Influential French fashion houses of yesteryear are ripe for renewal. We take a look at some the prestigious names that are back in the limelight
Over the past century France’s fashion has been shaped by highly influential ateliers and couture houses, some of which have fallen by the wayside over time. Recent years have, however, seen an emerging desire to reawaken some of the iconic but previously dormant names that helped to carve out France’s name for design, including Moynat in 2011, Courrèges in 2012, Poiret in 2018 and, even more recently, Jean Patou.
Reviving France’s formerly celebrated fashion houses taps into a fascination for the eponymous designers and their past glory. Names such as Schiaparelli or Poiret come with a sense of allure. Fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli shot to fame in the 1930s with her Parisian couture house. A rival to Chanel, with connections to surrealism – she was friends with the likes of Salvador Dalí – Schiaparelli makes a fascinating figure to invest in. The brand, dormant since 1954, was relaunched by its current owner, Diego Della Valle, returning to couture in 2014 and gaining the prestigious haute-couture appellation in 2017.
While a new brand takes time to establish, the Schiaparelli name is legendary and offers solid foundations on which to build. On his appointment in 2015, design director Bertrand Guyon said: ‘I feel honoured to be part of Schiaparelli today and develop it further, respecting its heritage and tradition while adding a contemporary and modern take, something Elsa Schiaparelli has always demonstrated.’ The label is based at 21 place Vendôme, the same address where it was formerly headquartered under Elsa Schiaparelli herself, creating a further symbolic link to the past.
With the prospect of resurrecting a brand that has been inactive for years comes carte blanche to create something new. At the same time, designers are faced with the challenging task of finding the right balance between heritage and reinvention: they have to respect the brand’s legacy while ushering it into the 21st century. For example, Poiret was revived last year. Staying true to the brand’s codes for her second collection for spring/summer 2019, creative director Yiqing Yin revisited Paul Poiret’s signature draping, drawing on similar ideas of movement, and updated the brand’s iconic harem pants in a scarf-meets-skirt and dress. The parallels didn’t stop at design: in much the same way that Poiret worked with artists, Yin collaborated with painter Bernard Frize for the spring/summer collection. The venerable fashion house offers a framework from which Yin innovates, to create designs that are relevant and contemporary.
One of the most recent revivals to look out for this year is Jean Patou, the fashion house founded eponymously in 1912. Like Schiaparelli, Jean Patou was a ground-breaking designer of his time. LVMH recently acquired a majority stake in the brand and appointed Guillaume Henry, previously at Nina Ricci, as creative director in September 2018. Tasked with forging a new image for the brand after a hiatus of more than three decades, Henry will present his debut collection this year.
This is a classic example of a large luxury group exhuming a designer name. Indeed, if you look closer, besides LVMH, the likes of Groupe Arnault, Diego Della Valle and Shinsegae are among the big investors and conglomerates spurring on such revivals. Experts in the field of luxury, they fully understand the value of the houses’ respective heritages and how to reinvent them for modern audience. Resurrecting a brand, a process which plays on collective memory and references to house iconography, is clearly a formula that works.
In some cases, however, the revival is a family matter: Létrange, for example, was recently relaunched by Sébastien Létrange, seventh generation of the founding family. Founded in 1838, with roots in saddlery, the brand went on to create leather goods for gentlemen, hunters and military men, before becoming a purveyor of high-quality shirts. In 2014, Sébastien Létrange took on the challenge of reviving the brand, transforming it into a contemporary bag label.
‘Over 25 years I shared lots of time and conversations with my great-grandmother Henriette Létrange, who inspired me in many ways,’ he recalls. ‘In 2014, I decided to pay tribute to her with the idea of starting a book about Létrange, the family house she had run for 30 years. While digging through the archives I discovered bits of history she had mentioned and much more that she hadn’t, to such an extent that, after months of work, I ended up with the desire to revive the brand rather than just making a book.’
In the process, Létrange had to find a careful positioning for the brand. ‘The leather-goods market is large and highly competitive, with major players,’ he says. ‘To make a difference in the offering, we decided to focus on Létrange’s DNA of innovation: we selected Mathias Jaquemet [formerly of Vuitton and Dior] as our artistic designer because he had this ability to think beyond design, and to imagine new ways of conceiving constructions, mixing our traditional savoirfaire with new technologies or arts.’
Under Jaquemet’s aegis, the Empreinte and the Ego have become signature Létrange handbags: the first tips into art with its sculptural handle, the second shows technical prowess with its asymmetric shape origami-like construction. Despite the highly contemporary aesthetic, small details create a subtle link to the brand’s past: saddle nails, used 100 years ago to fix the interior leather padding then found in coaches, have been adapted as key metal pieces, while a name tag is the exact replica of a Létrange patent from 1926.
The revival of a designer name such as Poiret, Jean Patou or Létrange is part of a wider cultural phenomenon: we live in an era where heritage has become a buzzword and there’s a prevalent nostalgia in the luxury industry which sees creative directors repeatedly dig into archives for inspiration. In this respect, storied fashion designers who faded into oblivion decades ago are ripe for resurrection. French brands, in particular, have been susceptible to revivals over the past few years, satiating a nostalgia for the heyday of France’s cultural genius as well as a constant quest for fresh versions of illustrious French style.