Misia Sert’s fashion designers

Misia Sert made an art out of being different in all spheres of her life and fashion naturally was one of them. The clothes she wore reflected her love of bohemian style. In the 1890s, she embraced the English ‘Arts and Crafts’ style.  She wore bright colours and clashing patterns, such as  tartans or hound’s tooth check.  She always added a flamboyant detail, like an interesting neck scarf, an exotic belt or an unusual hat. Misia’s style in clothes and interiors inspired the  artists who painted her, especially Les Nabis who loved her bright colours. From 1909, after meeting Serge Diaghilev, Misia placed herself at the centre of the circle of Ballets Russes.  Costumes and stage sets designed by Leon Bakst for the Ballets  influenced major designers like Paul Poiret and Jeanne Paquin (he gave Jeanne Paquin a collection entitled “Fantasises on Modern Costume”). Ballets Russes  changed the face of fashion and was copied by fashionable women in Paris and London. In the drawing by Jean Cocteau below  Misia is wearing her famous Aigrette at the premiere of one of the ballets in 1912.  According to Marcel Proust who was often present in Misia’s company, “all theatre going women copied Misia’s Aigrette soon”.  Her clothes were designed by Jacques Deucet, Jeanne Paquin, Paul Poiret, Jeanne Lanvin but most of all Coco Chanel who was also her best friend. The jeweller Cartier learnt to value Misia’s custom – a direct link to fashionable society people that revolved round Ballets Russes. She often wore a magnificent ruby neckless he designed for her.  In her unique way  she would add to it “a motif of Maya, an Indian goddess of earthy illusions which hung down her back on a red silk cord”.

 Proust based two of his female characters, Madame Verdurin and Princesss Yourbeletieff on Misia and in doing so he took note of her unique style.



Even until today, Misia continues to inspire fashion designers, including John Galliano and Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel.

John Galliano has been especially drawn to Belle Epoque designs and the exotic Parisian women who wore them. In 1995, he showed a very much talked about collection which was described: “where flamboyant heiresses like Nancy Cunnard rubbed shoulders with society women and bohemians, such as Countess Greffulhe, Marchesa Casati, Misia Sert, Kiki de Montparnasse and Liane de Pougy”. In his amazing show he mixed fashion influences from the 1920s, 40s and 50s, with references from popular contemporary culture, like pearly queens and hells angels.

John Galliano’s Belle Epoque collection show – 1995


Chanel’s Venetian collection in 2011, called by Karl Lagerfeld – “Coco on the Lido” was inspired by all the great times  that Misia, Coco and friends had in Venice. Coco visited Venice for the first time in 1920  when Misia and JoJo Sert invited her to accompany them on their honeymoon after her lover Arthur Boy Capel died in a car crash. For Misia, Venice was always “the place of her solace”.


Coco Gabriele Chanel (1883-1971)

Misia first met Gabrielle Chanel at Cecil Sorel’s dinner party in 1917.  At the time Chanel had a small shop in rue Cambon and was becoming known for designing simple, innovative clothes favoured by modern women.  As a simple seemstress she didn’t have  the entry to Le Tout Paris  but this was something that Misia could help her with. Coco became Misia’s new project and she admitted some years later  that  “Without tthe Serts I would have been an imbecile”.  Through Misia, Coco also met Paris’s outstanding  artists and composers  (including Igor Stravinsky and Paul Reverdy) whose company she preferred to rich aristocrats. Misia also introduced Coco to Serge Diaghilev which resulted in Coco sponsoring as well as designing costumes for Ballets Russes. But their tastes couldn’t have been different. While Coco promoted modernity, Misia favoured opulence, earning the nickname ‘queen of modern baroque’.  Nevertheless, each of them found beauty in the other’s style.   Coco became Misia’s favourite clothes designer while Misia was chosen by Coco to design and  source objects d’arts for her homes. Their relationship was often very tempestious but they remained close friends until Misia’s death in 1950 when it was Coco who dressed Misia’s body for her funeral. 

Her Designs – click to enlarge


Paul Poiret (1879-1944)

Misia turned to Poiret to design her wardrobe before her trip to Italy in 1909. Poiret had established his own fashion house in 1903, and made his name with loose-fitting designs cut along straight lines and constructed of rectangular shapes.  He was perhaps best known for freeing women from their corsets and instead designing a long,  structured underwear garment for a slim body.  The simplicity of his clothing represented a “pivotal moment in the emergence of modernism in fashion”.  Poiret was a flamboyant character who enjoyed throwing sensational parties to draw attention to his work.  After the premiere of Sheherazade in 1910, he designed a collection inspired by Bakst’s costumes which took both Paris and London by storm. He altered the colour palette of fashion from pastel shades to more vivid, exotic colours. Poiret and  Misia also  shared an interest in music and art.

 Some designs of Léon Bakst that inspired  the style of Paul Poiret.


