Did you ever dream of having French couture in your life?
Well, I have the closest way most of us can make that specific kind of luxury accessible in our daily life, and it’s amazing!
Elyssa Dimant, author of The New French Couture: Icons of Paris Fashion, is the 7 Days to Amazing podcast guest this week to share the dazzling history and journey of Paris fashion throughout the 20th century and today.
Her new book provides gorgeous insight to the visual and historical details around high fashion in Paris and how it effects what we wear today. As a matter of fact, if you ever feel like you’re in the style doldrums, simply poke around The New French Couture and you will surely find inspiration to make your wardrobe that much more interesting.
So get ready, sit back and listen in to learn about the Paris fashion leaders and their longstanding ateliers that changed the way we look at style today.
This week’s 7 Days to Amazing podcast is a must listen and look!
Get Elyssa’s book, The New French Couture: Icons of Paris Fashion!
Visit amazon.com now to order your copy of The New French Couture: Icons of Paris Fashion.
With more than 175 color high-fashion photographs, this stunning, comprehensive, and authoritative handbook on modern French couture, covering the finest Parisian houses of couture—including Chanel, Dior, Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent, Lanvin, and more—and the creative directors who are redefining their legacies for the twenty-first century.
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Announcer: Welcome to the Seven Days to Amazing Podcast where you learn how to make your life, business and style even more amazing in the next week! Now your host, Sharon Haver, of FocusOnStyle.com.
Sharon Haver: Hello chicsters, I am Sharon Haver and you are about to be amazed. I have a very special guest on today’s episode of Seven Days to Amazing. For all of you fashionistas I can assure you will be salivating. And for those of you who consider yourself fashion-phobic, don’t worry, you will be inspired beyond your imagination!
Elyssa Dimant is a Fashion Historian and expert in Contemporary Fashion Studies. Her most recent book The New French Couture: Icons of Paris Fashion, is available now from Harper Design. Elyssa served as an adjunct professor at Parson’s School of Design and at Cooper Union Master’s Program in New York. She has lectured at museums, universities and private venues worldwide. Formally a curatorial research associate at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of art she co-curated the 2004 fashion exhibit Wild: Fashion Untamed and co-authored the accompanying catalog.
Elyssa is the author of several other fashion & style books including Style Mentors: Women Who Define the Art of Dressing Today, Minimalism in Fashion: Reduction in the Postmodern Era, and Fashion Fabrics: Contemporary Textiles in Fashion.
Today we will not only talk about the new French Couture, but how Paris Fashion can inspire your daily life. Yes, your daily life!
Welcome Elyssa, we are thrilled to have you here today on 7 Days to Amazing.
Elyssa Dimant: Thank you so much, it’s great to be here.
Sharon Haver: Can you tell us a little bit about what a fashion historian is for those of you who aren’t sure and also define what couture is? Because I know so many people are a little unclear as to what couture is, and I know especially through the years a lot of people go to a craft fair and they see somebody’s chenille sweater with the big buttons and it’s handmade and they’re calling it ‘couture.’ And then of course there was Juicy Couture!
So if you could go through the history for a lay person on what couture really is and how you got involved in it.
Elyssa Dimant: Sure, couture is actually a very rigid structure of qualifications that are ordered by the Chambre Syndicale in Paris that define how a garment is made, that on a more practical level equals something custom made. So Haute Couture is the sort of high fashion that’s custom made. This book talks about couture from the perspective of both the artistry involved and from the inspiration, the kind of drive the couturiers had when they established the houses and then the new creative directors now have as they continue the traditions of each respected brand. So that’s couture in a nutshell.
In terms of how I got involved, I am a New York girl, I’ve been to shows in Paris, but I am not in the French Fashion world. But what interested me about writing about French Fashion was the idea that it is such a venerable institution. There’s so much there about history & tradition and I think the whole world looks at those shows as inspiration. And I wanted to understand how both contemporary creative directors balance between very high-end couture and the more practical level of ‘what are we going to sell the customers? what are we going to license to keep the commerce going?’
This book actually started from curiosity and the idea that each brand represented in the book which there’s Saint Laurent, Dior and Lanvin, there’s Givenchy, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Balenciaga and Chanel of course – each of those brands were houses that were established sometime between the early to mid 20th century and have continued to be successful in huge part because of these identifiable icons that the creative directors have put forward.
The Safari Look!
