Last week, you read about Elizabeth Arden’s theatrical dismissal of Charles James. Now, the cosmetics mogul was pinned against the wall: a Fashion Floor with no designer. Arden attempted designing and styling the next season’s collection, but failed miserably. It was a failure because there was little interest from the press and minimal sales.
Arden needed talent to continue, and she needed it quickly to compete with Hattie Carnegie. The nation was intrigued by this competition. Life Magazine covered a story on Carnegie noting:
“Also at 711 Fifth is the wholesale headquarters for Hattie’s line of cosmetics, with which she quite frankly hopes to challenge Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein. To add interest to this contest, there is the fact that Arden has turned couturiere.” (Source: Hattie Carnegie. Life Magazine, November 12, 1945, 63.)
Eager to continue with the made-to-measure Fashion Floor, Arden had been putting feelers out for new talent. Arden’s sister Gladys had been running the Paris salon during the war. After the liberation, Gladys suggested hiring a Paris based designer.
Paquin advertisment around the time of the Occupation.
Antonio Canovas del Castillo (1908-1984) came with many recommendations, so Arden dispatched Gladys to find and hire him. During the war, Castillo had gained considerable recognition designing for the House of Paquin, a prominent couture salon. Castillo had been, quite literally, the talk of chi-chi Paris, designing for women that needed to be well dressed despite the war. He was Spanish, and relocated to Paris after the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Gladys was successful in approaching and hiring Castillo and reported:
“You may find him a handful from the point of view of management, but he has been conspicuously successful there are difficulties in getting his permits from the US Consulate, complicated by the fact he is Spanish, interestingly, in Spain he was a qualified lawyer before he took up fashion bear this in mind when he asks for a contract!” (Source: Woodhead, Lindy. War Paint. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2003.)
Castillo received his contract and arrived in New York the week of October 15, 1945. Hiring Castillo was a strategic move for Arden, as America had been disconnected from the fashions of Paris for six years during World War II. By hiring Castillo, she brought Parisian haute couture to America at a time when news of Paris fashion was still scarce. Thus, she could capitalize on renewed interest in Paris.
Antonio Canovas del Castillo.
Initially, there was no date set for the debut of his first collection. Castillo wanted to get acclimated and accustomed to American women before he created garments. His arrival was met with enthusiasm. The New York Times covered his arrival on October 18, 1945, explaining his background and experience in couture. He boldly began making fashion decrees:
M. Castillo approves of the slim silhouette and small hats. (Source:Paris Designer Here. New York Times. Oct. 18, 1945, 16)
His first collection on February 20, 1946 was an immediate hit. The New York Times headline for Castillo’s first collection was “Simple Elegance Marks New Styles”. Fashion journalist Virginia Pope went on to praise Castillo’s simple elegance, his elimination of the unnecessary, the excellence of his tailoring and variety of his designs. The collection included evening gowns, suits, coats, resort wear and sportswear. His designs had an ethereal sense of movement, as the fabrics effortlessly floated as the models walked.
The new collection also presented Castillo’s new silhouette, the bat wing,or a:
full sleeve which has an overdrape springing from behind the shoulder and terminating in a close cuff at the wrist. (Source: Virginia Pope. Simple Elegance Marks New Styles. New York Times (Feb 21, 1946)
Image courtesy of Vogue.
An example was also shown in Vogue, where the silhouette shows the fullness in the back. The construction does, indeed, give the perception that wear has wings. Pope spent equal time commenting on Castillo’s belts and hats:
Before proceeding any further with a general description of the Castillo fashions, mention must be made of the donkey bags that were shown with many of the daytime costumes, whether for sport or street wear. They are a kind of saddle bag that are thrown over the shoulder to hang well below the waistline. He made them of leather or silk, according to the requirements of the costume. (Source: Ibid)
Vogue also featured Castillo’s collection in the March 1, 1946 issue. Castillo is pictured in front of his inspiration board, with a mannequin to his right. She is wearing a coat that:
“takes a fresh and original line [and] moves beautifully.”
She is also wearing the fringed chamois donkey bag that was mentioned in the New York Times.
Image courtesy of Vogue.
Castillo next collection debuted in September 1946. Again, Virginia Pope reviewed Castillo’s show, admiring his strength and originality. He was praised for his detail and daring in handling materials and fabrics. He was able to develop new, elegant forms that hadn’t been seen in America, without being overdone.
Castillo’s collection was praised for inventiveness in his coats, interesting color combinations, and discreet use of fur. Each silhouette was slim, even when he indulged in considerable use of fabrics, he never lost sight of the fashion importance of the feminine figure. The materials accentuated curves and draped around the body.
