Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Lucien Lelong - A Little Illumination

There are so many stories of acts of personal courage from Paris under the Nazi Occupation...we will never know them all.
But author and fashion blogger Linda Grant has brought us one that I think you will find interesting.
Lucien Lelong: the man who saved Paris
Where would French fashion be without Lucien Lelong? Probably in Berlin, that's where. Linda Grant on the dressmaker who stood up to Nazis – and won.

Paris struggled on, but when war was declared on 3 September 1939 the couture houses closed down, some for ever. Mainbocher and Schiaparelli left for America. Vionnet never reopened. Lelong was now president of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture and, after the invasion, it was his job to negotiate with the occupying German regime. The Nazis wanted to move Paris lock, stock and barrel to Berlin by any means, including violence. On 20 July 1940 five Nazi officers arrived at the headquarters of the Chambre Syndicale on an 'inspection'; five days later they broke into the building and requisitioned the archive.

Under the Nazi plan the Paris ateliers would be moved to
Germany or Austria, where they would train a new generation of German
dressmakers. The designers would also be moved. Within a generation, the Nazis
expected, couture would be German, not French. It was a breathtakingly arrogant
ambition to believe that they could appropriate a whole industry.

Lelong pointed out that the plan was unworkable. French
fashion was dependent on thousands of skilled artisans in tiny ateliers, each
specialising in one small detail of finish, such as embroidery. The skills, he
explained, were unteachable. You could not transfer them, and it took decades to
reach the necessary levels of craftsmanship. The intransigence of the Germans
was nothing compared with that of French couture. Lelong asserted the right of
each country to produce its own fashion and argued that it was their home
environment that allowed the workers to do what they did. The Nazis backed down
and returned the archive, and Lelong negotiated to keep a supply of fabric that
would maintain production. The only fall-back the occupiers had was to conscript
into the army its labour force. They started by demanding 80 per cent; Lelong
got it down to five per cent.

I've always wondered about the adulation and iconization of Coco Chanel, with the ongoing barrage of books, articles and films about her life. There were so many talented designers, not just in Haute Couture but in jewelry too (Van Cleef, Cartier,Boucheron), who managed to continue their work during this period, without sleeping with German officers like Coco Chanel chose to do.
Today Lelong is forgotten while everyone remembers Chanel.
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