This photo (pg 16) of Verushka in an off collection of Yves Saint Laurent Saharienne, designed by Yves Saint Laurent from 1968 has always been one of my personal iconic fashion moments.
Sharon Haver: One of the things that I think is so fascinating in The New French Couture, by the way folks, if you’re wanting to get a great Christmas or holiday present, or you’re wanting something not only beautiful to put on your coffee table, something that’s very literate as well, this is the book!
Besides all of the magnificent fashion photos, Elyssa did a superb job, which will get into later, at really giving you the background of each piece. And one of the things I love about this book is how you were able to show the old & the new per se. How they’ve managed to transcend decades and time with a designer. One of your opening photos is a picture I actually had on my wall growing up that I always loved the, is Veruschka in a Saint Laurent safari tan top – it’s amazing! You know I always tell women the way to find their own style is to find iconic moments that have inspired them to find their own style and it clicks from within.
Then it goes on to show you that this outfit from Saint Laurent has changed through years and the last one in here is from 2013. It’s a suede version but it’s very similar to the original. Of course that one has a special spot in my heart but also if this wasn’t your thing and you weren’t familiar with the photo and the iconic imagery of it, you’ll start to see that this style has transcended so much over time, so many different levels of fashion through the years.
I know particularly because this was a style marker for me, I remember seeing it in the 80’s and 90’s in the missy department, I mean it didn’t have the same special zing. So every time I remember that special safari outfit I think of some big box store, or I know Zara did a navy silk version a couple of years ago, and then oh God that line in the 80’s not Cathy Hardwick, Liz Claiborne had one once I remember. It’s so interesting to be aware of these things and see how they transcend.
So as we go further one of the things about Saint Laurent, and I’ll let you take it further going through the big 8 is the tuxedo suit, you know I think tuxedo dressing is so iconic, it’s such a classic for women it’s forever chic. For me it was always that Helmut Newton photo stuck in my mind, but you’ve the original YSL one here and then the modern version and it’s a styling trick that anyone can do, it goes through decades and time and always looks so right.
In the book you go through the top 8, so I’ll let you sort of freestyle through iconic silhouettes of if you want to go more by designer, or house by house, whatever you feel gives the most impact for the time we have today.
Yves Saint Laurent Haute Couture, Fall 1969
Elyssa Dimant: Thank you, this was such a fun project from the perspective of a historian’s dream. You know you’re really looking at different pieces over time and how they’ve evolved under all of these different creative visions. So what I tried to do was instead of mapping the chronology of a house, which I feel as been done a lot of different times with these brands, I tried to think what are the trends that keep appearing time & time again? What are we distilling? These are the sort of elements that make up the identity of Chanel, the identity of Dior.
And I think that they are fairly clear. You know my biggest fear was that I thought ‘oh my God you missed the whole Saint Laurent leopard story,’ and I think there’s always going to be things because these are such huge meaty worlds these brands, because they been around for over a century in some cases. But at the same time there’s things we just know them by.
For example Chanel, it’s the idea of La Garconne and this masculine infused with feminine, and the skirt suit and boucle, the quilted bag, you know all of these mean Chanel to us know.
Karl Lagerfeld was one of the first creative directors to revive a stalwart house in 1983 and he’s since mined this rich mythology of what makes up Chanel, and what Chanel means. It’s such a clear identity, even for someone not necessarily interested in fashion, can look at something and think ‘that’s kind of Chanel.’
People have a comfort level there which is exciting. That was an easier one because there is this storytelling Lagerfeld has done so consistently for the past 30 years. But some of the more difficult jobs were Marc Jacobs reviving or really creating Vuitton ready-to-wear in the 1990’s and you know they didn’t have clothing before, so how do you take a brand that’s all about luggage and make it about clothes?
So really looking at their practice and craftsmanship and what Jacobs took from the legacy brand.
The book is organized first half by fashion personalities, you have Saint Laurent who is like the Belle de Jour so you have the kind of contemporary woman in every way. And I think that’s been steadily supported by everyone who has designed that brand from Yves through Tom Ford, who was not critically accepted and then Stefano Pilatti and Hedi Slimane, there’s very different people who understand the language of that kind of revolutionary clothing for the women of the era – which is what I tried to get across in that chapter.
Sharon Haver: That’s also so interesting as I’ve always collected old Yves through the years, and there’s something so interesting about the clothes because even though he did have a little dowdy, fussy period – let’s call a spade a spade!
