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This is CR Muse, a series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.
Despite her label being resurrected in 2006, Madeleine Vionnet's name doesn't hold the same recognition or level of fame that her contemporaries have-that is, among the average person. For designers, historians, and others in the fashion industry, she is a genius: the fashion designer’s fashion designer. Her approach has inspired the likes of John Galliano and Issey Miyake, and has earned her the respect of Christian Dior. “No one has ever carried the art of dressmaking further than Vionnet,” he once said of her.
Dior wasn't wrong. When it came to the actual art of making a dress, Vionnet’s talent is unparalleled. Her construction and techniques of tucking and folding were both groundbreaking and innovative. Among her most famous achievements was pioneering the bias-cut dress. In an era in which many women were still wearing corsets, Vionnet's slinky-and quite frankly, sexy-dresses hugged and moved with the body in an elegant, natural way. And all she had to do to achieve it was turn her fabric at a 45-degree angle.
Born in Chilleurs-aux-Bois in 1876, Vionnet’s career in fashion started at age 11 when she left school and began apprenticing with a seamstress. After a brief stint working in London, which came after the loss of a child and a divorce at the age of 18, she returned to Paris and began working for the Callot sisters of the house Callot Soeurs. It was there that Vionnet honed her couture skills. "Without the example of the Callot Soeurs, I would have continued to make Fords," she said of her experience. "It is because of them that I have been able to make Rolls Royces." After spending another four years working for Coco Chanel’s sportswear rival, Jacques Doucet, she finally broke out on her own in 1912.
Unfortunately, due to the first World War, her house closed just two years later. By 1919, she tried again, and this time found success. At the height of her operations, she employed over 1,000 people across 26 ateliers. Though she apparently rarely saw them (choosing to work in solitude) she took care of her employees, offering healthcare and even paid holidays and maternity leave.
Vionnet’s main focus was form. She even likened herself as a sculptor. “I only like decoration if it plays second to the architecture of a dress,” she said. While cutting on the bias has been her most lasting effect on fashion, it is far from her most impressive work. Her honeycomb cocktail dress is a marvel of technical skill that is often compared to architecture. The fabric of the dress is shaped to the body with a series of hexagons. Her precision is not unheard of in the world of couture, but the level of detail she put into seemingly simple designs is astounding.
The house of Vionnet closed once more in 1939, once again due to war. Vionnet herself retired a year later. Though she was a quiet designer, her impression on fashion is a roar. Simple dresses cut on the bias-her calling card-were emblematic of the 1930s, and the style has since been revived three times: in the '70s, '90s, and today.