Germaine Bongard (1885-1971)

Paul Poiret’s sister, Germaine Bongard opened her  fashion boutique in an elegant town house on rue Penthiévre in 1911. She also started to collect art and hold frequent art exhibitions. In her atelier on the ground floor of the house she exhibited paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, Derain and Léger. Unlike her brother, who designed clothes for rich society women, Germaine Bongard’s women clients were the artistic intelligentsia, like the pianist Marcelle Meyer, Valentine Gross and Madame Henri Matisse. Germaine often exchanged her clothes from her collections for works of art. The artists would give her their paintings which she would hang on her wall, she would dress their wives. It was a simple exchange. Misia was an entlusiastic supporter of this idea, as she said  “One could look at the paintings of Picasso, Matisse, Derain and Modigliani having a dress fitted at the same time.” 

In 1916 Eric Satie wrote to Misia – “Dear Lady, Matisse, Picasso and other nice gentlemen are giving a Granados-Satie concert on May 30th at Bougard’s. Your presence at the rue Huyghens having brought me luck (yes, Madame!) I beg you to be my patron at this new ceremony….What you told me at your house concerning the Ballets Russes has already had its effect. I am working on some stuff [music] I propose to show you very soon and which is dedicated to you while I think of it and while I write it. All this, dear Lady, gives me the greatest pleasure. Are you not a magician?” The music he Satie referred to in the letter to Misia would in due course become the score for the ballet Parade (1917). That evening a select group of Parisians gathered at Bongard’s boutique to see the latest paintings by Matisse and Picasso. Then in 1918 Bongard exhibited innovative ‘Purist’ paintings by Ozenfant and Le Corbusier, who for this occasion produced a manifesto Aprés le Cubisme.



Jeanne Lanvin  (1867-1946)

The phtotographs are c/o Jeanne Lanvin collection in Palais Galliera, Paris.

Jeanne Lanvin dresses worn by Misia – 1920s

Jeanne Lanvin had a reputation for ‘mother-daughter’ collections, a concept which was cemented by the house logo, designed in 1927 by Paul Iribe and based on a photo of Jeanne Lanvin with her daughter. She set up her first shop at 1888 at the age of 21 and by 1920  she employed 1,200 people. Jeanne Lanvin is an inspiration to every woman taking power in the workplace today.  Lanvin’s success was attributed to “the cult of youth” in the 1910s. Her creations appealed on many levels: she was a master colorist and a curious traveler with an interest in history and fine art. She was a hands-on designer who used her creativity to put a stamp on her creations – unusual embroidery or aplique which made her  dresses look modern and still do. A lot of her amazing designs could be worn today.

On her travels she wrote diaries, collected swatches of ethnic fabrics and sourced art books. Much of her inspiration came from exotic adventures, particularly in Egypt.
IRFÉ (1924-1932)

IRFÉ fashion label which opened in Paris in 1924 by the Russian emigrees Princess Irina Romanov who was a niece of Tsar Nicholas II and her husband Prince Felix Yusupov, famous for his involvement in the assassination of Rasputin in 1916. Irina and Felix established themselves after selling all their valuables to rich Americans  in Paris. They created clothes which reflected the splendor and sophistication of their background. Irfé was particularly popular in Paris with American and British customers during the années folles, when fashion was led by Coco Chanel. They attracted rich clients who were fascinated to meet the man who had murdered Rasputin and buy clothes designed and modelled by a beautiful princess at the same time. Felix, whose life was a one long party, was a charming cross-dresser attracted to both women and men. Unfortunately the Irfé fashion house in Paris was wound up two years after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, unable to survive without its American clients.

The early thirties was a period when Misia struggled to find a niche for herself to keep her mind off Sert and Roussy. She travelled to the States again and again, often accompanied by friends. During a 1932 visit she took on the grand task of promoting IRFÉ in New York as a favour to the enterprising Irina who had predicted the styles of the next decade, creating a narrower, elongated, very feminine silhouette. The designs were introduced to leading Hollywood film-makers, an idea which was probably inspired by Misia, who made contacts there while accompanying Coco Chanel. The business had great potential but didn’t last long because once again extravagant Felix spent every bit of money that was earned.  Luckily,  Felix and Irina sued Hollywood in 1934 for libel in a film that suggested that Rasputin had seduced Irina – the royal princess. This made Irina and Felix Yusupov enough money to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. 


Jacques Doucet (1853-1929)

Before Paul Poiret Jacques Doucet was the king of fashion in Paris. In fact, Poiret had once been his apprentice. Best known for his elegant dresses, made in fine translucent materials and superimposing pastel colors. He was an enthusiastic collector of eighteenth-century furniture,  objets d’art ,  paintings  and sculptures and many of his romantic gowns were strongly influenced by this period. He dressed Misia as well as her friends,  the actresses Cécile Sorel , Rejane  and  Sarah Bernhardt who wore his outfits on and off the stage. He was passionate about art and had a large collection of  Post-Impressionist  and  Cubist  paintings.


Jacques Doucet’s house hosting Picasso’s painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon which Doucet bought in 1917, 1929.