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André Courrèges: Space Age Couturier

The fashion world remembers one of France's "Three Musketeers," who has died at age 92.

PARIS — Fashion designers and politicians united to pay tribute to the vision of André Courrèges, the father of Space Age fashion, who died Jan. 7 at the age of 92 after a 30-year battle with Parkinson’s disease.

Courrèges created a style that has at times been referenced by everyone from Marc Jacobs to Karl Lagerfeld and, at its height, made him one of the key couturiers for the jet set. A 1965 WWD article was headlined in bold capital letters: “To wear Courrèges you must give yourself to him completely. Surrender.”

Rose and Jacqueline Kennedy, Gloria Guinness, Paulette Goddard, Françoise Hardy, the Duchess of Windsor, Lee Radziwill and Liliane Bettencourt were among those who wore his designs.

With a desire to create clothing that was functional and liberating, Courrèges was one of the first designers to recognize the importance of ready-to-wear. “You don’t walk through life anymore. You run. You dance. You drive a car. You take a plane, not a train. Clothes must be able to move too,” he said.

This freedom of movement fueled his inspiration. “I feel there is a very strong mood in the air,” he said. “Women want to wear casual, sporty clothes by day.”

His fellow futuristic visionaries included Paco Rabanne, Pierre Cardin and in California, Rudi Gernreich. Rabanne was among the designers lamenting the loss of one of the industry’s greats.

“Alas, we are all mortal. For me, he was a very important figure in fashion because we started at the same time. Courrèges, Cardin and I were called the three musketeers. It’s the end of an era in fashion, but it’s inevitable,” he said.

Ralph Toledano, president of the Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, French fashion’s governing body, said Courrèges was one of the rare designers to invent a style and also the first to harness the power of manufacturing to develop ready-to-wear.

“When he built his factory in Pau, he wanted to reflect in its architecture the same artistic approach he brought to his clothes, so his creative vision was totally consistent. Perhaps the first artistic director was not Tom Ford, but rather André Courrèges,” he said.
“He was both a revolutionary and a visionary,” Toledano added. “He strived obsessively for freedom, functionality, modernity and relevance. His influence is keenly felt nowadays, and there are many highly influential designers today that have assumed the heritage of Courrèges.”

Lagerfeld said: “In the Sixties he was the biggest influencer of fashion. But personally I never met him.”

Christian Lacroix said he was in his early teens when the Courrèges look exploded.

“It’s the only style in the 20th century that eschews any historic or folkloric reference. It is the expression of the last optimistic decade in memory. The future still held promise, and fashion and design could reflect that spirit — so strong, healthy and fluid that it gave rise to an expression that did not require nostalgia nor exoticism to feed itself or gain momentum,” he said.

Hubert de Givenchy recalled that as a young man he would join Courrèges and his then-employer Cristóbal Balenciaga for evenings at the opera or ballet. “It makes me sad. He battled a long illness,” he said, recalling the reaction when Courrèges launched his house in 1961.

“It had a resounding response. It was a young and different fashion — it was revolutionary,” de Givenchy said.

“He was an enormous talent. I don’t think he was appreciated enough at all,” Lee Radziwill recalled. “I thought it was extraordinary that The Met never had a show on his work. That was inexplicable. It was so fresh and so young — the very short skirts, the very high boots — and he was such a lovely gentleman.

“It was such a long time ago. When he first started, I lived in London then. I would see a picture or two of his, and I just loved what he did. I had many, many things of his and it was such a pleasure to be with him and work with him. It was something I really looked forward to. He was so understanding and so low-key, and he was a gentleman. I was devoted to him and his wife.”

Jacques Bungert and Frédéric Torloting, the former Young & Rubicam ad executives who bought the label from Courrèges and his wife Coqueline in 2011, paid homage to his drive to innovate.

“All his life, André Courrèges, with Coqueline, had never stopped moving forward, always inventing, always one step ahead: A visionary designer, who could already see what the 21st century would be like, and who believed in progress. This is what makes Courrèges so modern, even today,” they said in a joint statement.

French President François Hollande also sent a condolence message. “André Courrèges made his mark on French haute couture. A revolutionary designer who used geometric shapes and new materials, Courrèges represented a style and an era,” he said.

“Courrèges made the women he dressed happy,” added culture minister Fleur Pellerin in a separate statement. “He invented a universe full of shapes and colors in which elegance could not be conceived without imagination, humor and a great freedom of expression and movement.”

Simon Porte Jacquemus revealed he collects Courrèges dresses from the Sixties.

“He’s one of the fashion figures who have inspired me the most, alongside Rei Kawakubo and Pierre Cardin,” said the 25-year-old designer, lauding “his silhouettes, his obsession with circles, but most importantly his playful way of looking at things — fashion with a smile.”

Born March 9, 1923 in Pau, located in the Basque region of France, Courrèges originally trained as a civil engineer. He spent a short time working at the fashion house Jeanne Lafaurie, then became an assistant to Balenciaga.

He worked for 10 years in the older designer’s atelier before founding his own house in 1961, a background that was reflected in his ingenious cuts and shapes that, like those of his mentor, were inspired by geometry, in Courrèges’ case, by squares, triangles and trapezoids.

Courrèges was also very interested in modern architecture and technology, particularly that involving fabrics, and was one of the first designers to use plastic and PVC in his collections.

His spring collection of 1964 radically redefined fashion with looks that were futuristic at the time, including dresses with cutouts; short, A-line skirts; poor-boy sweaters; slim pants, and goggles and helmets inspired by astronauts. Modified cowboy hats detailed with piping were another signature item.

