thinking – Vionnet vs. Chanel

In the course of creating the Vionnet paper dolls, I did some more reading on the life and career of Madeleine Vionnet. One of the things that fascinates me about her story is how her tremendous influence on modern fashion designers is so little-known. The house of Vionnet was at its peak at the same time as the house of Chanel, and the vastly different styles of the two women interest me a lot.

They were both incredible female designers whose work defined the changing identities of women in the 1920s and 30s. They were both hugely successful in their lifetimes. Chanel remains a legend, whereas Vionnet’s name is almost totally forgotten outside of the bubble of fashion. Why?

I’ve compared Chanel and Vionnet across five categories, for my own interest.

1. Articulation

Coco Chanel wasn’t just a designer – she was brilliant at speaking, creating soundbites before the term even existed. Vionnet rarely granted interviews, and when she did her comments were sincere but never pithy.

The thing about the resonance of quotations is that they spread so easily and last so much longer than items of clothing. A good quotation is incredibly viral, repeated again and again and often long after the speaker is gone. The value of brief, clever comments is a huge part of being remembered.

“The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.” – Coco Chanel

2. Celebrity

Coco Chanel’s greatest innovation was creating herself as a symbol of her own brand. This was an advantage that didn’t come so easily to her male contemporaries. She was young and beautiful, a socialite and a bon vivant – an “it girl”, in a sense who (nearly) escaped the fleeting nature of it-ness, and like it-girls today, Chanel was adept at communicating her own image via photographs. Vionnet, on the other hand, was a dowdy-looking older woman who shunned the spotlight.

2. Design

When it comes to the work of design itself, Vionnet is the one who shines. She is a designer’s designer – someone who explored the possibilities of form and fabric, who understands how clothing is made and who created new rules. Her philosophy and way of working was three-dimensional and to this day her patterns are studied by design students, and her techniques have been used extensively by more recent designers, like Halston.

Chanel’s attitude towards design was far more curatorial but no less innovative. Her work was strongly influenced by menswear, sports clothing, and underwear – points of references that were untouched by her contemporaries and have clearly been the dominating influence in modern women’s clothing to this day.

4. Intellectual Property

Vionnet had a strong streak of paranoia when it came to protecting her work, which may be one of the reasons why her brand remains relatively unknown today.  The entire physical body of her work is protected in museums, meaning that the designers who work on the relatively unsuccessful revival of her brand are working from the same limited materials as any other fashion student.

Chanel was no friend to copyists either, though she famously took a more philosophical attitude towards the spreading of ideas in fashion.

“Cry when they don’t copy you.” – Coco Chanel

5. Later Years

Vionnet and Chanel both shared the experience of falling out of fashion in the later parts of their lives. After Vionnet’s house went out of business during the second world war, she gracefully entered a well-deserved retirement. Chanel’s own politics during the war were controversial – she consorted with the enemy (Galliano take note) – and her post-war years were spent in a low profile until she revived her house in the 1960s. While the classic Chanel suit updated well in the new decade, Chanel’s attitudes towards youth and, famously, denim were embarrassingly antique in her old age – and after her death, Chanel became a house for the elderly in the 1970s and 80s. When it was resurrected in the 1990s, Chanel’s geriatric mistake has been cannily avoided by her successor Karl Lagerfeld.

Lessons learned from these two formidable females? If achieving a legendary status after your death is important to you, know that good work is not enough. Vionnet’s brilliance faded after her death, while Chanel’s is literally branded on the popular consciousness.