There were a few year’s there where it was not that pretty but if you get away from those few pieces and look to the really big moments, that stuff, I put some of those pieces on today and people are like ‘where is that from, I love that.’
And I say ‘oh it’s my old fuchsia Saint Laurent top, it’s my old this, my old that’ and there’s something so interesting because it transcends time. It doesn’t look dated, and it doesn’t look dowdy. It was more about the way it was put together.
Elyssa Dimant: I mean the capability of someone creating something that looks completely of it’s own time and yet your point that 30 years later it doesn’t look dowdy or frumpy or weird in an incredible skill.
Sharon Haver: I think out of all of them and even the state of the brand now, it’s a completely different customer. It’s so much younger and I know there was a big fuss when it changed over with that hip rocker edge, but the essence is still there.
Elyssa Dimant: Honestly, it’s so funny when Slimane first took the stage at Saint Laurent, it was such a critical success that first collection, because he brought back all of these old Yves tropes and really did them beautifully. And the next season he came out with this grungy very Slimane L.A rocker chic version of that and people were like ‘what are you doing?’
But for me the DNA of a brand is catching people off guard and flipping the institution of high fashion on it’s head so that you are really dealing with a revolution. To me he was the best embodiment of someone who could be a successor to Yves.
Sharon Haver: Absolutely, and if you look back at all of those photos from his Moroccan days, that stuff was pretty cutting edge and avant-garde too.
Elyssa Dimant: Sure, even the ‘Happy Hooker’ collection of ‘71 that Yves Saint Laurent did, people hated that collection. The critical press panned it. And now when we look back at it, it was one of the most identifiable things he did.
So that chapter is very much about that girl, the girl you want to be. And from there I went to the extreme opposite, and to some extent I think Chanel and YSL represent the spectrum of fashion. So I went to Dior’s romantic with this completely cultivated aesthetic, completely artificial and just decorated and gorgeous.
It’s the opposite of the laissez faire(natural attitude) girl about town.
Dior Haute Couture Fall 2012
Sharon Haver: It definitely a girl who is a little more fussy, more thought out, but still immaculate.
Elyssa Dimant: It’s gorgeous. But is literally like going from stepping onto the French to street to the French salon. It’s a very different feel, so that chapter played on of course the New Look Silhouette which was the predominant one, but then into all the different H, A and trapeze signature lines that were created there over decades and you know at the time I finished the book, Raf was still at Dior.
And he did an incredible job of maintaining the signatures of Dior without making them overly fettered. Which was an extraordinary skill of his.
Sharon Haver: He is an incredible designer. I think I bought as much Jil Sander when he was there as I could. His stuff is just flawless, it’s beautiful.
And for those of you who aren’t familiar going back a little in history, Dior’s New Look which was 1947, I’m sure you all know if you would see it, it was really quite cutting edge and revolutionary at the time and it’s the single breasted peplum jacket, very nipped in the waist, and the come out to a mid-calf pleated skirt and at that time it really turned the world on it’s head with very pretty kitten heels.
Christian Dior Haute Couture Fall 2005, designed by John Galliano
Elyssa Dimant: Well it’s like the world was ready to go. When Dior came on the scene they were ready to go for shortened hemlines and more freedom of movement and he literally came in and said ‘no, no, fashion is not comfort, fashion is cultivated beauty and this is what it looks like and it’s too bad if it’s inconvenient!’
It really reversed fashion time and took it back to this gorgeous fantasy place which to some degree, John Galliano(predecessor) this master of reawakening that fantasy. That conversation at Dior, and I think one of his greatest skills with that brand was keeping the mythology alive. The theatre of it alive.
Sharon Haver: That was fashion with a capital F! That was not for the shy for the shy girl who doesn’t like to get dressed up. Let’s say…
Elyssa Dimant: For sure, but now if you are looking at their spokes-model, you’ve got Jennifer Lawrence, she’s not a girl who is going to be sitting quietly in a corner. She’s a modern, aggressive and assertive person. I think that her under Raf Simons collections was a great fit. It’s not about being prim & proper to a point of fussy, as much as it is about being the most fantastical, envisionment of what a woman is at any given time.
Lanvin Spring 2008, designed by Alber Elbaz
Sharon Haver: You have a quote in your book about designer Alber Elbaz(at Lanin) and I just loved it…
It was the he is more interested in designing a dress that a woman wears than when she falls in love with herself. I think that is such a beautiful quote.
