Fashion history: Jean Patou

Fashion history. The story of Jean Patou the French fashion designer who revolutionised women’s style and the world of perfumes.

Astuteness, charm and a sense of beauty – combined with the flair for business he inherited from his father, a luxury fur merchant and tanner – were the hallmarks of the couturier Jean Patou’s creations. Born in Paris in 1887 to a middle-class family, he started work initially with his uncle, a fur merchant, before opening the Maison Parry, which was an immediate success. Patou was a true innovator: he invented sportswear and in 1925 opened Le Coin des Sports, a boutique with a series of rooms inside, each dedicated to a different sport. He created the first knitted sports cardigan and introduced the idea of the “label”, adding his monogram – his own embroidered initials – to the breast pockets and lapels of his modernist knitwear. His luxurious creations for women let them dress elegantly even while doing sport: he brought out simple jersey designs, outfits for horseriding or fishing, skiing clothes and the first tennis t-shirts, which players wore with a short floaty skirt. His tennis line became famous thanks to Suzanne Lenglen, who wore it at the Wimbledon tournament, scandalising the conservatively minded. He was the inventor of the first skin-tight, anti-shrink swimming costumes and launched the first tanning product (based on Chaldée oil). A supreme expert in the art of clothes design, he was Chanel’s main rival, even winning the sobriquet “the tailor to royalty” in the Paris fashion world. Patou dressed the aristocracy and the biggest stars of the day, designing luxurious dresses with innovative stylised embroidery and unusual materials, which were worn with gorgeous, sumptuous furs. He also focused on the art of perfume during his rise to success, creating three delicate fragrances – one for blondes, one for brunettes and one for redheads. Bold and idiosyncratic at the same time, he decided to launch his fragrance Joy during the economic crisis of 1929. The perfume, a riot of jasmine and rose, was hugely costly (the most expensive in the world). His brief fashion career – Patou died prematurely at the age of 49 – is covered in a book recounting the designer’s fascinating life: Jean Patou a fashionable life. The book is packed with previously unpublished material: there are photographs and original sketches of Art Deco furnishings and perfume bottles. It is a tribute to a farsighted and passionate mind and the huge, incomparable legacy the designer left during his short life. One last intriguing fact: it was Patou who was the first to pair perfume bottles with small leather cases – the pinnacle of chic. 

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