Madeleine Vionnet was born in the late 1800s, an era when a woman’s body was defined by the shape of her clothes – corsets, padding and other devices were not only popular but mandatory. Inspired by the free-flowing gowns of ancient Greece, Vionnet defied the fashion canons of her age by creating garments that displayed and followed a woman’s natural shape, instead of trying to create a new one.
The game-changing idea was the bias cut; by cutting fabric asymmetrically, in a diagonal line instead of a straight one, it ended up falling freely around the body. This cut allowed for greater movement and comfort, as the fabric was no longer stiff and giving its wearer a new shape, but instead kept with the woman’s natural silhouette while creating a very elegant drape.
This introduction of simplicity in construction also made fashion accessible to the working class for the first time; Vionnet was a visionary when it came to designing for middle-class women, having worked as a hospital seamstress, and knew exactly how to build simple, practical garments that would work for retail as opposed to the intricate couture of her time. This way, along with Coco Chanel, Vionnet reinvented the fashion industry not just through the shape of her gowns, but also by taking high fashion straight from the catwalk and making it accessible to middle-class women via ready-to-wear, mass production garments – which is exactly what we all wear today.
Despite her genius, however, Madeleine was human and not immortal. After flourishing greatly for almost 30 years as both a designer and a brand, Madeleine Vionnet retired in 1939 with a farewell collection. Her house closed in 1952 and her designs were mostly donated to the Musée de la Mode et du Textile in Paris. There were decades of silence before the plotting in the shadows began in 1988, once the Lummen family acquired the brand and started launching perfumes and accessories, making an effort to keep a low profile.
It was only in 2006 that Madeleine Vionnet’s maison was revitalized – or, more accurately, reborn.
But is the Vionnet of today a carbon copy of its heritage?
It is commonly said that fashion can be measured in cycles, or rather, constant reinventions of the same. How many times have the 1960s been ‘back in fashion’ in the 2000s? There is a tendency to call it retro-chic and go overboard and, nowadays, most brands are doing exactly that – basing entire collections on the style signs of a decade. Bringing back Vionnet, a brand with such clear visions and style guidelines from so far back in time… well, one would expect not only pure retro, but a complete flashback to the early 20th century.
That is not, however, what happened, and the Vionnet of present times, despite drawing from a label that had been asleep for decades, is its own majestic creature, with as much personality of its own as influence from its birth mother.
With an overwhelming sense of minimalistic elegance, one of the Vionnet of today’s most prominent signs of style is the constant allusion to the 1920s – without the existence of bejeweled flapper dresses (like John Galliano’s Fall 2008 collection, which was heavily 20s-inspired). Every collection, year after year, no matter how diverse the themes and inspirations might be, have always had a very distinct and mature Art Deco feel, visible through the subtle (or not) existence of diagonal lines, triangular cuts, geometric elements and bold yet mature hues.
Though it is not the extreme minimalism of Phoebe Philo’s Celine, the cleanly-cut garments present in the Vionnet fashion of today exude a very feminine and simple elegance, unadorned and unassuming, yet very empowering. The transitions between designers in the house of Vionnet (although there have not been many, Sophia Kokosalaki being the first to have a go at the reinvention of Madeleine’s maison) have been almost unnoticeable, with the image of a powerful, independent and regal yet unassuming woman being a main connecting thread.
It is a pret-a-porter for eveningwear, and eveningwear for daytime. It is grace, sophistication and confidence, fashion for the working woman with the soul of a 1920s Hollywood queen. Vionnet is Vionnet, without being Madeleine – yet we can be sure she would not be disappointed.