Creative People: When Fashion Comes to Life

By Stuart Mitchner

“Creative people are curious, flexible, persistent, and independent with tremendous spirit of adventure and a love of play.” – Henri Matisse

In my dissheveled outsider’s view, the fashion world is best approached when it relates to art or cinema or literature, or, as I’ve just learned, when it’s embodied by designers who live up to Matisse’s definition of creative people. After scanning some new fashion-oriented publications appropriate to the holiday season, I’ve found the virtues of curiosity, persistance, independence, a spirit of adventure and a love of play in people like fashion legend Loulou de la Falaise (1948-2011) and Alber Elbaz, the creative director of Lanvin.

I have to say that I prefer a smiling Loulou to the somnolent, trancedlooking creature (or should I say creation) on the cover of Loulou de la Falaise (Rizzoli $65), written by Ariel de Ravenel and Natasha Fraser- Cavassoni and designed by Alexandre Wolkoff, with a foreword by Pierre Bergé, and afterword by Loulou’s husband Thadée Klossowski. Not that there’s anything not to like about the cover image, with its compelling evocation of the Bohemian chic for which Loulou was famous (or infamous, some admirers say). Given my comfort level with literature, I find it hard to resist a face styled to suggest a romance of the demi-monde: a touch of Colette and Coco Chanel mixed with the earthy charisma of a courtesan out of Balzac, and Marlene Dietrich as a bored femme fatale who yawns as she sends men to their doom. The most bizarre touch is the cigarette, which is as much an ornament as the necklace and earrings, there not to be smoked but to be worn. The sly, outré humor of the cigarette reflects the “love of play” Matisse mentions, a characteristic of Loulou and Yves Saint-Laurent (1936-2008), for whom de la Falaise was both muse and co-author of an epic narrative of design that galvanized the fashion world.

Jeffrey Felner’s review of Loulou de la Falaise in the New York Journal of Books refers to “a museum worthy showing of photographs that lays testament to who and what she was during her life. What comes through it all is the feeling that you would want to be friends with someone who was that creative, that free, that inclusive. She was indeed crazy about her husband, her family, and her extended family, and even those who wanted to dislike her fell under her thrall. She was truly creative and infused her being into the lives of those she adored and into a business where she was more likely to have been ostracized than loved.”

To see why Loulou was loved you need only look at photographs of the Bois de Boulogne reception following her June 1977 wedding to Klossowski. Shown in one photograph with Bianca Jagger and Saint-Laurent, the beaming Loulou is radiant in a starstrewn midnight blue chiffon sheath, an iridescent tiara shaped like a crescent moon in her hair, starlight flashing around her ears, an enchanted vision out of a Midsummer Nights Dream world that is equally worthy of her wish to appear “like a summer night sky in Marrakech.”

THE MATISSE LINES

It’s refreshing to find that Saint-Laurent himself related to literature, Proust in particular (he sometimes signed hotel registers as Msr. Swann); in fact, it would be hard to imagine a more Proustian setting for a fashionable wedding than the Bois. Needless to say, Saint-Laurent also related to art. One of the featured works in MoMA’s current show, Henry Matisse: The Cut-Outs, is The Sheaf, also a feature in Saint-Laurent’s fall/winter 1980 haute couture collection where it inspired a black velvet and moiré faille evening dress with multicolor satin appliqué leaves. The premier art event in New York this season, the Matisse exhibit was the “blockbuster summer exhibition” at the Tate Modern in London, which the June issue of Vogue observed that “the tumbling stream of Matisse’s memories… make for an ideal style cue.” Meanwhile an article on www.architecturaldigest.com features “ten creative talents” who have been inspired by Matisse. Blue Nudes, the cover image on the MoMA exhibit monograph, inspired the stained-glass window of fashion executive Carla Fendi’s Roman apartment, and a Matisse drawing was the model for interior designer Billy Baldwin’s creation of the fabric for a client’s Manhattan living room. And you don’t have to look far online to find Oscar de la Renta’s Matisse Embroidered Bell skirt, which at last sighting had been marked down to $399 from $2,650.

YOUNG OSCAR

The recent death of de la Renta, who singlehandedly accomplished the sartorial education of Hillary Clinton (still a work in progress), sent me to Sarah Mower’s The Style, Inspiration, and Life of Oscar de la Renta (Assouline $125), featuring images from the designer’s personal album, with a foreword by Anna Wintour, updated this year from the 2002 edition. Matisse’s “spirit of adventure and love of play” is in the picture of young de la Renta provided by Mower: “At nineteen, he left home [the Dominican Republic] and sailed to Spain, to live in Madrid and soak up the culture, in the hope of earning a living as an artist. He bought a third-class train ticket to see the country, was befriended by a family of gypsies on board and invited to a three-day wedding. The music and the flounces and the shawls and the color stayed with him forever, as did the sight of the splendid embroidery and swagger of the matadors’ costumes at bullfights. It was at a Madrid bullring that he first set eyes on Ava Gardner, who he charmed and later met in a nightclub. ‘And I danced with Ava Gardner…I remember the color of her blue-green eyes, her very matte skin, her chiseled nose and cheekbones—just unbelievably beautiful.’”

LANVIN AND ELBAZ

Yet another elegant new publication is The Lanvin Anniversary Book by Alber Elbaz (Lanvin $450). Bound in grosgrain silk with hand-gilded gold edging, it celebrates a decade of the Parisian fashion house with Elbaz at the helm. Looking for the humanity behind my outsider’s view of the couture elite, I found it in Elbaz’s conversation with Interview’s Stephanie Seymour Brant. Of Lanvin, which he joined in 2001 after stints with Saint-Laurent and Geoffrey Beene, Elbaz says, “I love and respect women. I work mostly with women. And you know, our logo for Lanvin is a mother and a daughter. I’ve always said, ‘It’s not a lion, and it’s not a horse. It’s a mother and a daughter.’ I find the logo very emotional.” Another revealing admission is what he says about his travels: “I don’t ever look anymore at the geography—just enough to catch galleries and paintings. Mostly, I look at the people, and people are what give me the energy.”

WOMEN IN CLOTHES

Another new book worth mentioning is Kate Young’s Dressing in the Dark from the Silver Screen to the Red Carpet (Assouline $40), in which celebrity stylist Kate Young uses iconic fashion moments in film to focus on influential evening wear styles such as Elizabeth Taylor’s white silk chiffon dress in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Julia Roberts’s red gown in Pretty Woman.

Some other fashion-related publications of the holiday season are Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton’s Women in Clothes (Blue Rider $30), Green, The History of a Color (Princeton University Press $35), and a new and updated edition of The Fashion Book (Phaidon $59.95), which Vogue calls “the fashion Bible” and Elle “the ultimate fashion resource book.”

OUTING THE OUTSIDER

As an outsider who believes in the creative spirit defined by Matisse, I enjoyed the February 2014 Harpers Bazaar interview Sanjay Gupta conducted with Alber Elbaz, who says, “You know, I always think of myself as an outsider. I don’t feel like I have to promote my work by going to every party on the planet, and be a size 6 with blue hair and yellow leather python pants, and for people to think, Wow, he is so cool! Actually, the word ‘cool’ is the word I hate most in the world. I don’t like the people that are preserving some sort of pretension about that. I’m more of a director of a movie; I let the stars do the work. I feel very comfortable behind the scenes.”