by: Geoff Ficke
How Did One of the Fashion World’s Earliest Great Innovators Lose Everything by Lack of Innovation
It is startling to study an empires crumble, decline and ultimately perishing on the ash heap of history. It happened to ancient states such as Egypt, Rome, Athens and Macedonia. The Knights Templar had been the world’s pre-eminent military and financial colossus in the Middle Ages but they are no more. In more modern times we have seen the commercial decline and disappearance of Horn & Hardart Restaurants, A&P Food Stores and numerous department store chains such as Jordan Marsh, John Wannamaker, Woodrow & Lothrop and Montgomery Wards. Major airlines and automobile companies were launched, soared and then failed.
The scale of these failed enterprises was often so great that it is hard for observers to get their hands around all that went wrong and caused these spectacular failures. Recently I was reviewing a fashion treatise and read about a long ago innovative pioneer of Haute Couture who became an icon of his age before losing everything in one lifetime. The tale is cautionary.
Paul Poiret was born into poverty in Paris in 1879. At an early age he was apprenticed to an Umbrella maker. The odd bits of fabric cuttings that were tossed as waste interested Poiret, and he began to take them from the trash. He used this detritus to fashion clothes for his sister’s dolls. Each dress was accompanied by a pattern that he drew and saved.
While still a teenager Paul Poiret took his pattern drawings to Madeline Cheruit, one of the grand dames of Parisian fashion in the late 19th century. She bought 12 of the drawings for reproduction in her atelier. Sensing opportunity, the young Poiret began to sell all of his patterns to the various Paris garment houses. In 1896 he was hired to design for the prominent Jacques Doucet. Poiret’s first creation for Doucet was a red cape which sold 400 pieces.
Mr. Poiret established his own fashion house in 1903 and made an immediate impact with his unusual for the time “kimono coat”. The shop became famous for stunning window displays, fabulous parties tied to each seasons collections and Poiret’s pioneering use of modern Branding and Marketing techniques. The garments he produced were very expensive for the day and only the most discerning clientele purchased from the House of Poiret.
Poiret expanded into Furniture, Household Décor and, most importantly Fragrance. He was a pioneer in Licensing his name. The entry of a fashion house into the Perfume business was also a first and would set a precedent that created one of the most successful Marketing Strategies and Sales Models still in wide use to this day. In 1911 Poiret’s Parfums de Rosine was launched and the world of Haute Couture and Perfumery would never be the same.
Parfums de Rosine was launched and publicized by throwing an extravagant Persian themed soiree at Paul Poiret’s palatial Parisian estate home. The news coverage of the event and the perfume that inspired the party is evocative of promotional techniques still used today to introduce Luxury Goods.
Also in 1911, the photographer Edward Steichen collaborated with the House of Poiret to photograph a collection of gowns and accessories. The photos were published in various magazines. This is considered the first use of “Fashion Photography”. Prior to this fashion was illustrated when placed in print.
Poiret’s most famous design contribution to garment production was a technique he created called “draping”. This was a radical departure from the more rigid Tailoring and Pattern Making methods used in the past. This style of sewing enabled Poiret to create loose, softer looks like Harem Pantaloons, Lampshade Tunics and Hobble Skirts. Most appreciated by women seeking comfort was Poiret’s elimination of the ubiquitous, restrictive, uncomfortable corset from his collections.
During World War I Paul Poiret worked for the French military making uniforms. When the war ended, he returned to his fashion house and found it in ruins. He worked hard to resurrect his glory years. However, while he was away serving the war effort, other designers had emerged and they utilized more modern styling and garment construction techniques. Poiret’s designs had always been visually unique but were not well constructed. As he had once famously said he only aimed for his dresses to be “read beautifully from afar”. He continued to work in his old way.
New designers, notably Coco Chanel, House of Worth and Elsa Schiaparrelli, had begun to offer simpler, sleeker silhouettes and their work employed far better construction than did Paul Poiret’s. As clients fled to the newer fashion houses Poiret suffered further loss of financial supporters and was forced to close his couture house in 1929. Poiret was bankrupted. Upon liquidating inventory the House of Poiret suffered the indignity of having leftover clothing sold by the kilogram for use as rags.
Until his death in 1944 he lived as a pauper in the streets of Paris. His genius had been forgotten. Occasionally he would be seen by his contemporaries painting street scenes to eke out a few Francs before eyes would be diverted from the discomforting vision of a past hero of French Haute Couture being so dramatically reduced.
Paul Poiret during his early career was attributed with being the fashion equivalent of Pablo Picasso in art. He introduced “modernism” to Haute Couture”. For a short time he lived as a potentate and enjoyed vast fame, fortune and popularity. Then it was all gone. What happened?
In the worlds of style, fashion and consumer products you are never the greatest, only the latest. The Companies and Brands that last and pass the test of time constantly evolve. The House of Poiret did not. Styles had changed, consumer tastes changed and the increased demand for better quality product required more attention to detail. Poiret still produced clothing with a “look” that screamed Poiret, but no longer excited the most exclusive, wealthiest clientele that had supported his House in the beginning. He did not evolve and grow.
Ancient Rome stagnated and died of lechery. Juan Trippe built the greatest airline in the world, PanAm. After his passing PanAm went into a long, slow decline and is now permanently grounded. The grand Cosmetic Brands Frances Denny, Hazel Bishop and Germaine Monteil are no more. Bonwit Teller, once one of the world’s best specialty department stores, was liquidated years ago. These entities, like the House of Poiret, enjoyed their time in the sun but did not stay current, adjust to social or market realities and all disappeared.
Geoff Ficke has been a serial entrepreneur for almost 50 years. As a small boy, earning his spending money doing odd jobs in the neighborhood, he learned the value of selling himself, offering service and value for money. After putting himself through the University of Kentucky (B.A. Broadcast Journalism, 1969) and serving in the United States Marine Corp, Mr. Ficke commenced a career in the cosmetic industry. After rising to National Sales Manager for Vidal Sassoon Hair Care at age 28, he then launched a number of ventures, including Rubigo Cosmetics, Parfums Pierre Wulff Paris, Le Bain Couture and Fashion Fragrance. Geoff Ficke and his consulting firm, Duquesa Marketing, Inc. (www.duquesamarketing.com) has assisted businesses large and small, domestic and international, entrepreneurs, inventors and students in new product development, capital formation, licensing, marketing, sales and business plans and successful implementation of his customized strategies. He is a Senior Fellow at the Page Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, Business School, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.