With a design signature he simply described as “very classic”, Jean-Louis Scherrer was a couturier whose forte for creating opulent evening wear prompted British Vogue to christen him “The Aladdin of Couture”. Incredibly feminine without being overtly fantastical, Scherrer's style lay in his flair for blending lavish embellishment with wearable silhouettes. “You can use marvellous fabrics, have wonderful, impossible embroidery – in fact, be superluxe,” he told Vogue in 1974, “and superluxe is what the couture is all about.”
Born in Paris in 1935, the son of a psychiatrist, Scherrer studied at the prestigious Conservatoire de Paris, intending to become a classical ballet dancer. An injury sustained as a consequence of a fall meant a change of career and, after training in preliminary couture techniques and fashion design at the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, in 1956 he joined Christian Dior.
Working with the infamous inventor of the New Look made an indelible impression on Scherrer, not only in terms of gaining an invaluable apprenticeship, but opening his eyes to the inner workings of the industry. “It was Dior,” Scherrer observed, “who made fashion into a business by changing the length and shape every season.” When Dior died in 1957, Scherrer continued at the couture house. He was now designing under the direction of his former colleague Yves Saint Laurent, an assistant designer who had been unexpectedly appointed Dior's successor.
After a brief spell at Louis Feraud Scherrer launched his own label in 1962, famously presenting his first capsule collection of cocktail dresses in a wine cellar. It was a golden period for Paris couture, with André Courrèges and Yves Saint Laurent forming their own companies and embracing the concept of ready to wear. But although he was commercially aware, Scherrer encountered business problems from the start. He lacked the stability of a long-standing professional partnership – Pierre Berge was key to the survival of Saint Laurent – which would have ensured the longevity of his brand.
“I admired him among fellow couturiers because what he did was tasteful, sober and well-made,” the veteran couturier Hubert de Givenchy said. “I was always sorry about his setbacks, because he had a lot of talent and I don't know how his business was organised, but he had problems with his partners.”
In 1971 Scherrer was one of a handful of Parisian designers officially granted “Haute Couture” status. In the early 1960s his first premises had been on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, but in 1972 he fulfilled a lifelong ambition and opened a boutique at 51 Avenue Montaigne. By the late '70s he was enjoying commercial and creative acclaim: he had a ready to wear label and had launched his first fragrance, and he was also hugely successful in Japan; he diversified into accessories, sunglasses, shoes and ties. In 1980 he was awarded a Golden Thimble for a collection centred on a Russian Czar theme.
He enjoyed global coverage of his catwalk presentations and reams of positive press and his early client list included a string of exotic beauties, glamorous figures and first ladies: Jacqueline Kennedy, Sophia Loren, Claudia Cardinale, Bianca Jagger and Raquel Welch, who wore one of his sheer dresses in the 1977 French film L'animal. The Scherrer label slowly evolved, becoming synonymous with the 1980s with its exaggerated shoulders, sharp suiting and refined tailoring. Polka dots, florals and animal prints became part of his repertoire and his design handwriting was distinctive for its international appeal.
In 1980 his wife Laurence gave an insight into her husband's lack of ego. “Jean-Louis is very sweet,” she said. “He doesn't mind if I buy a Kenzo or a Saint Laurent dress. In fact, when we're at small parties with friends he prefers to see me in somebody else's clothes. But he can also be extremely difficult. When he sees me in something he doesn't like he simply refuses to leave the house.”
His daughters were both involved in the fashion industry: Laetitia combined a career as a model and animal rights activist while Leonor became a designer in her own right and muse to Givenchy's Riccardo Tisci.
Scherrer had always been directly involved in managing the business, entering into a series of deals which culminated in the label's sale to the Japanese company Seibu Saison in 1990. Although internationally recognised, with 130 employees and annual sales of $25 million, it was operating at a loss. In 1992 Scherrer was sacked from the house he founded due to “unsustainable losses”.
His outrage at his sudden departure and the way it was handled made headlines like “I Was Fired Like a Street Sweeper” in the industry newspaper Women's Wear Daily. Scherrer had become the first French designer to be dismissed from his own company. The label was designed first by Erik Mortensen and then from 1997 to 2007 by Stephane Rolland. The fashion house closed in 2008 but the brand was bought by the French Group JSB International in 2011, and the Scherrer name lives on via licensed products.
Mourning the passing of a couturier of the old school, Hubert de Givenchy said, “He brought his talent and his name to Paris fashion. In person he was discreet, well brought up, and a very kind friend.”
Jean-Louis Scherrer, couturier: born Paris 19 February 1935; married Laurence Laetitia Coëffin (marriage dissolved; two daughters); died 20 June 2013.