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July 30 2014

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Sophie Gimbel: Made to Measure for America

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The couture shows will start in Paris on Monday. But next Tuesday, Parsons will bring the (vintage) haute stuff to New York with its latest exhibition, Sophie Gimbel: Fashioning American Couture. Curated by Beth Dincuff, the show explores the legacy of the late Mrs. Gimbel, a mid-century fashion fixture who designed for, ran, and oversaw the buying for Saks Fifth Avenue’s Salon Moderne—an elite shop within Saks that introduced American clients to couturiers like Chanel, Schiaparelli, Balenciaga and Mainbocher—from 1929 until it closed in 1969. Mrs. Gimbel (who was married to Adam Gimbel, the former president of Saks and the grandson of its founder) smartly showed her made-to-measure gowns during the Salon Moderne’s afternoon fashion shows, alongside looks by her French counterparts. Her clients were icons like Greta Garbo, Édith Piaf, actress Claudette Colbert, and the Duchess of Windsor. She even made Lady Bird Johnson’s suit for her husband’s 1965 inauguration. With that in mind, one has to wonder why most of us aren’t well acquainted with Mrs. Gimbel’s work. “I think that the idea of American made-to-measure, or American couture, has been overshadowed by American sportswear, which is obviously something we do very well,” says Dincuff.

Known for her ultra-feminine designs (think big big skirts, lots of tulle, and demure, romantic silhouettes), Gimbel hit her stride in the forties (a savvy businesswoman, she launched her ready-to-wear range in 1943). When journalists couldn’t travel to Paris during WWII, she was featured in Vogue‘s first September American fashion issue. She championed the sporty American body that was fashionable at the time, and rebelled against Dior’s post-war New Look. “She didn’t like the extremeness of it,” explains Dincuff. “She felt it was impractical.” Rather, she preferred that sartorial extravagances be beautiful and functional, like ornate buttons or luxe cardigans draped over strapless ball gowns.

So what does this have to do with contemporary fashion? “At Parsons, we feel a handmade, slow approach to fashion is very important right now,” says Dincuff, noting that student designs inspired by Gimbel’s techniques (like elaborate tucks and pleats, impeccable embroidery or subtle, whimsical embellishments) will be displayed in the show. “As Karl Lagerfeld and Valentino have said, there’s no one left to teach couture techniques, and I hate to see this knowledge go away. I want to give her more exposure so people can learn from her. Her construction was immaculate.”

In addition to the show, Saks Fifth Avenue has installed original Gimbel gowns in its windows. “Sophie Gimbel was a true pioneer,” says Saks CEO, Steve Sadove. “Saks is so proud to have fostered the career of such an important couture designer.”

Sophie Gimbel: Fashioning American Couture runs from January 22 to February 12 at Parsons’ Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, 66 Fifth Ave., New York. The Saks Fifth Avenue windows are up now through January 29.

Photo: Julia Noni for Saks Fifth Avenue

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Dept. of Culture