Madeleine Vionnet may not be a name that you're familiar with, but this year will see a revival of interest in the legendary French couturier that, it is hoped, will echo the success of this decade's other great relaunch, Balenciaga at the hands of Gucci and Nicolas Ghesquiere. The first inkling of a renewal of interest came when, in January, the British government took the unusual decision to put a temporary ban on the export from the UK of 11 dresses by Vionnet, on the grounds of their importance to the nation's heritage, effectively affording them the status of art. Next, Vionnet was repeatedly namechecked in the press as an inspiration for two of Michelle Obama's favourite designers, Maria Pinto and Jason Wu - both of whom were also industry-insider secrets until the Obama touch turned them to fashion gold.
Weeks of rumours were confirmed with the official announcement in Milan last week that the house of Vionnet has been bought by the Italian entrepreneur Matteo Marzotto, the former CEO of Valentino, and Giovanni Castiglioni, the husband of Marni's designer Consuela Castiglioni. The collections are to be designed by one of Miuccia Prada's former designers, the highly respected Rodolfo Paglialunga. Of course, the Vionnet reboot has been tried before, when the de Lummen family, which owned the licence to her name, valiantly tried to resurrect the label, first with a well-received collection by the Greek designer Sophia Kokosalaki, and then with a brief outing by the former Prada designer Marc Audibet. Both collections received critical acclaim but that did not translate into success: a series of financial and perceptual mishaps jinxed the projects, according to Arnaud de Lummen, speaking to Imran Amed in an interview for the website www.businessoffashion.net.
This time round, though, there will be some collateral marketing in the form of a spectacular exhibition at Les Arts Décoratifs, the Paris design museum based at the Louvre, starting on June 18 and continuing until January 2010. The museum is the repository of a superb collection of 22 Vionnet dresses and some 750 patterns and 70 photograph albums donated by Madeleine Vionnet herself in 1952. Following restoration on the delicate gowns, the artefacts will go on public display for the first time, giving those with an interest in fashion history an incredible opportunity to see what all the fuss is about.
Yet most casual fashion followers remain oblivious to this peer of Coco Chanel, Hubert de Givenchy, Paul Poiret, Elsa Schiaparelli and Cristobal Balenciaga. Her clothes have not been available since 1939, when the Second World War caused her to shutter the doors on her Paris salon at 50 avenue Montaigne for the second and final time - her business had also been a victim of the First World War. Yet students of fashion revere the work of Madame Vionnet, and some of the world's top designers, from Issey Miyake and Azzedine Alaia to John Galliano, openly acknowledge their huge debt to her innovations, the most important of which, bias cutting (in which the cloth is cut on the diagonal of the weave, allowing the fabric to flow more closely over the body), is used every year on almost every catwalk. Without this demanding technique, the beautiful evening gowns of Elie Saab and Zuhair Murad, the slinky sheaths of Armani and Alaia and the fluid drapery of Alber Elbaz at Lanvin could not be achieved. Well executed, it is the most flattering of cuts; poorly and cheaply thrown together, as it so often is on the high-street, the seams will be wrinkled and twisted, the hips exaggerated and the waist lost.
It's not just this technique that makes Vionnet's legacy so important. Inspired by the improvisational, free-movement dance style of Isadora Duncan, she liberated the female form from corsets and unnatural structures before Coco Chanel. Decades ahead of Jean Paul Gaultier, she pioneered underwear as outerwear, by removing interfacings to allow the fabric to drape naturally and by using lingerie fabrics such as crepe de chine. And, a consummate dressmaker, her methods of design were revolutionary, draping fabric on a half-scale mannequin, or form, rotated on a piano stool, like a potter's wheel, before turning the miniature toiles into precise patterns - a method in total opposition to the try-it-and-see Victorian style of dress construction.
If there's one person who truly understands the intellectual complexity of Vionnet's work it is Betty Kirke, the fashion historian, designer and conservateur who wrote the definitive work on the designer, Madeleine Vionnet, published by Chronicle Books. She not only twice visited and interviewed the 98-year-old Vionnet, the year before her death in 1975, but has systematically collected, deconstructed and reconstructed the gowns and patterns of Vionnet, exploring the geometric and historical roots of the designs.
"I met Vionnet in 1974 when she was 98 years old," she says. "She was hard of hearing and wearing a pyjama and robe outfit made for her by her friend Balenciaga. She took ill while visiting him at his home five years earlier. When she spoke about that day she had tears in her eyes. I knew from Givenchy that the two met many times. At least at one of these meetings they must have been draping on her half-scale form, as Balenciaga showed it to Givenchy later."
