Born: Yverdon, Switzerland, 1901; immigrated to France, 1918. Education: Trained as a banker; studied fashion design under Redfern and Paul Poiret, 1918-28. Career: Founded own fashion house, 1933; sold designs by Dior, Balmain, Bohan, Givenchy, and Galanos; introduced perfume, Bandit, 1944, then Fracas, both of which remained successful for years; retired and closed his business, 1951. Died: 22 February 1953, in Lausanne.
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Robert Piguet headed his own couture house for nearly two decades, and the years were the culmination if not the sum of his career in fashion. He learned his craft in two of the more important houses of the early 20th century, Poiret and Redfern. Both houses were fashionable and influential, but they espoused widely divergent philosophies of fashion and appealed to very different customers. In developing his own style, Piguet combined the imagination and awareness of Poiret at his peak with the quality and stability of Redfern. The resulting look was youthful but not girlish; the clothes echoed, flattered, and enhanced the body beneath them. There was an essential effortless wearability to garments from Piguet, which the vantage point of more than half a century has neither diminished nor obscured.
Like Poiret, Piguet understood and employed the links between high fashion and the arts. His collections often reflected his sensitivity to the cultural environment of the moment. An example is his response to the historical romanticism of the 1930s, an important movement fed by theatrical and motion picture costume dramas. These provided Piguet with inspiration for everything from suits to evening gowns. Particularly notable was the spring 1936 collection, which featured high, gathered-sleeve caps, bold up-flaring collars, or wide shoulder yokes based on 16th century modes used in the hit play Margot.
Just a short time later, during the early years of World War II, Piguet produced collections with a different, darker mood, influenced by political circumstances. In these, models were accessorized with such wartime essentials as gas masks, or given topical names referring to the realities and hardships of wartime life. Even his fabric choices reflected his surroundings. In 1945 Piguet joined many fellow Paris designers in the Théâtre de la Mode. With an eye to the scarcities and rationing of the immediate postwar years he used synthetics for several of his models.
No matter what Piguet's mood or inspiration, however, his creations always remained clothing, and never descended into costume— or they would now be considered camp, not classic. Some of Piguet's most timeless designs include the post-New Look evening dresses which harkened back to the romantic silhouettes he used in the 1930s. These were in sync with his contemporaries, but, in a way, cleaner, with less ornamentation.
Since several different designers worked for Piguet, it is difficult to isolate elements of cut or construction as hallmarks of his house. There was, instead, an overarching impression of ease, comfort, and femininity. Piguet clothes, however fitted, never seemed to constrict or restrict the wearer. Allowance was made for movement: a narrow waist expanding into pleats or gathers above or below, a sheath skirt topped by a dolman-sleeved bodice. Tailored garments were rarely hard-edged; the severity of a pleated shirtwaist dress was mitigated by a short, cascading bolero top. Slim suit-skirts might be side draped sarong-style, or pegged with a gathered waistline; jackets could have rounded peak lapels, or tulip hems. Even a post-liberation suit, styled on the lines of an Allied forces military police uniform, had a shawl collar, long gloves crushed around the wrists, and white detailing to lift the khaki linen outfit out of the masculine realm.
It might be said that Piguet's most lasting contributions to postwar fashion were the designers he employed and encouraged. Dior, Givenchy, and Balmain each worked for or sold designs to Piguet in the 1930s and 1940s, and went on to open houses of their own. Whether Piguet hired them because an inherent romanticism in their work agreed with his fashion sense, or they learned from him traits which each would use to advantage in his own business is not a matter of record. Piguet's wisdom in choosing able designers, however, was more than matched by his skill in maintaining the identity of his house and collections, no matter who produced the actual sketches.
All Piguet's clothes provide distinction without constraint, and comfort without disorder. The fashions he fostered bespoke a mature editorial talent, ranging freely with his times and of his times. After retiring due to health problems in 1951, Piquet died two years later in Lausanne, Switzerland.