When Lucien Lelong was born in Paris, on October 11, 1889, one could have said that he was destined for a life of fashion. Lucien’s father and mother owned a small couture house and in 1907, at the mere age of 18, he designed his first pieces. Two years later, he took it upon himself to redesign their shop, lining the floor, ceilings, and the walls in deep black, so that the space resembled an elegant jewel box. The first Lelong designs were featured in Vogue magazine on page 56 in January of 1913.
Lucien was called to war in 1914, just a few days away from showing his first collection for the family business. He served as an intelligence officer in the French Army until 1917, sustaining shrapnel wounds to his face, and became one of the first frenchmen to be presented with the Croix de Guerre, or Cross of War, for his bravery. When the war ended, he returned to the world of fashion and shortly thereafter opened his own fashion salon, the House of Lelong.
Lucien’s fine workmanship and fabrication were hallmarks of his line. Through a combination of draping and tailoring, his designs epitomized Parisian elegance—sculptural folds, fresh colors, and sophisticated cuts. His theory of “kinetique” or dressing the body in motion gave his clothes an engineered fluidity. In 1924 Lucien began experimenting with fragrances, and launched a perfume line, the Société des Parfums Lucien Lelong, which would go on to outlast his fashion house and is still in business today.
Lelong was an unusual combination of artist and businessman. With an ingenious marketing sense, he would often ask society women to pose as models and be photographed wearing his creations in exchange for a discount. At the height of his career business flourished and he employed a staff of nearly 1,200 at his
Paris location. His second wife, Natalie, would often visit his salon to try on clothes, staying to assist with consultations and acting as an ambassador to international clientele.
In 1933, Lucien introduced a new line—the Robes d’Edition. This ready-to-wear line was created to meet the needs of a shifting economy, with most garments being manufactured ahead of time and requiring just one fitting to tailor.
As expected, it was a popular line.
In the late 1930s fashion in Paris experienced some setbacks. New import
taxes were levied in America against French fashions, which had been
extremely popular to this point. This turned American attention from Paris
fashions towards Hollywood fashions, and although the fashion houses
survived, they did suffer. Lucien was elected president of the Chambre
Syndicale de la Haute Couture in 1937.
A mere two years later, in September of 1939, World War II began and
couture houses closed, some never to reopen. Lucien Lelong, as president of the Chambre Syndicale, was left to negotiate with the occupying German regime. Nazi forces pressed hard to move the Paris Couture industry, including the ateliers, to Germany or Austria—at one point breaking into the building and seizing the archives which included information about clients, fashion houses, and the French export trade. Over a period of four years, Lucien negotiated with the Germans to allow couture to remain and operate, although on a much limited level, and in the end finally convinced the Germans that their plan to move the couture industry would only serve to destroy it. The ateliers, he explained, included thousands of skilled artisans each specializing in minute details such as beading or embroidery, each of whom had taken decades to reach the levels of craftsmanship required—skills which were not transferrable or teachable except through generations of meticulous work. The Germans finally conceded and returned the seized files. In addition to preventing the relocation of the couture industry, Lucien Lelong is credited with saving over 12,000 workers from deportation by the Germans during World War II.
During and after the war, Lucien struggled to persuade buyers to return to Paris fashion, with limited success. He spent his days mentoring young designers including Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain, and finally retired in 1948, having shown 110 collections during his 30 year career span. Lucien Lelong died ten years later, in 1958, in France.
Catwalk Yourself. Lucien Lelong. [Online]. Available: http://www.catwalkyourself.com/fashion-biographies/lucien-lelong/
Fashion Designer Encyclopedia. Lucien Lelong. [Online]. Available: http://www.fashionencyclopedia.com/Le-Ma/Lelong-Lucien.html
Grant, L. (2008). Lucien Lelong: the man who saved Paris. [Online]. Available: http://fashion.telegraph.co.uk/news-features/TMG3497094/Lucien-Lelong-the-man-who-saved-Paris.html
Head to Toe Fashion Art. (2014) Lucien Lelong ~ 1889 – 1958, Biography of Lucien Lelong, fashion designer. [Online]. Available: http://headtotoefashionart.com/lucien-lelong-1889-1958/