Elyssa Dimant: Alber was I think such a beautiful light at that house, ad such an extraordinary designer in general, you know I think Lanvin would have been completely forgotten over time, not unlike Jean Patou sadly, even though it’s more well known.
But there were so many gorgeous brands in the 1920’s & 30’s that were lost over time and I think the reason that Lanvin has resurfaced and survived is that Alber was really able to see the admiration and the significance of the woman herself in Jeanne Lanvin’s image.
Jeanne Lanvin was very much about femininity, about motherhood, she was about a woman’s ability to do everything that she wanted to do and have the clothes to do it in. And I think Alber was a designer who could come in and say ‘I’ll still be doing runway fashion, but I am going to design runway fashion that makes women look & feel good.’
Sharon Haver: Absolutely, there is something in all of those collections(of Alber) where there’s such an inherent beauty to it.
Elyssa Dimant: There’s a freedom to those clothes. It’s about celebration. About letting your wallflower blossom into a different kind of flower.
Sharon Haver: In the book you have some really beautiful photos. One of them is a dress, a sleeveless inky blue sheath and it has this fantastic sculptural ruffle. It is just breathtaking.
Elyssa Dimant: Oh thank you. It really was such a treat going through them and I had created a system where it was like uncovering treasures.
Sharon Haver: On the next page there is a picture of a red haired model with a big beige top with a huge bow and a ruffle, I mean the material!
Elyssa Dimant: It was such a huge thing the bow. The thing I find fascinating about Alber though is he was able to take these very infantile symbols like the bow, the ruffled skirt – all sorts of things you would associate with little girls, and make them quite sophisticated.
When he started doing the Lanvin petite collection, I think it was around 2011, 2012 maybe, and he started doing these collections and it was like this is just genius. You’re going to use the same fabric for mother & daughter and you really saw that this works on women of all ages.
Which is just so challenging. An extraordinary fete.
Sharon Haver: And also to have something so feminine without it being girly and infantile but feminine and sensual at the same time.
Elyssa Dimant: Yes, feminine without being frilly.
Sharon Haver: You know I work with a lot of women who say they want to be more feminine and to them feminine is I don’t know – what are you going to wear to the horse races?
That’s not feminine, that’s some sort of girly fascination with it. But to be able to nail it and hone it in such a way that it is beautiful and timeless. It’s voluptuous femininity with the ruffles and the fabric.
And for those of you who are saying you could never wear couture, beyond listening to us right now, look at Elyssa’s book, treat yourself with it! There’s just so much inspiration, even this one photo with the big beige ruffle, I’m thinking even at home you can be inspired. Maybe you could tie a big scarf around your neck that way, or wear your hair that way or think about instead of that big blue dress with a ruffle in that back, think of the same silhouette but add a jacket with it or layer.
Be inspired by beauty that is so breathtaking and look at what you have in your life and let it take over your hands in the morning when you get dressed and maybe you could tie your jacket a certain way or flip your collar or wear a white shirt with your jacket and do a tuxedo suit.
Keep your eyes opened to get inspired from all of this, the book is so beautiful I can’t say it any other way.
Elyssa Dimant: I really appreciate that, it was a labor of love.
Sharon Haver: Well yes, next time can I help curate it?
Elyssa Dimant: Please help! I would really love it but it was such a wonderful thing to be able to write that book. Of all the projects I have worked on, it was a true Fashion Historian’s delight. To be able to go through these houses and cull what was really at their heart & core…
Balenciaga Fall 1967, designed by Cristobal Balenciaga
Sharon Haver: One of the things I want to go through with a fashion historian, which is such a complete 360 – let’s talk about Givenchy for a minute. From its street cred right now to back in the day with Audrey Hepburn, you can’t have a bigger shift, you know?
Elyssa Dimant: I think obviously Ricardo Tisci(current designer) is really good at designing and dressing for personalities, the whole celebrity and streetstyle thing has been a distinctive part of his brand, but I think Hubert de Givenchy who founded the brand who was an aristocrat, you know he owned furniture and art collections, he kind of mashed together all of these references. And from what I hear, he himself was really good at pulling all of these references together and I think Tisci does the same from art, history, style and culture and mashes them into silhouettes that are fun and wearable.
Even the Audrey Hepburn pieces they may have been clean, crisp and tailored, and not have all the embroidery, or the various kind of controversial cuts that Tisci is proponent of. They were clothes that women wanted, they were enviable clothes.
