The Jean Patou that emerges in Jean Patou: A Fashionable Life, a Flammarion monograph (By Emmanuelle Polle) to appear next month, resembles less Coco Chanel, his contemporary and rival almost 100 years ago, and more Karl Lagerfeld, who has made the Chanel name even more famous than its founder had.
Whereas Gabrielle Chanel began by learning to sew and embroider—tasks traditional at orphanages, where she grew up—Patou—and Lagerfeld—are not the kind of person you envision wielding a needle. They seemed to have emerged fully formed as brand geniuses. You’re more likely to see the Kaiser with a camera, for Chanel photo shoots that he executes himself, or books, which he collects obsessively, or a celebrity, which he deploys so handily to burnish the brand. Patou was a similar spirit. He wrote articles in newspapers, operated a cocktail bar within his couture house (a first) and schmoozed society in ballrooms and casinos.
Exquisite as his clothing was—it’s Valentino-esque in its perfection and respect for materials—Patou was more a merchandiser than a tailor. He didn’t foresee the future so much as capture the present; his 1936 perfume “Vacances” launched when paid holiday time was taking hold, galvanizing a moment; 1938′s “Colony” fragrance was a bit less well timed. Though he pioneered plenty of things that deserve attention—including a sportwear collection the ground floor of his couture house, which was unheard of—he also, once, made an entire collection twice. Each had a different waistline, and he waited to see the response to the first before sending out the rest of the models in the same thing. Hedging bets is not something we associate with iconoclasts.
Ironically, it is perhaps because of Lagerfeld that Patou is so little known today among young fashionistas. (Coincidentally, Lagerfeld designed the Patou line from 1960 – 1963, one of several top designers to helm the house after Patou’s death from embolism in 1936, at 49 years old.) Chanel the company is such a marketing behemoth that we forget it was not the first couture house to create a hit perfume, or the only one to put women in trousers. So the appearance of Jean Patou: A Fashionable Life is a welcome reminder that he, too, promoted the athletic, tanned woman. We do know the Patou name from Joy perfume, one of the only products from the house to survive. (“The costliest perfume in the world,” as its tagline boasted, was gifted to 250 wealthy Americans in the 1930s to soothe their Depression woes. Patou claimed it was never meant for consumer production, but that was probably an advertising ploy.)
While the book’s no-nonsense photography and historical illustrations display Patou’s sometimes conflicting dynamic of luxury without excess—long shift dresses with exquisite beading or embroidery, much of which could easily be worn today; winks at folkloric dress; fur trim on apparel for winter and summer—we never get a good look at the inside of the clothing. That’s the only downside to the book. We don’t see how the man engineered dresses so that, Polle says, they coudn’t be so easily knocked off.
That may be because Patou diversified in ways we think Pierre Cardin invented. He changed not just the way women dressed but the way they behaved. He was a lifestyle guy. He made the first tanning lotion. A collaboration with Cartier on a bejeweled lipstick encouraged women to make up in public (clutch pearls!). So it makes sense that a reader would get distracted from the seams of his dresses.
Patou delegated, employing 40 seamstresses when he opened his business as a 20something veteran of World War I. As the house grew, freelance fashion sketchers submitted illustrations of dress designs, which he bought and passed on to his staff to make. Like many—perhaps most—designers, he bought garments by competitors to take apart and study. Yet, despite a head for publicity, nothing like Chanel’s “Little Black Dress” remains to canonize his designs. Only the very prominent JP logo gives a Patou away to the casual observer.
It was Patou’s life that captured the world’s attention. A lifelong bachelor, he courted many a countess. He drove fast cars and raced an Italian speed boat. Lions cubs roamed cocktail parties at his home. He employed an American publicist.
Like almost every coffeetable book about a fashion designer, this one has plenty of copy-editing errors and clunky sentences, possibly the result of an imperfect translation from French. But who cares. We don’t read these books for literary edification. This is a fantastic and much-needed primer on Patou, though it leaves room for a more technical follow-up for the hardcore fashion lover.