Born: Chenevelles, Loire Valley, France, 11 October 1927. Education: Early training in Paris couture house until World War II. Military Service: Served in the French Army Air Force, 1939-40. Career: Tailor; assistant to Dior, 1945-50; immigrated to the U.S.; studied figure drawing, Art Students' League, New York; pattern maker, then designer, Monte-Sano & Pruzan coat and suit manufacturers, circa 1952-58; partner/designer, Tiffeau & Busch Ltd. for Monte-Sano & Pruzan, New York, 1958-66; launched own firm, 1966-71; taught fashion design, Paris, 1970s; supervisor, Rive Gauche collections, Yves Saint Laurent, 1972-76; designer, Originala, and Blassport lines, New York. Awards: Coty American Fashion Critics award, 1960, 1966; National Cotton award, New York, 1961; Sunday Times International Fashion award, London, circa 1966; Tobe-Coburn Fashion award New York. Died: 1988.
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Writing about designer Jacques Tiffeau in the 1960s, fashion doyenne Diana Vreeland once grandly declared, "He's in tune." She was referring to a Tiffeau collection comprised of simple, nonchalant, elegant dresses and daytime suits, most without bust-darts or extraneous frills, many cut on the bias. The gifted designer, who once turned down an offer to replace Yves Saint Laurent at Dior, excelled at creating pared-down, sophisticated, gimmick-free clothes that derived their strong visual impact purely from the designer's manipulation of cut, shape, and color. He was one of the prescient few who understood the importance of trousers for women, including basic trousers in nearly every collection until they were no longer seen as inappropriate for certain occasions. He was also known for his uncluttered coat designs with their clean, graphic silhouettes.
A Frenchman transplanted to America, Tiffeau belonged to the 1960s pantheon of American designers which included Geoffrey Beene, Bill Blass, Donald Brooks, and James Galanos. He embraced the advanced manufacturing technologies of the post-World War II era, eagerly investigating the properties of new materials in his garments: double-knits, rayons, plastics, and polyesters. His clothes were designed with a young, affluent, fashion-conscious consumer in mind, and his styles found ready buyers in America who saw reflected in his streamlined designs the modern spirit they wished to project.
Tiffeau spent many years learning his trade. During the German Occupation of France, the teenaged Tiffeau left his small Loire village and ran off to Paris, where he apprenticed himself to a men's tailor. There he skillfully mastered the art of cutting a toile, the muslin pattern which designers used as a model for the finished pattern. He next moved to New York and became protégé and chief stylist for Max Pruzan at Monte-Sano & Pruzan, an Italian artisan tailor who had built up one of the most expensive women's coat-and-suit houses in the trade. A friendship with Christian Dior led to an offer to design at Dior New York, but Tiffeau felt his future lay in ready-to-wear. Tiffeau teamed up with Beverly Busch, Pruzan's daughter, and formed Tiffeau & Busch, a successful ready-to-wear line of young, lower-priced coats, dresses, and sportswear separates. The designer spent nearly a decade creating six collections a year between the two concerns before dedicating himself exclusively to Tiffeau & Busch.
Life-drawing art classes combined with his inspired manipulation of toiles as a tailor's apprentice had given the young Tiffeau an excellent comprehension of the body as a mobile, three-dimensional object in space. This in-depth knowledge of clothing construction came to set him apart from many other American designers of his generation. Unlike his contemporaries, who would simply give their assistants a sketch to translate into three dimensions, Tiffeau was able to cut, shape, drape, and sew a garment from start to finish. Buyers loved that Tiffeau's clothing truly fit and rarely needed alterations; but he preferred to think of himself merely as a technician, never as an artist.
Tiffeau was an inspired designer, however, often using staid gray flannel for elegant separates, making cocktail dresses of zebra-striped velveteen—and he was among the first to use wool for evening dresses. He was an avid collector of ancient Near-Eastern and Asian art, from which he claimed to derive ideas about purity of line. He always sought refinement in his designs, an endless paring down, saying, "the secret of good clothes is to keep taking off, simplifying, trimming down—yet to capture the shape of the human body." Besides his mentor Christian Dior, he admired Balenciaga, Beene, Courréges, and Norell. His minimalist, almost severe style made him one of the most renowned designers of the 1960s, but as tastes changed in the 1970s he was accused of merely "rehashing" his old styles and was never again able to regain the spotlight.
In 1972 Tiffeau left New York and returned to France, where he worked for a time for Balmain and Yves Saint Laurent. An attempt to revive his career designing coats at Originala in New York was short-lived, though he was praised for his soft, unconstructed styles in tweed, alpaca, and cashmere. Eventually he found himself again in France, this time as a fashion design instructor. He left behind the legacy of a strong-willed and talented man whom his friend artist Robert Motherwell once said was "like having a beautiful leopard in the room."