commanded up to 1,200. He even had to move his house’s headquarters in 1924 from 18 Place de la Madeleine to 16 Avenue Matignon, where the larger premises designed by Jean-Michel Frank could accommodate his growing business.
Lelong created modern silhouettes devoid of any superfluous ornament, determined to boldly go where no man has gone before. Fashion, he thought, should ease freedom of movement. He therefore created “kinetic” designs for the athletic, slender woman.
He also encouraged fashion journalists to be more critical when reviewing Paris collections so as to elevate couture to art.
In 1925, his participation to the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes sparked the interest of French officials. The Art Deco style pervaded Lelong’s fashion designs, the decoration of his salons, his double L logo, and to the packaging of his perfume line starting from 1926.
His Uhura, the gorgeous Nathalie Paley, served as unofficial communications officer aboard the Lelong ship. Rather than skills in linguistics, cryptography, and philology, she used her talent in fashion modelling to promote the house’s aesthetic canons. This Russian princess in exile, who was Lelong’s second wife, personified the ideal Lelong client.
In 1934, Lelong developed Lelong Édition, one of the first luxury ready-to-wear lines — if not the first one, as has been mistakenly written: the dressmaker Jean Patou beat him to it. Yet this radical experiment was short-lived.
While still serving on the LSS Enterprise, Lelong came to act a bit like an ambassador to the Federation: in 1937, his fashion peers elected him as the head of their governing body, the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne.
When the couture industry went Into Darkness during the German-Klingon Occupation, Lelong stayed at the Chambre Syndicale’s helm and prevented the hostile relocation of Paris couture to Berlin. He said, “You can force us to anything, but Parisian haute couture cannot be moved, neither as a whole nor in its elements. It exists in Paris or it doesn’t exist at all.” Highly illogical? Not if you wanted to keep the workers employed…
Beyond, Lelong’s poor health led him to retire from Starfleet. For lack of a worthy successor he decommissioned his couture vessel in July 1948. His legacy carried on through the work of Captains Pierre Balmain and Christian Dior, both of whom he mentored before they opened their own houses.
Bonney, Thérèse and Louise. A Shopping Guide to Paris, New York: Robert M. McBride, 1929.
Demornex, Jacqueline. Lucien Lelong, L'Intemporel, Paris: Gallimard, 2007.
Maselli, Ilaria. "Lucien Lelong and the Théâtre de la Mode: the Preservation of Haute Couture during Wartime," Almatourism 9 (2018).
Modern Master: Lucien Lelong, Couturier 1918-1948, exhibition catalogue, New York: Museum at FIT, 2006.
Veillon, Dominique. La Mode sous l'Occupation, Paris: Payot, 2014.
I AM GROULT
April 1, 2020.
Thale Lassen, Nicole Groot, digital collage, 2020.
I AM GROOT
I AM GROULT
I AM GROULT, Nicole.
Her name is actually Marie Groult. But she found herself far too special for such a banal name, and chose one that sounded fancier instead—Nicole. It thereafter became the name of her Parisian haute couture house.
What did Groot and Groult have in common? Let us find out how Marvel Comics can help us understand the history of a forgotten couture house.
Nicole was born Marie Poiret in Paris in 1887, the youngest of four creative siblings. Jeanne Boivin, her eldest sister, managed a jewelry house; her brother Paul Poiret became one of the most acclaimed providers of Parisian couture styles, perfumes, and decoration; last, her sister Germaine Bongard also headed her own couture house.
Flamboyant and imaginative, Groult was as charismatic as Groot’s voice, Vin Diesel. Perhaps even more. She was a short-haired brunette with a fine figure, who liked to strike a pose with her two beloved greyhounds, Praline and Dragée.
Nicole turned into GROULT when she married the interior-designer-to-be André Groult in 1907. The couple was well acquainted to the artistic scene in Paris, and befriended among others Van Dongen, Foujita, and Zadkine.
