In the early Nineties, A Harvard doctoral student in musicology needed some material for her dissertation on early 20th-century French composer and pianist Erik Satie. Of course, she turned to Didier Grumbach’s “Histoires de la Mode.”
“I needed to learn more about Paul Poiret,” explained Mary Davis, dean of graduate studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “People described the book to me as the bible of French fashion history — the authoritative fashion source.”
Davis has devoted most of her graduate work and career to music, often delving into its connection to fashion. At the time of her thesis, very little information was available on turn-of-the-century designers, hence her need for “Histoires.” Grumbach’s tome remains a go-to book for Davis — and scores of others. Now, 21 years after its first edition, the book is being launched in English as “The History of International Fashion” from Interlink Publishing. This comes after several editions in Chinese, Rumanian and Portuguese, among other languages, as well as a few updates.
The book spans the history of fashion from the origins of couture in the 17th century to the emergence of megaluxury groups and challenges of globalization in the new millennium. Grumbach, as an author, enjoyed the unique position of having personally experienced many of the key events in fashion that happened after World War II. Along the way, he tosses in lots of anecdotes, like the fact that Marcel Boussac, the first owner of Christian Dior, got rich making pajamas, dresses and shirts from huge stocks of airplane cloth he bought for a pittance after World War II.
Grumbach penned “Histoires” while he was dean of studies at the Institut Français de la Mode, which owns the book’s rights. Grumbach wrote in the mornings before work and during weekends at his country house. The first edition took him two-and-a-half years to write.
“I did it for the students,” he said. “I started my career extremely early and I realize that I had the gift to remember so many people who changed the history of our industry but who have since left us. I’ve collected so much information, thanks to conversations with people as diverse as André Courrèges, Andrew Goodman, Andrée Putman, François-Henri Pinault or Yves Carcelle. This is what makes the book such a singular document.”
Since the first edition, Grumbach said the Internet, the growth of luxury brands with the near-extinction of licensing agreements and the international scope of Paris Fashion Week have been the most significant phenomena affecting the industry.
The question remains: Will Didier Grumbach’s book be required reading at design schools or companies in top markets like the U.S., now that it’s available in English?
“It will be an important book here,” noted FIT’s Davis, stipulating that she does not dictate curricula. “People have been waiting for it.”
Those who have spent the bulk of their careers in fashion, including Pamela Golbin, chief curator of fashion and textiles at Paris’ Musée des Arts Décoratifs, also consider Grumbach’s book a valuable resource.
“Grumbach came from a manufacturing family. He’s been almost on every side of the fashion industry, which is pretty incredible and quite rare. He’s lived through a massive paradigm in fashion from couture to ready-to-wear and he was one of the major actors,” Golbin attested. “To have an insider’s point of view and have something so well-researched is incredible. There’s no other book like it.”