Celebrity

Visionary: Jean Patou

Presaging our individual versus mass, Internet-enabled freedom, Jean Patou resolved the modern woman's contradictions.

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Photo by Getty Images

“What you can wear well, that you should wear” — Jean Patou

For fall’s Louis Vuitton show, Marc Jacobs put shimmering nightgown dresses under boxy plaid overcoats. At Dior, Raf Simons added dashes of pop-art embroidery to elegant Jazz Age shifts he called “memory dresses.” In their easy-sexy drapery and masculine and feminine playfulness, they were evocative of no one so much as Jean Patou, the machine age genius who rivalled only Coco Chanel in defining fashion (and living at the centre of its whirl) in those tumultuous years between the world wars.

Just as Patou’s ghost stalks the runways—and the frenetic global pace of culture and technology mirrors his era—a new book, Jean Patou: A Fashionable Life, by Emmanuelle Polle, who was given unprecedented access by Patou’s heirs to diaries, letters, sketchbooks and client lists, reveals the brief but glowing arc of his career (although his love affairs remain remarkably well hidden). Patou was found dead at 48 in his George V hotel room in Paris. His obituary lists an embolism, but questions remain.

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Left: A 1930s advertisement in The New Yorker for Joy, still the second-best-selling perfume in the world, after Chanel No. 5. Right: Women lounge in Patou’s gowns in his damask-lined studio in 1932.

Like Chanel, with whom he competed fiercely for wealthy clients, Patou appreciated sleek minimalism and diverse references that homed in on what was buzzing in the salons. He named one embroidered caramel silk-velvet coat Fleurs du mal after Baudelaire’s volume of decadent symbolist poetry, and his colour-blocked “cubist” sweaters reflected avant-garde art. At the peak of their popularity, in the mid–’20s, Patou’s designs acknowledged a full life at a time when people longed to live fully: The war was over, the economy was booming. Patou fed women’s desire to reject passive femininity by dressing tennis champion Suzanne Lenglen in sleeveless, knee-length whites on the courts and, in his Le Coin des Sports shop, selling soft wool jersey cardigans (we have him to thank for cardies being acceptable cover-ups) and pleated skirts “not designed for any sport in particular,” writes Polle. “The skirt-sweater combination became the fashionable woman’s new uniform.”

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Left: A sketch from Patou’s Fleurs du mal coat. Right: An art deco embroidered dress, circa 1926.

In 1931, Patou introduced the hugely popular Joy, “the costliest perfume in the world,” making up for lost couture revenue as the crash swept his clients away. An ounce required 10,600 jasmine flowers and 336 roses. His publicist, Elsa Maxwell, recounts how she “sent samples to 250 prominent American women friends in the hope of arousing the comment that boosts a luxury item.” This early grasp of viral marketing is very Patou. “Fashion is not subject to deduction like a system of logic; it is made up of a thousand different influences,” he famously said. “[It] is a living thing and, in consequence, evolves from day to day, from hour to hour and minute to minute.” We go along, we make it up, ever adding to a collage of self. Along with his artistry, what made Patou relevant to his peers, and makes him relevant still, was that he mastered the illogic of fashion: Personality stands out, trend fits in, and the paradox becomes style.

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Jean Patou: A Fashionable Life by Emmanuelle Polle (Flammarion, $95)

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