Their color scheme was also futuristic: Clinical white laced with silver, primary colors and fluorescent tones. His sweaters and flat white boots, called “go-go boots,” were particularly influential among the general public.

The look was driven by Courrèges’ passion for the female body and the way in which it moved. “Look at how we [the couture] have failed,” he said in 1966.

“A woman to drive her car must pull up her skirt. We have failed her in designing her clothes. There are occasions where pants are the thing to wear. They are more elegant on those occasions than any dress. Look at a man’s suit. How much more logical, realistic and contemporary than women’s clothes,” he added.

Jean-Charles de Castelbajac recalled working with Courrèges, one of his early design idols, on two collections in 1993. It was at the start of Courrèges’ Parkinson’s disease, and they designed in tandem.

“It was quite a visionary concept because nobody did that officially before,” said Castelbajac, reminiscing about the “amazing fittings, where I can even remember André coloring my sketches. We were like accomplices; we thought in the same way. He was an example for me.”

Castelbajac believes the full impact of Courrèges on fashion has yet to be felt.

“It’s on the way to be realized. It is the constant of modernity — modernity as something that is not depending on fashion. It’s depending on style, on a vision. Courrèges is not about trends. Courrèges is not about the next print. Courregès is strangely a ‘cosmic classic,’” he explained.

Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, said, “In the 1960s, the French had no youth culture the way the English and Americans did — no Beatles, no Rolling Stones. Confronted with London Youthquake fashions, the French couture was frozen. Then Courrèges used the idea of futurism as a metaphor for youth — all his moon girl outfits, silver trousers, etc. That was really pivotal.

“His influence on world fashion was huge even when I was in grade school, those little moon girl boots were knocked off everywhere,” she said. “Periodically, anytime anybody does a futuristic thing, they do some kind of a riff on what he was doing. Some of the interesting ways he combined futurism with a Lolita-esque look was also sort of charming and indelible, so it wasn’t just the white and silver but white and pink.”

Lisa Perry said, “People ask me all the time, ‘Why the major focus on the Sixties and how did you get started?’ I answer, ‘It was on a trip to Paris about 20 years ago that I walked into a Courrèges store and just felt like I was home. It was white and bright and glossy with pops of bright colors and it felt so cool. Very alive.

“Some years later when I decided to create my own collection based on the great design of the Sixties, it was the joyfulness of Courrèges designs that spoke to me. The world of Monsieur Courrèges made me smile and I thank him for his beautiful optimistic inspiration.”

Didier Grumbach, the former head of the French fashion federation, noted that Courrèges remained intensely loyal to Balenciaga.

When the Begum Aga Khan paid him a visit after he opened his house, Courrèges told her that he wouldn’t dress Balenciaga’s clients, Grumbach reported.

Upon her insistence, he gave in but asked her to get permission first from Mademoiselle Renée, who ran Balenciaga’s salon. The Begum returned to Courrèges speedily with a note from Mademoiselle Renée that read: “Permission to Dress.”

Courrèges did not move with the times, but instead staked his highly specific claim to the futuristic and continued to sound what was once an ultramodern note — albeit one associated strongly with the Sixties — throughout his career.

His greatest muse was undoubtedly his wife, Coqueline. “I could not have perceived femininity without her,” he said. With her waiflike figure and precocious spirit, she modeled his designs to perfection and took a great deal of control over the house’s creative direction in the Eighties.

Courrèges himself was rarely seen without the same pink or white cropped pants, cropped hair, cropped jacket and a pair of Pop glasses. He also retained the slenderness that had been a trademark throughout his life, which he attributed to an exercise regime that included working out, skiing and horseback riding.

Despite their growing fame, the couple preferred not to live an extravagant life. They took family vacations by trailer across the western United States and lived in an all-white apartment in the wealthy but quiet Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine.

The designer often said he felt more American than French. “I love America, I love the American spirit. The spirit of going to the moon. The American way of life. The grandeur of American space. America is a formidable, formidable country,” he said.

After retiring as his illness took hold, Courrèges devoted his time to painting and sculpture. His wife said in 2001: “He’s like a peasant farmer. He wakes up with the rooster, at the crack of dawn, and goes to sleep with the rooster, as soon as the sun sets.”

When the fashion tide turned against him, Courrèges channeled his energies into architectural and environmental design. He undertook projects such as the design of a Hitachi pavilion for a 1985 world exhibition and re-envisioned the company’s robots to give them a more human, poetic image. He teamed up with Minolta to design cameras so visually compelling women bought them for the packaging alone.

His innovations weren’t limited to the visual world. The couturier was also one of the first designers to enter into licensing. In the Sixties, he sold 50 percent of his business to L’Oréal, his fragrance licensee, and that arrangement lasted until 1983, when the Japanese company Itokin acquired the L’Oréal stake.

At the same time, Courrèges was expanding further into the American market with the help of Descente, a second Japanese licensee, and the Courrèges sportswear line Courrèges Sport Futur.

After buying the company in 2011, Bungert and Torloting set about relaunching the brand through collaborations with companies including The Estée Lauder Cos., Eastpak, Evian, Alain Mikli and La Redoute.

In September 2015, Courrèges staged its first catwalk show in 13 years, marking the critically acclaimed debut of Sébastien Meyer and Arnaud Vaillant as artistic directors of women’s wear.

Artémis SA, French billionaire François Pinault’s family holding company, is said to have taken a minority stake in the label as it prepares to expand its retail network, though officials at Artémis and Courrèges have declined to comment.

The designer is survived by Coqueline and his daughter, Marie.

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