The Storied Couture House Returning to Paris Fashion Week

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Christian Lacroix for Jean Patou

Jean Patou is set to make a comeback on the runways of Paris next year. Here, we examine its history, from conception to Christian Lacroix

Who? Jean Patou was born in Normandy, France on August 19, 1880, the son of a reputable leather tanner and furrier who supplied materials to Parisian fashion houses. After learning the family trade alongside his uncle, a young Patou relocated to Paris in 1912, where he realised his dream of heading up his own business, founding a small dressmaking salon named Maison Parry at 4 Rond-Point des Champs-Elysées. Two years later, in 1914, Patou produced his first ever collection but it would never be shown, halted by the outbreak of World War I.

The designer was drafted into the army at the age of 27, serving as a captain in the French Zouave regiment in Thessaloniki, Greece. It was here Patou would encounter much of the folk embroidery, beading and vibrant colour palettes of traditional Greek dress that would go on to inspire his later work. Sure enough, at the end of the conflict, Patou wasted no time in returning to fashion almost immediately and in 1919 his couture house reopened under his own name. 

What? It was during this period that the designer totally overhauled the trend for boxy, flapper-esque silhouettes by lengthening skirts to emphasise stature and raising waistlines so that they sat at the slimmest part of a woman’s torso. Famously, Patou can be credited for his groundbreaking adoption of sportswear as daywear, championing clothes that were equally comfortable and desirable to his discerning clientele, including pleated, knee-length tennis dresses, knitted bathing suits and cardigans emblazoned with ‘JP’. 

Such was his dedication to this early iteration of sports luxe that in 1925 Patou opened a new store in Biarritz, with a room devoted to clothing for each sport and a selection of coordinating accessories. The same year, Jean Patou would launch its first perfume line in collaboration with Henri Alméras. This would become the house’s saving grace during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the couture market near collapsed, with Patou’s signature fragrance Joy bolstering company revenue. With the scent containing over 10,000 jasmine flowers per ounce, it was dubbed ‘the most expensive fragrance in the world’, one that still rivals the popularity of Chanel No. 5 to this day. 

Indeed, Patou served as Coco Chanel’s biggest rival throughout his career, with both designers competing to create contemporary clothing that appealed to the American woman as much as her European cousins. In a revolutionary move, Patou travelled to the United States and handpicked six American models to take back with him to Paris and wear his pieces. Although the idea unsuprisingly attracted criticism from the French press, it was rumoured that Mme Chanel was furious for not thinking of the idea first, sparking a very public rivalry between the two.

Although it was not to last for long, as Patou’s sudden and premature death in 1936 dictated that Mme Chanel’s legacy would outgrow M Patou’s. The couture house was continued by his sister Madeline and her husband Raymond Barbas, and a number of designers have since cut their teeth working for the house, including Marc Bohan, Karl Lagerfeld, Jean Paul Gaultier and Christian Lacroix, and the last haute couture collection was presented 1987 following Lacroix’s departure to launch his own house. 

Why? Last month, it was announced that LVMH would be relaunching Jean Patou’s prêt-à-porter line, reviving the house which is now mostly renowned for its perfume alone. Soon after, the luxury conglomerate revealed that Guillaume Henry – ex-creative director at Nina Ricci and the man responsible for resurrecting Carven, another French fashion house that had seen better days – would be taking the helm. The brand has done little else to give away what to expect from Henry, despite launching an Instagram account with a quote from Patou himself that might indicate a move towards the more casual, relaxed side of the Jean Patou archive: “I am French and detest extravagances”. We’re eagerly watching this space.