“Who is that incredible-looking woman in the big hat with feathers and frizzy orange hair?” I asked.
They laughed. “That’s Ana de Pombo,” Casilda said. “She’s a strange woman- she worked with one of the top dress houses in Paris and has just returned from several years in France. The cellar of her apartment in Madrid is decorated in black, and she dances flamenco while her guests are served tea in the middle of the afternoon. Can you imagine? Flamenco in the middle of the afternoon!” (p.299-300, The Spy Wore Red by Countess Aline Romanones)
Many Spaniards fled to France at the onset of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. As a result, there were many interesting artistic collaborations between citizens of the two nations. The de Young Museum in San Francisco had quite a lineup of exhibitions this summer exploring the topic, including exhibits on couturier Balenciaga and painter Picasso. While these are two monumental names in fashion and art, there were still other collaborations of interest. Enter Ana de Pombo and Antonio Canovas del Castillo.
Ana grew up in Santander, Spain. At the age of nine, she moved to Barcelona to study the piano and received the Primer Premio for her playing. It was very apparent that Ana had boundless creativity, and she explored many creative outlets. She danced, played the piano, and wrote poetry. Fashion would come much later. Years later, she married a man twenty years her senior and had two children. Her son was assassinated during the uprisings prior to the civil war, and her husband was institutionalized in a sanatorium.
Her family in shambles, and the country becoming increasingly violent, Ana left for Paris. With the help of four friends, Ana began designing clothes. The salon was called Casa Elviana and was located at the Place de la Madeleine in Paris. In her autobiography, Mi Ultima Condena, she recounts the difficulty of starting the business.
“Cuatro aÃ±os que comienzan en el desconocimiento del oficio: yo no sabÃa coser y Elviana era una casa de costura. ContratÃ© a una tal Mme. Claire y la puse al frente de 20 obreras; la creadora era yo.” (Four years that started in a ignorance of the position: I did not know how to sew and Elviana was a house of dressmaking. I hired a such Mme. Claire and I put her in charge of the 20 laborers; I was the creator.)
And so began Ana’s career in couture. Elviana became a favorite among expatriate Spanish women after the Queen of Spain had Ana maker her a dress. This favoritism brought Conde Koutosoff, the publicist director of Chanel, to recruit Ana to work for the famed couturiere. Ana’s interview was with Chanel’s muse, Vera Bate, c. 1930.
During the interview, the two dined at the Ritz. Ana accepted the job with Chanel, on the condition that she close Casa Elviana. Once the doors of Elviana were closed, Ana began the public relations campaign for Chanel. Ana became enthralled with the world of haute couture. She was in charge of finding clients, staging events, and became very close with Chanel. But Ana’s friendship with Chanel was strained by Paul Iribe, the interior designer of Chanel’s salon on Rue Cambon.
Ana described Paul Iribe as: “ugly and the enemy”.
Ana worked at Chanel for four years, but the “enemy” had caused a hostile work environment:
Mi trabajo era el de alta costura, encontrar clientes, etc . . . en el Ritz tenÃa reservada, todos los dÃas, una mesa en el grill. AlquilÃ© una casita, no lejos de Chanel, y allÃ hacÃa mi vida normal de una trabajadora, trabajadora entusiasta con su trabajo, sus creaciones y sus Ã©xitos. Y al cabo de cuatro aÃ±os, por las intromisiones de Paul Iribe en nuestra amistad, decidÃ dejar a Chanel. (My work was that of high fashion, to find clients, etc. . .The Ritz was reserved, every day, a table and grill. I rented a little house, not far from Chanel, and there did my normal life of a worker, an enthusiastic worker, fascinated by the work, the creations, and the successes. And at the end of four years, by the insertions of Paul Iribe in our friendship, I decided to leave Chanel.
After Chanel, Ana briefly worked for famed couturier Lucien Lelong.
Lucien Lelong era pequeÃ±o, delgado, ojos azules, como de treinta y ocho aÃ±os, buenÃsima persona, exquisito en el trato, pero con un mal gusto que clamaba al cielo de Paris. Un horror de costura. (Lucien Lelong was small, thin, blue eyes, as of thirty-eight years, an excellent person, exquisite, but with a bad taste that clamored to the sky of Paris. A horror of dressmaking.)
Needless to say, Ana left rather quickly . . .
Finally, in 1935 Ana de Pombo arrives at the House of Paquin. Jeanne Paquin (1869 – 1936) had opened her couture house in 1891. Paquin herself remained an active couturiere until 1920, when she left the artistic direction to Madeleine Wallis. Wallis was an extremely talented seamstress, and had been an asset to Paquin.
The two worked on the first collection together for winter 1935-1936. Jeanne Paquin died in 1936, and Wallis left the house the following year in 1937. This left Ana the artistic director and chief designer for Paquin. She had entered the apex of her career at this point, and gained worldwide recognition for her creativity and expert handling of materials.
The New York Times noted her 1939 collection as follows:
Paquin’s slogan is youth, variety, and glamor. This house introduces a different silhouette and color scheme for each type of woman. Among the many hues shown are sweet pea, mimosa, and nasturtium. They are introduced in tight and very brief boleros that melt into broad brilliantly colored belts. A great variety of pleats is used in skirts’ especially interesting are reversed knife pleats which make a flaring paperdoll silhouette. (Paris Styles Shift to High Waistline. New York Times. Feb. 6, 1939, p10.)
Her 1939 collection showcased three types of evening silhouettes: spiral treatment construction, Empress Eugenie style gowns, and Egyptian draping variations. Here you can see some of Ana de Pombo’s designs for Paquin that exemplify the New York Times’ description.
Ana’s success spilled over into her other endeavors. She began dancing under the pseudonyme Ana de EspaÃ±a. She performed dance recitals at the famous Salle Pleyel in Paris. Her monumental successes in fashion and dance were cut short by World War II. Ana returned to Spain in 1943, where she opened her own salon on Calle Hermosa 14 in Madrid. Antonio Canovas del Castillo replaced her at Paquin.
She eventually allowed German troops to hide a radio in her salon, which is described in The Spy Wore Red by Countess Aline Romanones:
As I studied the sketches – which did not resemble even slightly the clothes I had seen on Gloria, my astonishment grew. They appeared to be at least two seasons behind the style. Ana de Pombo ran no dress house. Her salon was fake. . .In the corner was a huge radio transmitter. Overwhelming in comparison to anything we had. What a find! Not even the British had been able to locate a transmitter this size in the country.
And that was only ONE Spaniard in France! Can you imagine the other stories?