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Bias for Beauty

Inspired by Egyptian frescoes, Greek art, and modern dance, Madeleine Vionnet (1876-1975) wrought a fashion revolution with her bias-cut garments and her conviction that dresses must take on the personality of the person wearing them.

Vionnet was born in June 1876 to a poor family in Loiret, France, and started her apprenticeship as a seamstress at age 11. After a short marriage, she left her husband, and worked in a London hospital as a seamstress. She returned to Paris to be trained at the fashion houses of the Callot Soeurs and Jaques Doucet, where she learned about the bias-cut. Vionnet pioneered her signature style, incorporating barefoot models and loose robes for an aesthetic that clashed with Doucet's stiffer and more formal house style. In 1912, she founded her own fashion house, "Vionnet", which closed briefly for World War One but reopened in 1923.

Vionnet designed new garments by diagonally draping geometric pieces--squares, circles, and triangles--on a two-foot-tall mannequin. Once the pattern was established, she ordered fabric two yards wider than necessary to create dresses that would cling to the shape of the body and fluidly echo its movements, emphasizing the wearer’s comfort and natural beauty.

She said: “The designer at work has a woman and some fabric, and with these two elements must create something harmonious. Until recently, we abused these two. We seemed to view women’s bodies as shameful objects whose shapes had to be concealed as much as possible.

"As for the fabrics, we treated them like young children, incapable of managing on their own, for which all sorts of supports were essential: stays, interfacing, stiffeners. I wanted to rehabilitate these two innocents and to demonstrate that a piece of fabric falling freely over an unfettered body can still form a harmonious ensemble. I was looking for the dress that would automatically find its original shape when at rest, like a soldier stepping back into the ranks. The formula for the well-cut dress.”

Vionnet also felt that clothing should conform to its wearer’s personality. She once said, “When a woman smiles, her dress should smile too.”

These smiling dresses liberated women’s bodies from the padding, corsets, and stays that had conformed them to a straight-grained ideal. She designed dresses for Isadora Duncan, and her luxurious gowns were worn by actresses like Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn. Vionnet's simple, sensual designs dominated the haute couture of 1930’s Paris. She closed her shop in 1940, but her work continued to influence twentieth-century designers, including Geoffrey Beene in American, Azzedine Alaïa in France, and Japanese designers Issey Miyake and Rei Kawakubo.

Issey Miyake once remarked that on seeing Vionnet's work for the first time, “the impression was similar to the wonder one feels at the sight of a woman emerging from bathing, draped only in a single piece of beautiful cloth.” Kyra was a teenager designing costumes when she first encountered Vionnet's work. "I fell in love with it, " Kyra says of the designer's revolutionary approach to design. “It’s so graceful and organic."

Vionnet's achievements inspired Kyra's work with Japanese chain mail, which has a diamond-shaped grain that performs a sort of engineering alchemy, trasnforming rugged metal rings into items that offer a forgiving drape and resilient movement not found squared, straight-grained European chain mail. Kyra's designs also link the fluidity of fabric with the durability of metal, building pieces that grant their wearers comfort, freedom of movement. and a bias for beauty.

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