So for me Givenchy was sort of taking the highbrow and making it every woman’s.
Sharon Haver: It’s taking it from super chic to super cool today. Which I think Audrey was pretty cool in her own right, just that whole look.
So we only have a couple of minutes left here, and I’m just flipping through the images, is there anything else?
Balenciaga Ready to Wear Spring 2012, designed by Nicolas Ghesquiere
Elyssa Dimant: I loved working on the last half of the book. To me it felt almost like a movie narrative because I started the second half with Louis Vuitton and moved into Hermes, Hermes being the art of sport and Vuitton being the art of luggage. And I finished the book with Balenciaga because to me that brand will always be fashion’s future. Whether you are talking about Cristobal Balenciaga himself or Alexander Wang(predecessor) and Nicolas Ghesquiere obviously did such extraordinary work there. Ghesquiere’s work there was so similar to couture that I think it changed the industry. It was painstakingly custom and I credit him for elevated the notion of ready-to-wear in Paris and the capability to bring artistry to a high fashion collection that wasn’t necessarily like traditional couture artistry but was like craftsmanship of plastics for heels that was so precise and so gorgeous. High-tech materials and his techniques to give people something truly unique and visionary.
For me that was a super fun chapter, digging in the archives of oth Vuitton and Hermes and coming across all sorts of things like 1920’s advertisements, that was just so much fun.
But all in all, I really enjoyed the book and hope that people can take away an understanding of how long these houses have been around and continue to create new & new but also always come back to their griffe. Meaning they always come back to their signature, their tropes of the house like something you look at and say ‘that’s for sure a Chanel piece, that is for sure a Dior piece’ or there’s no way that wasn’t created by Vuitton when I see that logo fabric.’
The houses now they have those symbols and that is in part why I think they continue to be successful because they work from them and evolve them.
Louis Vuitton Ready to Wear, Spring 2000, designed by Marc Jacobs
Sharon Haver: So I like to ask everyone if you could tell people one thing to be more amazing this week, for me it would be get The New French Couture by Elyssa Dimant and when you don’t know what to do, flip through a few pages and get inspired – it’s really incredible.
So if you could sum it up, what is the one thing someone could do with couture to be a little more amazing in their life whether it would be looking at the clothes to get inspired, or something you’ve gleamed from working with the houses, whatever it is.
What do you think is someone’s take away to be more amazing in the next week?
Elyssa Dimant: I don’t know how much it relates to couture but it relates to effortless style which is above everything, you really have to feel good about what you are wearing.
No matter how beautiful a dress is, if you are shifting around and feeling crazy, if it doesn’t fit you well, you are going to look crazy!
Whatever you do, whatever you put on, it’s really important to be comfortable in that skin and feel like it represents who you are.
Sharon Haver: Absolutely, and in so many ways it’s also about how you present yourself, especially women in business, I know a lot of women, they work from home, they’re entrepreneurs, authors writes, speakers, when they get out there, someone else dresses them.
And they look they know it is not right on them.
Elyssa Dimant: Yes, you have to go with your gut and remember that the woman who has the best style, she’s always trusted her own instincts as opposed to putting on a different face that wasn’t theirs.
Sharon Haver: You’ve got to be in control of your own look otherwise it’s not going to look right.
Elyssa Dimant: It(your style) has to come from something natural, it can’t be completely cultivated.
Sharon Haver: Style has to be natural to you for the wearer. So thank you so much for being here today.
Elyssa Dimant: Thanks I really appreciate it and I hope people find the book compelling and beautiful and that it makes a nice addition to their room or collection or their library.
Sharon Haver: Or their dresser! Anyways, thank you for being here. So it’s The New French Couture: Icons of Paris Fashion and you can get it at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and booksellers across the country.
Announcer: That’s a wrap, well not so fast. Don’t forget to hop over to focusonstyle.com for exclusive content to help you live your most amazing life with style and success. For even more great stuff that Sharon only shares by email, subscribe to her in-the-know list at www.focusonstyle.com/insiders.
See you next time!
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Images provided by author
Page 16: photograph by Franco Rubartelli for French Vogue, July-August 1968
Page 46-7: photograph by Patrick Demarchelier. Published by Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
Page 58: photograph by Partick Demarchelier
Page 118: courtesy of MCV Photo
Page 230: photograph by Ruven Afanador
Page 267 (1): photograph by Tom Kublin
Page 267 (2): courtesy of MCV Photo