During this time, Castillo also focused on producing hats that complemented the coiffures women received at Elizabeth Arden’s salon. Arden and Castillo also began promoting an American lifestyle brand, introducing a new lipstick and perfume with every collection. Offering couture clothing, luxury cosmetics, beauty treatments and exercise classes at her Red Door Salon, Elizabeth Arden’s brand was a one-stop shop infused with Castillo’s Parisian elegance.
Example of the hair and makeup styles that coordinated with each collection. Image courtesy of the New York Times Historical.
Castillo’s third collection on February 26, 1947 was by invitation only, at the Fashion Floor. Genuine couture elegance was showcased, with emphasis on fluidity and the slender silhouette, now becoming characteristics of Castillo’s designs. Inspired by Picasso, the collection prevailed in many shades of blue, after which he affectionately named the collection.
Large bicorn hats with manipulated brims, further supporting the Picasso theme, accompanied both day and evening wear. Ankle length evening dresses were noted for their creativity, and were the only garments to depart from the slim line:
Here his innovation was draping diaphanous chiffon in palest pastel over pyramid hoopskirts. A pleasing conceit was Castillo’s way of adding a long draped panel to his chiffon gowns that the wearer could at her pleasure wrap about her shoulders. (Source: Castillo Shows Third Collection. New York Times (Feb 27, 1947) 24.)
A holding at the Smithsonian Institution best showcases this design. This floor length pastel blue chiffon gown is timeless, using a Grecian aesthetic. The bodice is draped and tucked to enhance the bust. The straps are executed in self-fabric, lending softness to the shoulders. The waistline is gathered to make it appear smaller. It also lends movement and fullness to the skirt. The left side has a long flowing drape that is used to cover the shoulders, making it most likely from the third collection.
Detail of bust.
This dress also bears the Elizabeth Arden label “designed by Castillo”, in the his signature.
October 18, 1949 debuted Castillo’s first ready-made collection. This was a significant occurrence. Castillo’s designs were so successful, that Arden created a wholesale component to the business. This means that garments went into production as ready-to-wear, versus costly and time consuming made-to-measure designs. The ready-to-wear garments were gladly carried by the best department stores, including I. Magnin and Neiman Marcus. The success made Arden’s head grow big, much like with her initial partner Charles James. Arden was planning post-war expansion abroad, and soon started bad-mouthing Castillo to her employees:
That little brat, Castillo, is a constant thorn in my side. He can behave well for just so long and then the meanness comes out. I am getting very tired of his temperament and one of these days he is going to be a very surprised young man! (Source: Woodhead, Lindy. War Paint. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2003.)
Arden was brash in judging Castillo as a brat. Castillo had been pushing Elizabeth to make a very wise investment. Their final separation occurred over a disagreement on purchasing the House of Piguet in Paris. In 1949, the famous couturier Robert Piguet offered Castillo the opportunity to buy his business.
Robert Piguet. Image courtesy of Fashion Loves Film.
Piguet had been ill for years and wanted to retire. His house had employed talented designers that included Christian Dior and Hubert de Givenchy. Castillo recognized this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that would have been extremely lucrative. Piguet was making over 26 million francs in profit a year, and was willing to sell everything to Castillo for 50 million francs. The investment would have been recouped in 2 years.
Castillo designs for Elizabeth Arden. Image courtesy of Vogue.
Castillo worked hard to persuade Arden to back him in purchasing the House of Piguet. He wrote her countless letters, one explaining how profitable the business would be:
“I see now after all my experiences in America that the houses here in Paris are working on a very old basis and sooner or later are all doomed to death. Having this useful and interesting laboratory here, we could send styles and accessories often for the American Arden salons and in the shop here in the ‘Rond Point des Champs Elysees’ there could be a wonderful opportunity for preparations and perfumes.” (Source: Woodhead, Lindy. War Paint. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2003.)
Arden didn’t care for this idea. She enjoyed the limelight of having clothing produced under herown name. This was a poor business choice on Arden’s part. Had she accepted Castillo’s partnership in purchasing Piguet, Arden would have been the very first American-owned luxury power brand, much like LVMH of today. Piguet never found a buyer, and closed his doors in 1951.
Castillo left Elizabeth Arden’s Fashion Floor in 1950 for the house of Lanvin. Arden would always regret parting ways with Castillo. His collections made a great sum of money. The two would be reunited in 1965, when Castillo agreed to produce collections of ready-to-wear garments for the Elizabeth Arden Fashion Floor. Yet the two would have a scuffle over the young Oscar de la Renta before being reunited.
Come back next week to hear the rest!