  1. Have good ideas – and articulate them as well as execute them. There’s a reason why people rarely let the work speak for itself – the fact is that words are incredibly powerful – all the more so in the age of Google. Know that being able to express the philosophy behind your ideas makes your ideas all that more viral.
  2. Celebrity truly is the secret sauce. Avoiding the necessity of putting a face to your work will make it that much more difficult to spread your work. People are more interested in people than they are in art, design, or fashion. We are hardwired to recognize and remember faces. Ignore that reality at your own risk.
  3. Spreading your ideas is paramount. Over-protect your ideas and they will die. Make it as easy as possible for people to share your work. In fact, bake it in: specifically create things that have inherent spreadability. The technical virtuousity of Vionnet’s work makes it almost impossible to reproduce, while any woman can emulate the idea of Chanel, even if she can’t afford anything with the label on it.
  4. Remain openminded to the changes of fashion. This is something that both women failed to do as they age – take instead as an example Lagerfeld, who has brilliantly reinvented himself in his 70th decade, is relentlessly forward-looking, and who is enjoying legendary status in his own lifetime.
  5. Don’t over-estimate innovation. Read that carefully – I said OVER. While both women were innovators in their own way, Chanel built her great reputation on repetition – she was a brilliant creator of classics. Many of her best ideas were not new – and yet remain best-sellers to this day. Innovation has a vastly over-rated status in modern fashion discourse – even though innovation does not guarantee any kind of importance or longevity in fashion or business. Too many people think it does.
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15 thoughts on “thinking – Vionnet vs. Chanel”

  1. Brilliant article Danielle. I learned so much from this. Do you think there are some modern parallels to Vionnet and the mistakes she made? I can’t think of any I guess because most designers now are all about becoming recognizable.

  2. Chanel’s message of freeing and empowering women was in sync with the spirit of the times, driven home with the passion of an activist. I think it set her apart. It has to be about more than clothes. Borrowing from men’s clothing was not unique to her, but she did it the best.

  3. Great post, it really has a reach that inspires not only in fashion design but also in many aspect of life! Plus you reminded me of one of my fav. quotes ‘“The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.” – Coco Chanel’

  4. Linda – I do think there are a lot of designers who either willfully or just by their own type of personality, echo Vionnet’s ethos more than Chanel’s. I think the tendency to celebrify tends to go in and out of fashion itself, too – I saw an interesting talk with Giles Deacon and was struck by how many modern designers aren’t going out of their way to blow up their personalities the way Chanel did.

    I think what I ignored here too was the issue of Dior – who in fact was not a great personality – so why is he still a legendary figure to this day?

  5. I think Dior resonates to this day because his New Look was a moment in time that captured the new hope after WWII. It was a symbol of the end of austerity (not really but made for great press) and the return to normality. It could also be a symbolism that the French fashion industry survived the German occupation and the attempts to co-opt it and move it to another country. I suspect that this is what gives Dior his legend.

  6. But Vionnet isn’t so obscure anymore, with the exhibition, house reboot and people singing her praises everywhere in the press (Plus W.E. is opening this Friday)

    And I would disagree with Vionnet not spreading her ideas. She detested the piracy but she had an eye out for her legacy. After all, she donated all her dresses and patterns to UFAC which is now part of Musée des Arts Décoratifs. The stuff was all there just waiting for people to study them.

    Chanel donated zilch. nada. She even brushed off Cecil Beaton’s request to contribute to his Fashion Anthology exhibit. She may have said something along the line that if the Museum really want it, they could buy it at full price. But of course, Chanel is so important and is such a household name that all museums are obligated to have a few of her works; they may even have bought them for quite a sum at auctions… which just goes to prove that Mlle Chanel is right after all.

  7. Thanks for the comment Elle! I still feel Vionnet is still pretty obscure outside of technically/historically educated fashion people, and the majority of fashion types can’t grasp the technical concepts she developed either. Ordinary folk have never heard of her at all. The Betty Kirke book was the main thread of her legacy for years and years, and reading it you still get the sense that Kirke didn’t have as much to work with as she would have liked, even though she was the last author to actually spend time with the designer.

  8. Vionnet is my favorite designer. As a business woman she actually took care of her employees and was ahead of her time in doing so. I am always telling people about her and have books I force people to look at. Always they bring up Chanel and I always tell them she was a Nazi Sympathiser and had to leave Paris to avoid reprisals, not to mention she was just a mean woman.
    There is nothing in clothing I have seen as sublime as Vionnet’s Blackbird Dress.
    Thanks for the article.

  9. Dior only really came back to life with Galliano and his work have very little to do with classic Dior. Dior himself wasn’t such a great designer, Balenciaga did it so much better. For over 2 decades, Dior was of little importance. Chanel would perhaps have gone that way too without Largerfeld. No one wanted Chanel in the 70’s.

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