Unlike Groot, Groult was no greenery: she emerged from the shade of her oh-so-famous brother in 1912, when she plucked up the courage to open her own couture house. GROUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUULT.
It was located on the first floor of the townhouse in which she lived at 29 Rue d’Anjou. Her husband André, whose passion for rare items gave him some resemblance to The Collector —minus the evil side—, had an antique shop and art gallery on the ground floor. Incidentally, Nicole’s first labels read “A. Groult.”
Her early dresses were quite similar in taste and quality to those of Poiret, albeit less decorated and less expensive. American Vogue reported that they were not without causing turmoil between sister and brother.
Activity at Groult halted during the First World War, while Nicole became a nurse. The fashion house reopened in 1919, blossoming for the following decade.
She hired Gabrielle Picabia, the painter’s wife, to promote her designs in the United States.
The only plants in Groult’s house were embroidered on the tubular dresses that were typical of the flapper look of the 1920s. Unlike Groot’s limited linguistic capacity, Groult’s aesthetic vocabulary went well beyond a single phrase—I AM GROULT—constantly evolving, yet always favouring construction over decoration. She liked to spike black with a discreet touch of colour, preferably in pink and blue hues.
Her Rocket Raccoon was the French artist Marie Laurencin, who painted her portrait many times and drew some of her advertising campaigns. While one can speculate on the nature of the relationship between their Marvel counterparts, Laurencin Raccoon and Groult’s sapphic friendship is well known. Muses, friends, and lovers, these Guardians of the Aesthetic Galaxy greatly influenced each other to the point that an art critic called Laurencin “the Nicole Groult of modern painting,” and Groult “the Marie Laurencin of current fashion.”
In 1928, the Groult house developed a line of perfumes. All floral scents, obviously.
Affected by the economic crisis of 1929, Groult was splintered to a twig in 1934, her house bankrupt.
Water, earth, and light, but also smaller premises on the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré, regenerated Groult as early as 1935. GROULT! GROULT! GROULT!
Now sprouting like Baby Groult, the house resumed its couture activity, and provided clothes for an elegant but ageing clientele until 1963. Nicole Groult was wiped out in October 1966. Thanos had won.
Garnier, Guillaume ed. Paul Poiret et Nicole Groult, Maîtres de la mode Art Déco, Paris: Palais Galliéra, 1986.
Humphrey, Paul. ‘"Yo soy Groot": Afro-Caribbean religions and transnational identity in the comic metropolis,' Studies in Comics 10:1 (2019), p. 115-134.
Marcilhac, Félix. André Groult (1884-1966). Décorateur ensemblier du XXe siècle, Paris: L'Amateur, 1996.
Tomasovic, Dick. 'We are Groot ! Marvel Studios, productions Disney et nouvelles identités du super-héros,' Le Super-héros à l'écran. Mutations, transformations, évolutions, ed. E. Yazbek, Paris: Orizons, 2017, p. 71-88.
(AND THE NANNY NAMED FRAN)
April 8, 2020.
She was working in a bridal shop in Flushing, Queens.
‘Till her boyfriend kicked her out in one of those crushing scenes.
What was she to do? Where was she to go?
She was out on her fanny.
So over the bridge from Flushing to the Sheffields’ door.
She was there to sell makeup, But the father saw more.
She had style! She had flair! She was there.
That’s how she became the Nanny!
Fran Drescher, who played the Nanny, and the textile company Coudurier Fructus Descher shared more than a similar-sounding name… Let us see how the 1990s sitcom can help us shed light on this French firm’s history.
Coudurier Fructus Descher ain’t selling no makeup, hon’. Instead, it specialized in luxury silks that would have delighted Fran, the Jewish fashion queen from Flushing, Queens. [LAUGH TRACK]
When it was originally established in 1896, the company was located at 170 Boulevard de la Croix-Rousse in Lyon, the historical heart of silk weaving in France.
The firm was named after its three founders: Ollagnier Fructus & Descher.
But Ollagnier died in 1903.
What were Fructus & Descher to do?
Where were they to go?