Kirke's research into the designer - or "technician" as her assistants had preferred to call her - is meticulous, inspired by the sheer complexity needed to perfect such apparently simple, pared-back gowns. "Vionnet allowed me to take three of her garments with me to take patterns," she explains. "My intent was to find out why her garments are not only beautiful, but so uniquely constructed. Previously, I had been designing myself for over 20 years, both made-to-measure and ready-to-wear. I was taught fashion design at the School of the Chicago Art Institute. The head of the department, Cornelia Steckl, had worked in Paris and in Chicago for the Marshall Fields department for Paris copies. We were taught mainly to drape our patterns on a full-scale form. I tried to drape Vionnet pieces on the full scale form too, but soon learned it had to be as she did, on the half-scale form."
As she reconstructed these patterns, Kirke discovered that there was a mathematical basis to the designs, an interest in Ancient Greek dynamic symmetry (put very simply, the spiral geometry of nature's growth, using the Golden Ratio as a guide) and the ancient Greek vases that used it, which she saw in the Louvre. In an exhibition at Kent State University Museum, in the US, called Spirals & Ellipses, the complexities of the patterns were described to the curator by Kirke: "Vionnet slashed the cloth vertically and inserted an isosceles triangle with a narrow base centred under the arm to create a side portion to the upper bodice. This provided additional fabric to accommodate the bust and create a cowl neckline. The other side of the triangle was stitched to the main pattern piece which forms a quarter of a circle, or quadrant. The furthest corner of each quadrant meets at the opposite hip and thus crisscrosses at centre back?"
And so on. What that dry, intimidating piece of prose actually describes is a 1925 gown that floats from the shoulders, like a classical chiton (the dress of Ancient Greece), into a Grecian cape, falling naturally into flutes of fabric at the hem. Vionnet was fascinated by the natural style of classical dress, and had shown a fierce intelligence as a child, before she was apprenticed as a seamstress at the age of 11 that explains her ability to absorb and apply such lofty concepts.
Madeleine Vionnet was born in 1876, just outside Paris, and when her mother left the three-and-a-half-year-old to be brought up by her father, she was sent to live with her grandparents until she and her father moved to the north of Paris and, aged five, she was enrolled in school. She finished several years earlier than her peers and stayed on, teaching and hoping for a scholarship until the apprenticeship to her father's groundskeeper's wife. "And me, how I cried," she told Kirke in 1974. "To this day, I still feel this loss with acute pain." At 17, she moved to Paris and, before establishing her own house in 1912, proceeded to work at a series of dressmakers in Paris and London, the most notable being Callot Soeurs and Jacques Doucet - where she started to experiment with bias-draping and the removal of corsetry, always with the real female body in mind.
In fact, when Kirke visited Vionnet, she tried on some gowns - not as simple a task as one might think. "Later into the afternoon, Vionnet asked me to try on some of her clothing. I was concerned about the fit as I was a full head taller than she, but being on the bias, everything stretched to my shape, even my long arms, though the skirt was short," she says. "I would say that the most interesting thing of the day was Vionnet's reaction to my wrapping the red sash around my body on her black gown to tie at the waist. Twice she said it was wrong. Looking into the mirrored wall I realised she wanted me to drop the wrapping lower, almost to the hip. When I did that, the wrapped tie created diamond shapes on the black background. To me, that was her desire to make a clear design on the negative space. It also showed that she preferred the longer waistline proportion, and was very attentive to positive/negative space."
There may have been huge intellectual rigour behind Vionnet's designs, but it was their beauty that ensured her success through the 1920s and 1930s. The drop-waisted dresses of the 1920s combined utter comfort with beauty, but it was in the 1930s that her clothes reached their apogee, adopted by the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. The long, figure-skimming dresses that are the archetype of pre-war glamour were a Vionnet signature, copied again and again, and today they remain one of the most enduring shapes in fashion, caressing the upper torso and dropping to the floor in gentle folds. Sophia Kokosalaki's outing for Vionnet called on these shapes in delicate, shivering silks; Marc Audibet's more structured attempts incorporated Vionnet shapes and geometric pattern cutting.
For Rodolfo Paglialunga and Vionnet's owners, it will be a hard job to convince the custodians of French style that an Italian can reproduce Vionnet's refinement. But there will never be a better moment to try.