Jean Patou (1880–1936) was born in Normandy in northwestern France in 1880. His father was a prosperous tanner who dyed the very finest leathers for bookbinding, and his uncle, with whom he went to work in 1907, sold furs. In 1910 Patou opened a dressmaking and fur establishment that foundered, reportedly
due to insufficient funding, although he was able to open a tailoring business in Paris the following year. In 1912 he opened Maison Parry, a small salon located at 4, Rond-Point des Champs-Elysées, which offered dressmaking, tailoring, and furs. Patou's designs were striking for their simplicity in comparison to the prevailing fashions, although his biographer quoted him as stating that this change was the result of ignorance rather than any great fashion instinct. In 1913 a major New York City buyer known as the elder Lichtenstein praised Patou as an innovator and purchased the designer's entire collection, presaging his future popularity in the United States.
In 1914 Patou established a couture house at 7, rue St. Florentin, near the rue de la Paix. Although his first collection was prepared, it was never shown, as he went to serve as a captain in a French Zouave regiment during World War I. Following the cessation of hostilities Patou became a leading international couturier. He commissioned his fellow officer Bernard Boutet de Monvel, who was working for several fashion magazines, to illustrate many of his advertisements. Patou's salon was decorated by the leading art deco designers Louis Süe and André Mare, who painted the interior and upholstered the furniture in a color described as ash-beige, and installed huge mirrors to accentuate the building's elegant eighteenth-century proportions. At the same time that Patou was a shrewd businessman, however, he was also a playboy and a heavy gambler.
Patou did not regard himself as a skilled draftsman; he claimed that not only could he not draw, but also that a pair of scissors was a dangerous weapon in his hands. Each season he provided the designers in his "laboratory" with various antique textiles, fragments of embroidery, and documents annotated with special instructions for the styles and colors he wanted to develop. His staff would then develop these ideas and present him with toiles (sample garments made using inexpensive fabric to check cut and fit), which Patou modified until he was satisfied. At the height of Patou's career in the mid-1920s, he made around six hundred models each season, which he refined down to some three hundred. A collection of this size would be considered enormous by contemporary standards, as the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne specifies that a couture collection must comprise a minimum of only fifty models.
The Early Twenties
Patou's early 1920s garments, like those of his archrival Chanel, were embellished with colorful folkloric Russian embroidery. His bell-skirted, high-waisted evening dresses, often made in georgette crêpe, were beaded—he particularly liked diamanté—delicately embroidered, or embellished with fine lace, which he felt was more youthful than heavy lace. Beige was Patou's primary color for spring–summer 1922, and his collection was received with acclaim. A gown of beige kasha cloth featured a deep V-neckline that was emphasized by a lingerie-style collar, while beige chiffon was combined with kasha to form pleated side panels and full undersleeves that were finished with a tight cuff. Patou was an exceptional colorist, and this season he offered a high-collared evening cape in an unusual shade of beige verging on green; its sole trimming was twisted silk openwork. A beige jersey costume was self-trimmed with bias-cut bands around the collar, cuffs, and hem of the hip-length coat.
Patou and Chanel were the leading exponents of the garçonne look that dominated the fashions of the 1920s. Patou was particularly well-known for his geometric designs. Most famous are the sweaters he designed from 1924 with cubist-style blocks of color inspired by the paintings of Braque and Picasso. This ultramodern motif was then applied to matching skirts, bags, and bathing costumes. Although Patou was influenced by the fine arts, he was emphatic that he himself was not an artist, and that a successful couturier did not have to be one. "What is needed is taste, a sense of harmony, and to avoid eccentricity" (Etherington-Smith, p. 38). His eminently wearable sweaters, with horizontal stripes in contrasting colors teamed with box-pleated skirts, were regularly featured in Vogue magazine.
Although Patou was renowned for his smart daywear, his robes d'intérieur (negligées) were unashamedly romantic. In 1923 he offered a design in rose-pink satin draped with silk lace dyed to match, and trimmed with clipped brown marabou. British Vogue described the gown as shown with "sabot" slippers with upturned toes in white glacé kid, decorated with red leather cutwork and red heels. Another robe was of crystal-embroidered satin worn with Turkish trousers, a "Capuchin hood" and fringed mules of orange and gold brocade. Patou's shoes were made by Greco (January 1923, p. 45).