They merged their business with the Paris house of Jean Coudurier in 1905.
And created a commercial branch on the prestigious Rue de la Paix.
That’s how it became… Coudurier Fructus Descher!
With its own factories for weaving, dyeing, printing, and finishing, the silk manufacturer also became renowned for its velvets, and, undoubtedly grandma Yetta’s favorites: the lamés, a fabric made shiny by weaving gold or silver into it. [LAUGH TRACK]
As it gained momentum, Coudurier Fructus Descher reached out to the world with a boutique at 360 Madison Avenue in New York, arguably closer to the Sheffields’ Park Avenue mansion than Fran’s native Flushing. They also opened shops in London, Brussels, Italy, and Switzerland.
Coudurier Fructus Descher had style!
It had flair!
It was there.
It was even distinguished at the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition in London.
In 1920, in addition to its factories near Lyon (Villeurbanne) and the French Alps (La Bâtie-Montgascon), Coudurier Fructus Descher built a factory out of ‘economic patriotism’ in Alsace (Wintzenheim), another region with a long textile tradition. No doubt Fran would have found a suitable husband in this predominantly Jewish Alsacian hub… [LAUGH TRACK]
Who would have guessed that the company we described,
Was just exactly what the market prescribed?
Coudurier Fructus Descher became one of the most popular fabric suppliers of Parisian haute couture houses in the interwar years, bringing joy and warmth back into fashion.
Now dressmakers Jeanne Lanvin, Jean Patou, and Lucien Lelong —those Maxwell Sheffields in the story— found it beguiling.
Watch out CC!
And the clients were actually smiling.
Such joie de vivre!
She was the lady in red when everybody was wearing tan,
The smart girl from Paris,
The woman wearing Coudurier Fructus Descher!
The house celebrated its 30th anniversary in 1927 (one year after the actual date), while the Nanny stayed forever 29. [LAUGH TRACK]
In the 1930s, Coudurier Fructus Descher innovated with techniques, patenting new machinery to manufacture fully or partly artificial fibres.
The company remained open during the Second World War, although it shut down the Alsace factory in 1939. The fabrics created at that time had patriotic names, such as the crepe rayonne Milloraine, as a means of rebelling against the German Occupier.
In the postwar era, Coudurier Fructus Descher suffered from the weakening of haute couture, and faced the rising competitions of nylon and polyester. It joined forces with its rivals, the CCs of the luxury silk industry, to protect their common interests. But no number of certification labels or level of government subsidy could reverse the tide.
The company, like an ageing sitcom, failed to meet the needs of its audience, and kept declining until it filed for bankruptcy in 1977. It closed down permanently in June 1978. [LAUGH TRACK]
Archives Départementales du Rhône. 'Coudurier, Fructus et Descher Maison de soieries 1898-1966, 46 J 1-84, Répertoire numérique détaillé, par Cyril Longin,' 1998- 2012.
Charpigny, Florence-Patricia. 'Les dessinateurs en soieries et la Fabrique lyonnaise au XIXe siècle,' Bulletin du CIETA 71 (1993): 121-138.
Musée des tissus de Lyon. 928 volumes of textile samples.
'Notice nécrologique de Jean-Marie Fructus,' Bulletin de l'Association des anciens élèves de l'École de tissage et des industries textiles 6 (1947): 17-18.
Pommier, Henriette et al. Soierie lyonnaire, 1850-1940, Lyon: CNRS et al., 1980-1981.
Vernus, Pierre. Art, Luxe et Industrie. Bianchini-Férier, un siècle de soieries lyonnaises, 1888-1992, Grenoble: PUG, 2006.
FANTASTIC BEASTS OF FASHION
April 25, 2020.
Thale Lassen, Occamy hat, digital collage, 2020.
—I am working on a book on magical creatures, explained magizoologist Newton Scamander.
—An extermination guide? Asked former auror Tina Goldstein.
—No! A book to educate my fellow magicians on how to understand and care for magical creatures! A chagrined Newt snapped back.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, 2016.
