NEW YORK — The couturier Lucien Lelong trailblazed the way for generations of designers with his double “L” logo, fragrances, accessories, self-promoting ads and socialite clientele.
In 1918, he transformed his parents’ business into the House of Lelong, a label that would be worn by revelers at Paris hot spots such as Ciro’s, Maxim’s and Le Boeuf sur le Toit for three decades to come.
Lelong was a champion of Modernism, a contemporary of Coco Chanel and Jean Patou, and former president of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisian. A visit to “Modern Master: Lucien Lelong Couturier 1918 – 1948,” on exhibit at the Museum at FIT, reveals less well-known facts.
At the apogee of his business, Lelong employed more than 1,200 people in his 16 workrooms, fitting rooms, salons and boutiques, including Pierre Balmain, Christian Dior, Jean Ebel and Hubert de Givenchy early in their careers. In his autobiography, Dior wrote, “Neither Balmain nor I will ever forget that…Lelong taught us our profession.”
In addition to recognizing talent, Lelong had the foresight to create the first couture ready-to-wear collection, Lucien Lelong Editions, in 1934. Even more impressive was how he helped keep the Paris couture from relocating to Berlin during the German occupation.
Lelong designed with his well-traveled and sophisticated clientele in mind. He saw to it that striking high-society dames, including his second wife and muse, Princess Natalie Paley, were often seen around town in his clothes. He trumpeted his handiwork as “Kinetic Design,” the principle that supported his belief that fashion should ease movement. That appealed to free-minded thinkers like Marlene Dietrich, Babe Paley, Clare Booth Luce, Marie-Laure de Noailles and Princess Liliane “Baba” de Faucigny-Lucinge.
Lelong, a sculptor, art collector and man-about-town, lived the life, too, often joining the women he dressed, skiing in St. Moritz, sunbathing at the Lido or lunching at the Ritz. Fashion shows at his Avenue Matignon salons were not to be missed, partly for Jean-Michel Frank’s decor. Some of the more entertaining moments were not seen by most guests. Backstage, Lelong would sit on a stool, summon his models one by one and fluff up each one’s skirt, telling them, “You are beautiful. You create beauty. That’s why you are on this earth.” Then with a wink of approval, onto the catwalk they would go.
From a distance, his creations look relatively simple, but up close, they reveal blinding details. One of the most impressive examples in the FIT show is a floor-length afternoon dress with rows of different colored floral buds around the skirt. The top of the dress, however, is a lesson in design, since Lelong cut and sewed the same fabric into what looks like necklaces of floral buds on the chest. The kicker — the dress was part of his ready-to-wear collection, not couture.
The Modern Master exhibition — the first of its kind for Lelong — has been compiled by graduate students in FIT’s Master of Arts program in Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory and Museum Practice. Among the relics the students uncovered is an ad from 1938 in which he is featured with Alix, Lanvin and Schiaparelli to endorse Cutex nail polish, and the “quick change” brooch that doubled as a three-lipstick stash but looked like a bus driver’s coin dispenser.
Admiring a doll clad in a sparkling dress that Dior designed for Lelong shortly before he exited the house to go out on his own, student curator Sonya Mooney said, “Dior took a lot from Lelong — some workers, some models, some dressmaking techniques. But what he couldn’t do at Lelong was be full-blown romantic.”
Her co-curator, Sarah Scaturro, finished the thought, “Because to be a romantic, you have to look to the past, and that was definitely not what Lelong was about.”