The Genteel
April 21, 2021


Madeleine Vionnet's vision is celebrated in a short film that pays tribute to modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan, who was Vionnet's contemporary in 1920s Paris and a rich source of inspiration for the legendary designer. Source:
Madeleine Vionnet
Madeleine Vionnet.

According to classic Greek mythology, the three Fates - Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos - spin the thread of human life; measuring destiny through the loom of time, designing the temporal weave of society. Their omnipotent craft, allegedly, surpassed the powers of Gods and heroines, for it was the Fates alone who could architect both the life and death of supreme and mortal beings.

It's no coincidence, then, that the woman known as "the architect among dressmakers" draws inspiration from classic Greek art. Madeleine Vionnet was an artist, perfectionist, innovator and liberationist but, most of all, she was the purveyor of a style that would change the way women viewed fashion, feminism and the fabric of their own bodies.

Like the Grecian art that would serve as a lifelong talisman for the seminal designer, Madame Vionnet's story begins with tempest, rebellion and spirit. Born of humble origins in central France at the end of the 19th century, Vionnet struggled through a youth of illness and abandonment to find her calling as a seamstress at the age of 11. The ambitious and determined Vionnet would not be prevented from following her sartorial destiny, even working as a hospital seamstress whilst honing her skills.

Having endured both divorce and the death of her only child before the age of 20, Vionnet embarked on a journey to England to train with Kate Reilly, couturier to the Royal court. Upon her return to France several years later, Vionnet had gained a reputation working for influential designers, including Callot Soeurs and Jacques Doucet. While under the tutelage of the latter, Vionnet's aesthetic began to assert itself.

For Vionnet, beauty was found in the complex symmetry of the natural, female form. Rebelling against a fashion ideology that sought perfection through a sculptured, restrictive mold, Vionnet abandoned corsetry and Victorian era trimmings in favour of a free-flowing, sparse aesthetic, which recalled the Grecian goddesses she drew inspiration from. Vionnet regarded couture as an art form, dismissing the ephemeral implications of the established fashion cycle and, instead, focused on revolutionising not only the modern aesthetic but also the manner in which the fashion industry operated.

[Madeleine] Vionnet was often quoted as saying that she sought to design a dress that, "...smiled when its wearer smiled," and firmly maintained that no woman could be beautiful if constricted.

Establishing her own eponymous maison in 1912, Vionnet quickly became a prolific creator, releasing up to 600 designs per year, reportedly twice that of other designers, such as Christian Dior. Although she was forced to close her doors after only two years, due to the onset of World War One, Vionnet returned triumphantly in 1923 with an Avenue Montaigne location from where she unleashed her greatest innovations on the fashion world. 

Her maison was renowned for its progressive and often visionary reforms; such as medical and dental care for all employees, as well as paid holidays and maternity leave, and child care facilities. Vionnet was also a ruthless defender of her creative property, championing anti-counterfeiting practices long before her rivals recognised the potential for intellectual theft. Vionnet reportedly photographed each of her designs and offered verification of authenticity labels, in an effort to stem the illegal mass production of her designs; an affront she believed to be a betrayal to the legitimacy of her artistry.

Yet, of all her inventions, it is the coup en bias (or the "bias cut") that earned Vionnet her reputation as a pioneer of haute couture; a mantle which still garners her respect from fashion's most formidable forces. Karl Lagerfeld reportedly once said, "Like it or not, everyone is under the influence [of Vionnet]." Whilst Tom Ford quoted one of Vionnet's contemporaries, in defending the enduring legacy of the French innovator, "Coco Chanel once said, 'Creativity is the art of concealing your sources.' Now, we all suck up inspiration from everywhere. You can take a direct line from me to Halston but you can take Halston back to Madeleine Vionnet, right back. Open a Vionnet book and you will see a lot of things that Halston took."

It is ironic that Ford should quote Chanel when describing the legacy of Vionnet. The rivalry between Vionnet and Coco Chanel, both seminal French designers and contemporaries in the '20s and '30s, was a creative two step; although they both imparted an enduring influence on fashion, their personalities, ambitions and sartorial styles were dissimilar. Vionnet's aversion to granting interviews and fierce protection over her garments, ensured her legacy remained largely confined to her status as a "designer's designer," allowing Chanel to inherit the mantle of French doyenne of fashion.

Vionnet's application of the bias cut, as well as her experimentation with draping and the fluidity of certain fabrics, was a studied appreciation of the beauty of unrestricted movement, in couture and in life. Inspired by the spirit and style of Isadora Duncan, Vionnet designed her clothes to be alluring, second skins which enhanced, rather than suppressed, the expressive personalities of her patrons. Vionnet was often quoted as saying that she sought to design a dress that, "...smiled when its wearer smiled," and firmly maintained that no woman could be beautiful if constricted.

madeleine vionnet
A Madeleine Vionnet design.

Such a liberated, feminist approach to the construction of couture earned Vionnet high profile praise from both European and Hollywood aristocracy. Yet, by 1939, as another World War approached, maison Vionnet once again closed, indefinitely.

The Euclid of fashion was not to be contained; she spent the remainder of her years sitting in judgement over the styles and designers who succeeded her. She spoke fondly of the creativity and friendship of Cristobal Balenciaga, dismissed Dior as merely, "A pretty name," and marvelled at the taste demonstrated by Chanel; la modiste.

In 2008, 33 years after the death of Madame Vionnet, the maison was once again brought to life, championed by Italian investors Matteo Marzotto and Gianni Castiglioni. Over the last four years, the brand has employed a changing roster of creative directors in an attempt to recapture the spirit and innovative perfectionism of the brand's namesake. 

Yet 2012 has marked several milestones for the everlasting brand - including the acquisition of a new majority stakeholder, Kazakstani businesswoman, Goga Ashkenazi, and the first runway showing for the house since 1939. Far from diminishing with age, the thread of Vionnet has extended to a third act, ensuring the Fates are not yet finished with maison Vionnet. Towards the end of her life, in an interview with author Bruce Chatwin, Madame Vionnet asserted, "I am a woman of the most extraordinary vitality. I have never been bored for a second. I have never been envious of anyone or anything, and now I have achieved a certain tranquillity."



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