Fashion Week, or la Semaine de la mode, occurs biannually in Paris, as it does in London, Milan, and New York. I remember being in Paris one January, walking through the Jardin des Tuileries, and seeing a mix of models, designers, photographers, and others in the fashion industry gathered outside the Carrousel du Louvre before one of the showings. The Carrousel du Louvre has been a central venue for Paris Fashion week, though other impressive venues have also been used, including the Musée d’Art Moderne and the Palais de Tokyo.
Although the Paris Fashion Week dates back to 1973, its origins are much older. In 1858 Charles Frederick Worth established the first haute couture house in Paris, and that same year, La Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture was established to outline certain standards that must be met in order to be considered a maison de couture. Today’s standards include designing pieces made-to-order, having an atelier that has at least fifteen full-time employees, and creating at least fifty designs per season for both day and evening wear. Many maisons de couture also produce accessories, makeup, skincare, and fragrances.
Here are seven maisons de couture that have had a lasting influence on the fashion industry.
La Maison Lanvin was founded by Jeanne Lanvin in 1889 and is the oldest maison de couture that is still active. Lanvin’s designs originated from the clothing she would make for her daughter, which was admired and sought after by so many of her acquaintances that she soon began making copies for other children, as well as for their mothers. Her intricate style, including ruffles, embellishments, embroidery, beading, sequins, and full skirts stood in contrast to the flapper style that was emerging during the same era.
In addition to clothing, Lanvin also made hats, having opened her own millinery studio when she was sixteen years old in a two-bedroom apartment in Paris. She eventually popularized the cloche hat, while also creating more elaborate headpieces that used silk and feathers and matched her flowing couture dresses.
Lanvin also developed a unique fragrance which she was inspired to name Arpège while listening to her daughter practice the piano. Lanvin created a signature cornflower blue color which remains a collection staple. The midnight blue suits designed by Lanvin for the London football club Arsenal in 2013 echo this staple of the Lanvin collection.
The Lanvin logo features a mother and daughter and is based on a photograph of Lanvin and her daughter in matching tiaras and gowns, ready to attend a ball.
Chanel has brought us classics such as the Little Black Dress, or the LBD, the fragrance Chanel No. 5, and a signature red lip. Founded by Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel in 1909, the maison de Chanel has focused on womenswear with a sleek, elegant style that broke from the fussiness and opulence of the preceding era.
Chanel is credited with snipping the ribbon off the corsets women had worn since the Renaissance, favoring free-flowing garments made of jersey material, wide-legged trousers, and pieces that were more modern and practical. The simple elegance of Chanel’s pieces survived the Great Depression with its restricted resources, and then World War II with its rationing of supplies and materials.
Chanel herself is a fashion icon, as seen in the famous 1935 photograph of her in an LBD with strings of pearls around her neck. Chanel fragrances have also stood the test of time, with Chanel No. 5, released in 1921, remaining a perennial bestseller. In a 1960 interview with Marie Claire’s editor-in-chief, Georges Belmont, Marilyn Monroe famously stated that she only wore Chanel No. 5 to bed.
Christian Dior established his house in 1946. His first collection, launched in 1947, featured the “New Look,” which established him as an influential couturier. This look included rounded shoulders, a cinched waist, and a very full skirt. One theme of this collection was “Figure 8,” which referred to the silhouette that his designs created. Such designs brought women’s fashion out of the austerity of WWII and introduced a luxuriousness into clothing that had been left aside during the harsher periods of scarce resources and rationing.
In 1955 Dior popularized the A-line, which emphasized small shoulders and an undefined waist that widened over the hips and legs, resembling the letter A. Dior was always appreciative of English culture and grew up in Normandy, where his mother tended an English garden. He even appreciated English cuisine! This appreciation has not gone unnoticed in the upcoming retrospective of Dior’s work at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Although he only spent a decade as a well-known couturier before passing away in 1957, he has had a lasting influence on fashion.
La Maison Chloé was founded in 1952 by Gaby Aghion, who was born in Alexandria, Egypt. In 1945 she and her husband, Raymond, moved to Paris, where they frequented writers such as Louis Aragon, Tristan Tzara and Paul Éluard, as well as painters such as Pablo Picasso. These people greatly influenced the couple, and Raymond Aghion eventually opened an art gallery several years after Chloé was launched.