Undoubtedly, Newt would have been horrified at the idea of both live and dead magical creatures adorning fashionable magicians. But what if it did happen? After all, this most bizarre trend emerged in the No-Maj population in the second half of the 19th century.
Beetles, fireflies, butterflies, but also hummingbirds, turtles and snakes were among the most popular wearable, live pets for No-Majs. One woman reportedly fastened a glow-worm with a golden chain to her hair so as to have her face twinkling with natural luminescence. Quite the party trick.
But not as spectacular as pinning the spiny cocoon of a swooping evil to one’s hair. Imagine this blue-and-green magical beast suddenly uncoiling, and scaring away eavesdroppers and lethal enemies alike. Beware Grindelwald!
Men’s suits were no longer complete without a chameleon ornamenting the lapel. So chic! Less chic was the widespread belief that chameleons did not need to feed… The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals vehemently campaigned until their sales were banned in 1909.
In the Potterverse, sorcerers would have surely favored little bowtruckles to decorate their robes —and hopefully would have not starved them to death. These twig-like creatures could also come in handy in case of arrest. Pickett, the bowtruckle who grew inordinately attached to Newt and picked his lock twice, made this abundantly clear.
Bigger live animals were also carried around like accessories, and changed season after season. According to The Washington Post, the new pet of the summer 1897 was the peba, a rat-sized armadillo. In 1903, tiny marmoset monkeys were all the rage. Women tucked them into the large pockets of their day ensembles.
Which It-Pet would have Tina and Queenie Goldstein tucked in theirs? Would they have discarded last season’s owl to embrace this season’s toad? The two witches had enough senses not to take nifflers on a jaunt. Unless they could use these rodents’ insatiable appeal for shinies to their benefit —by letting them wreak havoc their hosts’ home.
Animals needed not being alive to be turned into fashionable accessories. A 1901 taxidermy manual explained how to manufacture a purse from a late shrew.
If the manual had made its way to the wizarding community, there could be murtlap handbags out there. Murtlaps were magical creatures that looked like a big rat with a sea anemone on its back. If nothing else, this deeply allergenic —and ugly— marine beast would protect its wearer from foolish pickpockets.
Beyond accessories, entire dead animals adorned magic-less women’s clothes. Very few species were safe from this ghastly vogue, but the most notorious trimmed creatures were birds.
While taxidermy gave animals the illusion of life in the No-Maj world, magic could have kept to the illusion of movement. Wizards could have worn colorful hats made of occamy, a plumed creature with a serpentine body. Only their lifeless occamy could still grow or shrink to fit available space —as practical for transportation as dazzling in colossal ballrooms!
There is no telling how sorcerers would have felt about their stuffed magical critters. No-Maj women seemed, for the longest time, to ignore any distinction between live and dead animals. They often wore the same species whose company they enjoyed as pets, birds and cats, especially. It was as if the extreme sentimental affection women felt for animals in their lifetime extended beyond their death.
Until accoutred beasts finally fell out of fashion in the mid-1920s thanks to animal protection associations' campaigns. I am confident that Newt would have been equally successful in raising awareness for the protection of magical creatures.
Bernstein, Susan D. 'Designs after Nature: Evolutionary Fashions, Animals, & Gender,' in Victorian Animal Dreams: Representations of Animals in Victorian Literature and Culture, ed. D.D. Morse and M.A. Danahay, Ashgate, 2007, 65-79.
Ehrman, Edwina. Fashioned from Nature, London: V&A Publishing, 2018.
Fennetaux, Ariane. 'Birds of a Feather: Alexander McQueen’s Victorian Bestiary,' Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens 88 (2018).
Long, Julia. 'Portable Pets: Live and Apparently Live Animals in Fashion, 1880-1925,' Costume 43 (2009): 109-126.
Tolini, Michelle. '“Beetle Abominations" and Birds on Bonnets: Zoological Fantasy in Late-Nineteenth-Century Dress,' Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide 1:1 (2002).