Breathing new life into a historic label is a potent fantasy within the modern fashion industry. However, the process of recapturing past glories and making them relevant again can be harder than restoring a bedraggled vintage dress to its original lustre.
Just look at the debacles at Ungaro. Before Giles Deacon was hired last spring, the label went through five designers and one actress-turned-wild-child (Lindsay Lohan) after Emanuel Ungaro departed in 2004. The owners of the revamped Seventies' label Halston swiftly replaced their first designer, Marco Zanini, with Marios Schwab, then hired Sarah Jessica Parker as the creative consultant of its contemporary line Halston Heritage.
The house of Vionnet too has had its fair share of tribulations since it was revived for the first time in 2006, but, when there's a legacy this distinguished at stake, perhaps it's not surprising that investors with money to burn risk getting their fingers somewhat singed too. Under the ownership of Arnaud de Lummen, the man behind its reintroduction four years ago, Vionnet went through two designers: Sophia Kokosalaki and Marc Audibet. However, since February 2009, it has been owned by the Italian businessman Matteo Marzotto. He hired a former designer at Prada, Rodolfo Paglialunga, as the creative director, and since then Vionnet has been building a new identity and a fresh following. Marzotto said at the time: "I am convinced there is always room for projects that have at their core originality, energy and passion." He declared: "With Vionnet, I would like to bring back to life an idea of fashion that is contemporary without forgetting its history."
Vionnet is integral to the story of 20th-century fashion, and has been a major influence on other designers. Karl Lagerfeld once said: "Everybody, whether he likes it or not, has been influenced by Vionnet", while Azzedine Alaïa declared the house's founder, Madeleine Vionnet, "the source of everything, the mother of us all".
In the 27 years that Madame Vionnet ran her couture house – founding it in 1912 and eventually closing it in 1939 – she developed creative concepts and commercial approaches that still characterise fashion today. She invented the bias cut, which she protected from imitations with a copyright and documents of authenticity, and was known as the high priestess of draping. Rather than sketching her designs, she had a more spontaneous technique of sculpting them using pieces of fabric such as crêpe, gabardine and satin on 80cm-high wooden mannequins.
Along with designers such as Paul Poiret and Coco Chanel, Vionnet pioneered women's sartorial liberation, freeing the body from the rigid layers of stays and corsets that were prescribed during the Edwardian era. Vionnet's dresses were sometimes cut from just one piece of cloth, which wound its way round the body and gave the wearer an enviable air of grace, and the fact she took inspiration from Greek art was apparent in the languid-looking drape of her fabric. These original goddess gowns were ideal for the cool sophistication of Hollywood stars such as Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo.
Having worked as a dressmaker's apprentice, a seamstress, and as a designer at the House of Doucet, where she created lingerie-like dresses and abandoned the corset, Madeleine Vionnet opened her own fashion house at 222 Rue de Rivoli in Paris in 1912. She closed it again in 1914, however, when the First World War broke out, reopening it in 1919, having created the first halter-neck dress and the first handkerchief dress. In 1923, she opened a boutique at 50 Avenue Montaigne, and subsequent high points of her career included founding the first association to prevent copying and the introduction of finger-printed labels to authenticate her designs. After finally closing the house in 1939, due to the Second World War, she worked for the Musée de la Mode et du Textile in Paris, to which she donated the majority of her dresses, for most of her life until she died in 1975 at the age of 98.
Innovative and timeless, Madame Vionnet's legacy could be a daunting one to work with. However, creative director Rodolfo Paglialunga sees it – perhaps unsurprisingly – as "a great opportunity", albeit a testing one. He says: "It can also be a hard challenge, as you will always be compared to her. This is amazing, though, as it really gives me more energy and ideas. I can't afford to relax, even when I sleep." Those involved in Vionnet's first reincarnation must surely have been deprived of their allotted eight hours' sleep, but Paglialunga says of those recent travails that he "accepted the challenge with a pinch of craziness", and so far his tenure has been craziness-free.
In fact, he's succeeding in carving out a new image for Vionnet as a go-to label for young (and youngish) Hollywood in need of event dresses. The British actress Carey Mulligan recently wore a white crêpe de Chine dress with multicoloured pleated inlays to the premiere of Never Let Me Go, and at last year's Baftas she chose a black and white column dress with a graphic flower pattern and a shorter panel at the front. Rebecca Hall, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Cameron Diaz and Jessica Biel have also been drawn to Paglialunga's clean, modern and sporty aesthetic; perfect for women who want to look smart but not fussy or overdressed. Many of his designs are notable for their lightness, and for his resort 2011 collection Paglialunga worked on "weightlessness", mixing easy-to-wear sporty ideas with geometric patterns. His spring/summer 2011 collection focuses on dresses in monochrome with dashes or blocks of red, yellow and bright blue, as well as graphic patterns. Shapes are clean and light, with shirt dresses, handkerchief hems and halter-necks – two Vionnet innovations – and just a hint of the goddess-influenced designs that she was known for. These come in more daring form than her Thirties gowns, however; as a backless white silk dress with a black rope halter-neck twisted with gold, and a black column dress with a white sash slashed at the sides from the shoulder to hip.
The defining principle of reviving any legendary design house, or keeping one vital after the departure of its founder, tends to be balancing its original signature with a more modern aesthetic and feel of its own. Paglialunga says: "The quintessence of Madame Vionnet's creative approach is the way she works with fabrics, building shapes and volumes. I am trying to keep a similar approach as a sort of discipline, but reinterpreting it in an up-to-date way." Paglialunga also faces a particular challenge in updating Vionnet, given that it was always known for being modern and innovative, but he doesn't seem stifled by a pressure to do anything aggressively radical. For him, "modern" means "originality and creativity without frills" – two qualities that made Vionnet great the first time around.
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