La Maison Chloé favored flowing fabrics that departed from the stiffer, highly structured, more formal looks that were present in 1950’s fashion. The free-spirited look and feel of the brand contribute to its “cool girl” style, and key pieces include capes, blouses, and long dresses. At the house’s inception, Aghion created prêt-à-porter designs, which would become the norm for the field, and is even said to have coined the phrase.
La Maison Chloé has a history of molding superstar designers, such as Karl Lagerfeld, Stella McCartney, and Clare Waight Keller. Karl Lagerfeld went on to work for Fendi and Chanel, where he is now the creative director. Stella McCartney has her own label, and Clare Waight Keller is now artistic director at Givenchy.
In 1952, Hubert de Givenchy founded la Maison Givenchy. Although his family originally planned a legal career for him, he decided at age seventeen to enroll in the École des beaux arts in Paris. While studying drawing, he took on apprenticeships at various maisons de couture and, one year after founding his own house, he met his idol Cristóbal Balenciaga, another couturier, who would become his mentor. In 1955, he presented a shirtdress that became a classic and would lead to the lantern shapes for which he is well-known.
Givenchy is also associated with the LBD, having designed the one that Audrey Hepburn wore in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. A retrospective of his work was presented at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, over which Audrey Hepburn presided. More recently, Meghan Markle wore a Givenchy dress at her 2018 wedding to Prince Harry, designed by Givenchy’s current artistic director, Clare Waight Keller, who has brought her own vision to the brand while remaining true to the Givenchy aesthetic. Keller’s first collection, which she debuted at Paris Fashion Week’s fall / winter 2017 show, featured a merging of genders, which was reflected by Givenchy’s advertising campaigns that same year. Givenchy sales are evenly split between womenswear and menswear, which is a rarity in the field.
6. Yves Saint Laurent
Yves Saint broke into the fashion scene in 1958 as Christian Dior’s wonder-boy successor, after the latter’s untimely death. Yves Saint Laurent eventually established his own fashion house in 1961, putting women in trousers both day and night and introducing leopard print and trench coats as signature pieces in his collections. Inspired by what he found at navy surplus stores, he also adapted sailors’ pea coats into his designs. His beauty lines include the fragrance Opium, released in 1977, which caused a bit of a scandal, as some perceived that it promoted drug use, while others felt it made an objectionable reference to the Opium Wars fought during the colonial era. He was inspired by artists such as Mondrian, Matisse, Miró and Picasso, and had a private art collection.
A 1983 retrospective of his work was held at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was the first time the Museum had given that honor to a living designer. In addition to collections for couture, Saint Laurent designed costumes and sets for ballet, theater, and film, including Belle de Jour, a 1967 film in which Catherine Deneuve starred. This year’s Paris Fashion Week included an auction of Catherine Deneuve’s Yves Saint Laurent collection at Christie’s.
Saint Laurent’s couture house was turned into a museum upon his retirement in 2002.
Jean-Paul Gaultier released his first individual collection in 1976. His creations have been considered very daring and innovative, and he is known as the enfant terrible of French fashion. At the age of seventeen, having no formal training, he sent a few sketches to Pierre Cardin, who hired him on the spot.
In contrast to the high-end elegance that characterized French couture at the time, Gaultier was inspired by street fashion and emerged as a notable figure in the fashion world during Britain’s punk rock era.
In 1982 he established his own maison de couture and is known to challenge standard views of fashion, using unconventional models on the runway, such as pregnant women, senior citizens, and heavily tattooed people.
In 1985 he created waves when he introduced skirts into his menswear collection. He has also collaborated with performers and directors, creating the cone brassiere worn by Madonna on her 1990 Blond Ambition tour, costumes for Luc Besson’s 1997 film The Fifth Element, and designs for Angelin Preljocaj’s contemporary ballet version of Blanche Neige, which premiered at the Biennale de la Danse de Lyon in 2008. His fragrance, Le Mâle, released in 1995, has been a bestseller. Its bottle features a man’s torso. In 2011 the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal collaborated with the maison Gaultier on a retrospective of his work.
These maisons de couture have had such an impact on fashion that it is hard to miss seeing at least a few pieces from their collections. Aside from their prominence in the fashion world, pieces from haute couture appear in films, on stage, and at the theater. They also set trends in what the general public wears, influencing the color, cut, length, fabric, and patterns of clothing seen at any given time, out on the streets. Of course, it is nice to watch passersby in a city like Paris, which has a wide variety of fashion and where the latest styles are available. Shows in museums, such as the retrospectives mentioned above, are also a good way to see the evolution and growth of a particular brand, and to see how it has become what it is today.