"Where do his tennis dresses, his sailor dresses come from? Where did he find them? On the steps of Delphi. In the wardrobe of Electra. They are modern and they are antique," wrote Violette Leduc in a piece entitled "Is Courrèges Wearable?" published on Vogue in 1965.
It's exactly the designer's passion for the past but his stronger desire to explore the future that turned André Courrèges, who died last Thursday in Neuilly-sur-Seine after a long battle with Parkinson's disease, into an inspiration for many modern designers.
France's president François Hollande paid tribute to the late designer on social media, writing: "Créateur révolutionnaire, usant de formes géométriques et matières nouvelles, André Courrèges a marqué de son empreinte la haute couture" ("A revolutionary designer, using new materials and geometric shapes, André Courrèges leaves behind a footprint in the world of high fashion.")
Born in 1923 in Pau (in the French Basque country), Courrèges was educated at the National School of Civil Engineering. In 1944 he served as an Air Force pilot based at Aix-en-Provence. Courrèges enrolled at the training college for the clothing industries in Paris in 1946 and was taken as a designer at the Jeanne Lafaurie couture house the following year.
He started working for Balenciaga in 1951 where also Coqueline Barrière, later on his creative partner and wife, worked. Ten years later André and Coqueline established their own Paris couture house and moved into a flat at 48 Avenue Kléber after borrowing money from Balenciaga (who, years later, refused to be paid back by the couple).
Fashion-wise the '60s were terrific years and Courrèges was definitely among the main protagonists of the changes marked by this decade: in 1962 he designed a collection with trousers for day and evening (trousers were usually deemed an informal item of clothing, Courrèges introduced slim, tapering trousers for everyday and smart wear), while in 1965 he caused a sensation with a collection of mini dresses.
He also produced around the same year his iconic white kid open-toe boots with cut-out top and the timeless Inuit-inspired white plastic sunglasses with a slit that followed the curve of the eyelashes (a design made famous by a Peter Knapp picture of Madame Filipacchi wearing them, but also sported by other famous people including Salvador Dali and Sun Ra).
A special dynamism pervaded his designs: Courrèges' clothes such as his simple striped outfits and trousers and jackets with a navy grosgrain braid were clearly made with a childish glee and a passion for a fast and joyful life in mind; they represented a new lifestyle perfectly captured in the pictures by Willy Rizzo or William Klein, featuring models clad in Courrèges pieces at times dancing, jumping in the air or energetically moving around.
"The woman who interests me doesn't belong to any particular physical type. She lives a certain life, however. She is active, moves fast, works, is usually young and modern enough to wear modern, intelligent clothes," the designer stated in a 1965 interview.
Courrèges was mainly inspired in his stark shapes and streamlined silhouettes by a combination of Futurism and Russian Constructivism, though he also had links with the Bauhaus, but his secret stood in his thick fabrics including double-sided wools, gabardine and heavy twills (later on he included PVC in his garments), while a palette of primary colours in which white (inspired by white-walled houses, Basque pelota players dressed in white playing against a white wall and Coqueline's father's clothes), red, yellow, and silver prevailed, prompting critics to label his garments as "Space Age" designs (for the Autumn/Winter 1968-69 season he designed white capes that, matched with figure-hugging body stockings, made his models look like cosmonauts).
The designer financed his expansion by selling 50% of the couture houses' capital and 100% of the perfume company's capital to L'Oréal, but, since the 1965 designs were so popular that they got heavily plagiarised, and scared by success ("When I left (Balenciaga) I gave myself five years to reach a certain point. I have reached it in two, and discover that premature success is cumbersome," he stated in 1965), Courrèges decided not to hold any more press shows until the Spring/Summer 1967 when he introduced outfits matched with shorts and replaced the boots with flat-heeled shoes and socks woven on a mechanical loom.
In 1967 Courrèges also launched a Haute Couture collection dubbed "Couture Future", aimed at making couture more accessible, producing fifteen designs in four or five different sizes with hemlines that suited the clients and mass produced them, enabling them to be sold at a fifth of the usual prize.
"Luxury in clothes to me has no meaning," Courrèges stated about Haute Couture, "It belongs to the past. My problem is not rich embroidery, useless lavishness – it is to harmoniously resolve function problems – just like the engineer who designs a plane, like the man who conceives a car. There is no real difference between them and me and, like theirs, my place should be in the anonymous shadow of a laboratory."
In 1968 Courrèges built a factory in Pau: describing it in 1975, Le Monde emphasised its futuristic architectures with a semi-transparent roof that could be opened, glass walls, and staff working in contact with nature.
In 1969 Courrèges designed the clothes for Romy Schneider's in Claude Sautet's Les Choses de la vie. In 1970 the fashion house launched the "Hyperbole" collection for the mass market; "Prototype" for the Haute Couture and "Maille", a knitwear collection.
The first perfume arrived on the scene in the same year, and, in 1972, Courrèges designed the uniforms for the Munich Olympics, moving onto menswear the following year. He continued to be inspired by modernism and futurism, but was also influenced by art, design and architecture.
In 1977 the house produced its first menswear fragrance, but a new boom arrived at the end of the '70s with the introduction of a licensing policy. In 1982 L'Oréal relinquished control of the Haute Couture business and the designer transferred it to one of his licensees, Japanese read-to-wear Itokin, retaining a blocking minority interest. In the same year the designer set up Courrèges Design for activities such as property, cars and food, while in early 1983 Courrèges worked with Japanese motor company Honda to design special editions of their TACT motor scooter.
After losing the Haute Couture label in 1986, since he failed to show a collection in 1985, Courrèges regained control of companies and trademarks in 1993. Although Courrèges retired a year later, the brand has since existed by way of perfumes through licensing agreements.
Between 1993 and '94 Jean-Charles de Castelbajac produced two collections for Courrèges and, in 1994, Coqueline started the re-organisation of he company. A new perfume was launched in 1997, and, in the same year, Courrèges exhibited his paintings and sculptures at the FIAC (Foire international d'arte contemporain).
The house was re-launched after being bought in 2011 by Jacques Bungert and Frédéric Torloting; Sebastien Meyer and Arnaud Vaillant (who previously ran their own label Coperni Femme) were named artistic directors of womenswear last year. In 2015 the house also collaborated with Estée Lauder, launching a make-up line comprising lip glosses, false lashes and hair mascara. Courregès is survived by his partner Coqueline and their daughter Marie.
Though his textiles and tailoring were not easy to copy, Courrèges' ideas were widely adopted and recreated even in more recent years by many different fashion houses and brands including Prada, Marc Jacobs, Miu Miu and Dior, proving he has been a genuine visionary.
Yet André and Coqueline remain part of a very different generation of designers: he worked for Balenciaga for ten years developing great skills in cutting garments; they were financially helped by Balenciaga (who didn't want their money back), while nowadays huge fashion groups pump money into labels that then quickly lose their identity and design integrity.
Courrèges did manage to preserve his integrity even when he made garments for famous clients such as the Duchess of Windsor and always demanded to be paid for his work, so that celebrities would never get any special or preferential treatment ("Monsieur Balenciaga is a grand seigneur, a nobleman, used to dressing noblemen’s wives. Never does he lose his grand manners. But his house, in turn, stretches flat like a carpet in front of any of Monsieur Balenciaga’s famous customers. Not here," Courrèges explained). Any regrets? Maybe one: "Le Corbusier is my only master. If I had the guts, I would leave it all today to become an architect," the designer once stated. Maybe it was better that way: the loss of the architecture world was indeed the gain of the fashion industry.
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