Patou's sportswear. Patou's brother-in-law Raymond Barbas introduced the designer to the world of sport and many of its champions. On meeting the androgynous, smartly elegant tennis star Suzanne Lenglen, Patou recognized instantly that she personified the fashionable "new woman." In 1921 Lenglen appeared on court at Wimbledon wearing a white pleated silk skirt that skimmed her knees (and flew above them when she ran, revealing her knotted stockings), a sleeveless white sweater based on a man's cardigan, and a vivid orange headband—she was dressed head to toe by Patou. The audience gasped at Lenglen's audacity, but the women attending were soon to appropriate similar styles of dress for themselves. Lenglen may have been the first sports champion to endorse the look of a specific fashion designer.
By 1922 Patou had introduced sportswear styles for his fashionable clientele, who wanted to look sporty even if they did not undertake any form of exercise. The same year he introduced his "JP" monogram on his garments; he was the first fashion designer to exploit the cachet of a well-known name. He has also been credited as the originator of the triangular sports scarf worn knotted at one shoulder. In 1924 Patou opened additional branches of his house at the fashionable French seaside resorts of Deauville and Biarritz to sell his ready-made sportswear and accessories. The following year he opened a specialized sportswear boutique called "le coin des sports" within his couture house. This boutique consisted of a suite of rooms, each devoted to a different sport, including aviation, yachting, tennis, golf, riding, and fishing. Patou worked closely with the French textile manufacturers Bianchini-Ferrier and Rodier to develop functional sportswear fabrics.
Patou's fashions always appealed to the American market, and he brought himself plentiful publicity through his regular contributions to News Enterprise Association (N.E.A.), the nationwide syndication service. To highlight the fact that his designs were as well suited to the "American Diana" as the "Parisian Venus," the couturier brought six American models to Paris in 1924 (Chase, p. 163). Patou had placed an advertisement in which he advised aspiring applicants that they "must be
smart, slender, with well-shaped feet and ankles and refined of manner" (Chase, p. 164). Five hundred women responded, of which six were chosen by a committee consisting of society interior decorator Elsie de Wolfe; fashion photographer Edward Steichen; Edna Woolman Chase, the editor of American Vogue; Condé Nast; and Patou himself. The successful applicants were Josephine Armstrong, Dorothy Raynor, Carolyn Putnam, Edwina Prue, Rosalind Stair, and Lillian Farley. The French couture industry was fiercely nationalist, however, and Patou's action caused a furor.
Patou's perfumes. Patou developed his first perfumes in collaboration with Raymond Barbas. In 1925 he introduced three fruit-floral fragrances—Amour Amour, Que sais-je?, and Adieu Sagesse—each designed for a different feminine profile. Downstairs in his couture house he installed a cubist-style cocktail bar complete with a "bartender" who mixed special perfumes for his clients. Other fragrances that Patou introduced include Moment Suprême (1929), Le Sien and Cocktail (both 1930), Invitation (1932), Divine Folie (1933), Normandie (1935), and Vacances (1936). The most famous of all, however, was Joy (1930), which required 10,600 jasmine flowers and 336 roses to make just one ounce of perfume, and which was promoted even during the Great Depression as the costliest fragrance in the world.
The Later Twenties
For spring–summer 1927 Patou presented knitted sweaters in bois-de-rose wool and jersey with wide and narrow horizontal stripes, and a two-piece costume in palest green whose matching kasha coat was lined in very faint mauve and collared with lynx. All-black and all-white evening dresses were in vogue this season—Patou's collection included a white gown fashioned from crêpe Roma, with a graceful fluid cut, an uneven hemline, and rhinestone trimming running in diagonal lines across the front. This was also the year he introduced the first suntan oil, called Huile de Chaldée (which was relaunched in 1993).
