This remarkable woman who said: “Fashion is what people tell you to wear. Style is what comes from your own inner thing,” epitomized impeccable style and taste by the time of her recent death at the age of 93. Today though her design house has ceased to exist, her timeless creations and the legacy she left to the fashion world endure. I have always been fascinated with the Trigere style, best known for its intellectual and modern lines and architectural approach to the construction of clothes.
However, I have always failed to understand why the designer was not able to maintain her place at the top of the fashion hierarchy. Thus, it would be an understatement to say I was trilled to have the opportunity to ask this very question to the designer's own son, Jean Pierre Radley, over a glass of white wine in his New York apartment. Here is what I found out and much more…
But before going into the details of my delightful encounter with Jean Pierre, I must give a little bit of background information about Pauline Trigere, for her humble beginnings and the hardships she had to overcome to achieve success are pivotal to understanding her complex personality. Pauline, a native of France, fled her homeland in the face of Nazi persecution in 1937. Even though the boat was originally bound for Chile, when it stopped in New York City she decided to stay. Pauline arrived in America at a time when it was not customary for women to pursue careers. Nevertheless, being the independent thinker she was, she decided to follow her passion to create and her will to be self-sufficient. Capitalizing on her keen understanding of fabrics and design that she acquired in her father’s tiny atelier in Paris she accepted jobs in several design houses.
Despite her considerable success, Pauline knew she was destined for bigger and better things. She dreamt of opening her own design house—her own Maison as they say in France—and challenging herself further in the quest to achieve her full potential. Thus, in 1942 she designed and made 11 dresses,
which her brother later sold to various boutiques across the East Coast literally out of a suitcase. The story of these 11 dresses has become somewhat of a legend in fashion circles, mostly due to wide-spread stories claiming that she embarked on this venture as a result of having been abandoned by her husband and being in dire need of money to support herself and her two sons. However, according to Jean Pierre, his dad left them just before he was old enough to go to college. Hence, by the time of the disintegration of her marriage Pauline had already achieved considerable success and recognition as a designer. That said the 11 dresses were very significant for Pauline’s career, for they brought Trigere’s sophisticated style, complete with impeccable tailoring, to the attention of reputable retailers. From that point she was catapulted into the next phase of her career as a big-name designer as opposed to a local tailor.
“My mother was always convinced of how right she was. She was right most of the time, but not always,” Jean Pierre admitted three minutes into our conversation with admirable objectivity and frankness. It was clear he had put much effort into deciphering the complex persona of his mother. It seemed to me that he thought Pauline –as he refers to his mother-- had been gifted with undeniable genius and cursed with an unrelenting iron will. It had been clear to him all his life that Pauline was the master of her art. It was no extraordinary event for his mother to drape and cut the most expansive fabrics free hand, as only a few other masters, such as Vionnet, Chanel, Lavin and Balenciaga, could. He explained: “She understood shape and fit to such an extent that she could tell a grader ‘When you grade this up to a size 8, I do not want you to add over here because it will destroy the proportion. She could not prepare the pattern herself, but she knew enough to guide the people who could…She could always come up with a solution nobody else could. She had an eye that way.”
In addition to her artistry characterized by near-invisible seams and her extraordinary understanding of what was chic, Pauline was also a visionary, whose creations transcend time. According to Jean Pierre’s fiancée, Jane, who owns her own buying office in NY and has extensive knowledge of Pauline’s creations, her soon to be mother-in-law’s work “was very modern even before modern was modern.” Jane elaborated on this statement by explaining, “Pauline’s coats and
cuts were so much more advanced than anything else at the time, which made them very special. For instance, the fact that she was one of the few people that used wool for evening gowns was a result of real forward thinking. The gown that Winona Ryder wore to the Oscar Ceremony several years ago is from 1947. We have a picture of Pauline in that gown, but when Winona had that dress on it was modern.”
When presenting Pauline with the Legion of Honor, Richard Duqué, Consul General of France at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York, said that Trigere’s art is best characterized by “elegance rather than fashion.” He also added that, “fashion is subject to quick changes and uncertainties,” whereas some of Trigere’s dresses are “timeless.” I believe most authorities on fashion would agree with this statement. Just as the elite and beautiful women of the past, such as the Duchess of Windsor, Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall, Anne Baxter, Paulette Goddard, Claudette Colbert and Lansbury who flocked to Trigere’s gowns and dresses, women of style still seek her pieces out, for they simply do not go out of style. As Jane put it, “one can still go to a black-tie party in one of her dresses and suits and it can be 20 years old and still be elegant and beautiful.”
Unfortunately, as an entrepreneur Trigere was not as forward thinking as she may have wished. While most other designers were turning their names into trademarks, licensing their creations and mass-producing their designs at a fraction of the Couture costs for ready-to-wear clientele, Pauline wanted too much control. In the words of her son, Jean Pierre, Trigere “was trying so hard to protect her good name that she trapped it right into a ceramic case. She suffocated it.” She later regretted her bid for ultimate control in the end and confessed that she should have “put her name on everything”, but the moment had passed her by.
Indeed, assuming that one is infallible is an ailment that many exceptional individuals, who have triumphed against all odds, suffer from. In that sense Pauline Trigere was “her own worst enemy” according to Jean Pierre. Still today no one can deny the power of her legacy, which will endure for generations to come. She revolutionized the fashion world of her time with bold and daring ideas, from using and African American model on the runway for the first time to making evening gowns from cotton and wool, and today she continues to inspire and set an example for those who hope to follow in the steps of her red stilettos.