PROLOGUE 

Olivier Saillard is described by the press as “an iconoclastic historian,” giving his preferences to Fashion creators who are not under pressure from the fashion industry, such as Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto, Martin Margiela, Nicolas Ghesquière or Azzedine Alaia.

"The streets and avenues, passages and alleyways of Paris are studded with memories of the men and women who founded their couture houses there."

"It’s not something that’s shouted from the rooftops but historians know it for a fact: Parisian fashion owes much to an Englishman. 

In the mid 19th century, Charles Frederick Worth crossed the Channel with barely two pennies to rub together and began a job as sales assistant at Gagelin. He was a self-confident young man, with a bold streak. Boosted by the spirit of entrepreneurship that reigned during that century, he was determined to achieve his goal. He opened his own ladies’ tailor shop. Worth was a visionary in a period when marketing didn’t yet exist, and he invented the singular industry of Haute Couture. He was the first to impose the seasonal renewal of collections on his clients, offering them gowns that were not produced according to their wishes but to meet their expectations. He was a precursor in the use of live models, giving customers a better idea of his designs. At his shop he created a room that was illuminated so as to enable the customer to imagine the ball gowns in context. Worth was also the first to sign his designs the way painters did their canvases: brand names began to appear on garments worn by fashionable women, inside the waist, on a ribbon or inside a collar. In public, these ladies were Mrs so-and-so, wife of such-and-such a titled gentleman. But in the privacy of their attire, they were lovers of Worth. Fashion history began with that eccentric Englishman who dressed like Rembrandt. Worth not only spawned generations of couturiers and designers but also mapped out a world that turned Paris into the capital of fashion.

After Worth came Jacques Doucet, then Paul Poiret, who made the Chausée-d’Antin his chic and fashionable quarters. He was rivalled by Gabrielle Chanel, from her isolated base on Rue Cambon, which became her realm. Jeanne Lanvin was already in operation on Rue Boissy d’Anglas, where she had started out from an attic room and ended up buying up all the surrounding buildings. On Rue de Rivoli, then Avenue Montaigne, Madeleine Vionnet developed her businesses as models of social solidarity while turning out gowns as beautifully cut as a Rolls-Royce. But the French were not the only couturiers to hone the very Gallic art of superficiality in the quarters and boulevards of Paris. Cristóbal Balenciaga fled the Civil War in Spain and took refuge on Avenue Marceau, where he only had to nip across the road to meet someone for a drink at the embassy. The Italian Elsa Schiaparelli left Rome and eventually opened her fashion house on Place Vendôme. Madame Grès, that great “silent sphinx” of Haute Couture surveyed this world of appearances from Rue de la Paix. In the 1950s, Christian Dior breathed new life into Avenue Montaigne and Rue François 1er. Years later, his protégé Yves Saint Laurent would open his house on Avenue Marceau in the nurturing aura of the great Balenciaga, whose studio was close by.

 

The streets and avenues, passages and alleyways of Paris are studded with memories of the men and women who founded their couture houses there. Azzedine Alaïa will always be associated with Rue de la Verrerie. The glass-roofed building where he held his fashion shows and his kitchen where his friends would gather was a private world, a medina over which the couturier reigned. Jean Paul Gaultier dreamt up his most extraordinary dresses on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin. For all those who knew him at the time, the galerie Vivienne, which famously housed his store, has the air of a melancholic dream about it today. Just as Rue du Faubourg Poissonnière, where Martin Margiela draped his premises in optical white, became a place of pilgrimage for nostalgic fashion freaks.

 

Since the 19th century, Paris has invented fashion as easily as shaking out a packet of pins and needles onto a table. When it’s grey and wet outside like a Brassaï photograph, inside modest or plush houses, people of every colour of skin, who have passed through the city for decades to make the Fashion Weeks the celebrations that they are, from every social background, and fabrics of every hue, are bursting out with the insouciance that is the greatest expression of tolerance."

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