By winter 1928 Patou was anticipating the silhouettes of the 1930s: his skirts were slightly fuller, there was an impression of length, and his garments were generally more body-conscious. Vogue described as "ideal for days on the Riviera" a three-piece ensemble with a coat and skirt with godet of black asperic (a lightweight wool) and a sweater of gray jersey with tiny black diamonds. An evening gown made in a rich caramel-beige crêpe featured a draped bodice that created a higher waistline, while winglike draperies provided extra length.
Edna Woolman Chase recalls an evening in 1929, when after staring across a room at a group of women clad in short dresses and suits designed by Chanel, Patou rushed to his workroom and started feverishly making frocks that swept the ground with natural waistelines. Fashion usually evolved gradually in the 1920s, so when one designer with international influence suddenly presented a new silhouette, it caused a sensation. Patou's sports costumes were worn four inches below the knee; woolen day dresses worn a little longer, and afternoon dresses a little longer still. His evening gowns—there were several in red with gold lamé—touched the floor on three sides and just skimmed the top of the wearer's feet at the front. Many items had lingerie details, and Patou's new color, "dark dahlia" (a red so deep that it was almost black), often replaced black for evening dresses. Other designers immediately followed suit.
Although Patou was to remain a leading couturier during the 1930s, he was no longer an innovator. A long white evening dress with a print of huge pink and gray flowers for spring–summer 1932, featuring a striking diagonal cut and fabric that trailed over the shoulders and down across the bare back, was perfectly in tune with current fashion trends, but was not instantly identifiable as a Patou model. Where the designer continued to make his mark was in sportswear. He showed a day dress for the same season in thin white woolen crêpe, with a cardigan in navy-blue jersey and a scarf in red, white, and blue tussore. Vogue singled out the ensemble as perfect for summer life in the country, for tennis, boating, and spectator sports. Likewise a navy-blue flannel suit, consisting of a semi-fitted jacket with brass buttons, a straight-cut skirt, and a white crêpe blouse was considered correct for yachting, while looking equally proper on shore. In tune with the fashionable neoclassical styles of the mid-1930s, Patou presented asymmetric evening gowns in white romaine. For fall–winter 1935, dinner suits were important fashion news for semi-formal wear, and Patou offered them stylishly tailored, with one featuring a fantail.
Patou had been renowned for his dramatic openings and first-night parties, but his presentation of his spring–summer collection for 1936 was reported to be strictly businesslike. His new colors were tones situated between violet and pink as well as a clear lime green; several of his evening gowns featured fine shirring and tucking, and his stitched taffeta hoop hats with great bunches of flowers tumbling over one eye.
The 1936 presentation was Patou's final collection. Later the same year he died suddenly and unexpectedly. Various reasons were given for his death, including apoplexy, exhaustion from work and frenetic gambling, and the after-effects of a car wreck.
Following Patou's death, Raymond Barbas became chairman of the House of Patou. Barbas had been particularly involved with the designer's perfumes since the mid-1920s, and the company went on to launch several new perfumes after 1936, including Colony (1938), L'Heure Attendue (1946), and Câline (1964). Designers for the House of Patou have included Marc Bohan and his assistant, Gérard Pipart (1953–1957); Karl Lagerfeld (1958–1963), Michel Goma and his assistant, Jean-Paul Gaultier (1963–1974); Angelo Tarlazzi (1973–1976); Gonzalés (1977–1981); and Christian Lacroix (1981–1987). The last fashion collection to be offered under the Patou label was shown for fall– winter 1987.
Since then the company has focused upon fragrances, continuing to produce new ones for both the American and European markets, and since 1984 on recreating a dozen of Patou's original fragrances under the direction of Jean Kerléo at the request of longstanding clients. As of 2004 Jean Patou was run by P&G Prestige Beauté, a division of Procter and Gamble.
Chase, Edna Woolman, and Ilka Chase. Always in Vogue. London: Gollancz, 1954. Fashion memoirs of the editor of American Vogue. Includes accounts of the competition for editorial space between Chanel and Patou, rival houses that copied Patou's clothes, and the designer's recruitment of American models.
Etherington-Smith, Meredith. Patou. London: Hutchinson, 1983. Includes biographical details and major design achievements. Illustrated in black and white. Line drawings from Vogue magazine and the Patou archive are not attributed or dated.
Amy de la Haye