Friday, January 2, 2015


Fashion and immigration. What could the two have in common? For the answer, a visit to Paris’ Museum of Immigration History (Musée de l’Histoire de l’Immigration”) is a must this year.

Dresses from the first fashion immigrants.
Until 31 May 2015, the Museum is hosting “Fashion Mix”, an enthralling exhibition about the contributions of “foreign-born” designers to French couture. 

Many countries have produced great or aspiring designers who lived in Paris at some point in their career, and the exhibition takes viewers on a journey through the history of this particular migration.

From the Briton Charles Frederick Worth to the Tunisian Azzedine Alaïa, from the Italian Elsa Schiaparelli to the American Patrick Kelly - they all enriched as well as learned from French expertise, and helped to build Paris’ status as the world’s fashion capital.

The cover of the expo catalogue.
Subtitled “Mode d'ici, créateurs d'ailleurs” (French Fashion, Foreign Designers), the exhibition allows viewers to experience the journeys of selected stylists. It presents private and public archive documents such as passports, letters and naturalisation applications alongside the striking garments, headwear and accessories that the designers created.

The show is done according to nationality or “schools” and so manages to categorize the roles played by the fashion artists from specific countries or regions, such as the United Kingdom, Spain, Asia, northern Europe  and the United States.

The “British School”, for instance, is headed by Charles Frederick Worth, who is considered the father of Parisian haute couture. The story goes that he arrived in the city without a penny to his name (perhaps only with a needle) in the mid-19th century, when he was 20 years old, and went on to conquer with his crinolette and “princess cut”.

Worth’s peers included Henry Creed and others, and the exhibition draws a line to later British designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Lee Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Stella McCartney.

A Balenciaga dress from the Sixties.
The “Spanish school” includes Cristobal Balenciaga, who fled the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and set up shop in a Parisian hotel; and Paco Rabanne, who also quit Spain for political reasons, studied in France and took the fashion world by storm in the 1960s with his iconic metal and plastic dresses. Their creations are among the most striking of the items on display.

But designs from the “Japanese school” also create a buzz. The members of this group shook up the couture scene in Paris in the Seventies and early Eighties, and their names have become intrinsically tied to French fashion. Kenzo Takada and Issey Miyake are undeniably the leaders, but the group comprises Junko Shimada, Henae Mori, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto, among others.

Then there are the innovative Belgians and the fun-loving Americans.  The exhibition highlights the contributions of the Antwerp 6 + 1 (particularly Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten and Martin Margiela) who made a noticeable impact on French couture in the 1990s with their iconoclastic designs, and it also details the birth of “Belgian fashion”.

The colours of Issey Miyake.
Members of the “American school” are said to have realized their dream by being able to live in Paris, and many have become household names, such as Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors and Tom Ford.

But according to the curators of the exhibition, no other American designer expressed as much love for Paris as Patrick Kelly, the first American designer and first person of African descent to join the exclusive Chambre syndicale du prêt-à-porter des couturiers et des créateurs de mode - the fashion trade union that dates from 1868.

The love apparently was reciprocal as Kelly gained numerous fans with his playful and audacious designs. He lived in Paris for just over a decade, from 1979 to his death in 1990 (at the age of 35), and he’s buried at Père Lachaise cemetery. His tomb bears the epitaph “Nothing is impossible”.

Olivier Saillard
What’s nearly impossible for some visitors to believe is that besides Kelly, the only other designer of African descent listed in the exhibition is Mali’s Lamine Kouyaté, creator of the Xuly Bët clothing line.

Olivier Saillard, director of the Palais Galliera, or Paris’ Museum of Fashion - which co-organized the exhibition, said the curators would have liked to include more African designers but that very few have taken part in the official Fashion Weeks. He said he hoped that would change.  (Text & photos: copyright McK-DeC)