A dream-maker and a revolutionary – Claude Montana

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Born in Paris in 1947, Claude Montana is the master designer who defined the power-dressing movement of the 1980s and transformed Lanvin’s haute couture in the ’90s. Dubbed “King of the Shoulder Pad” for his razor sharp tailoring, strong silhouettes and dramatic proportions, his style continues to underpin the fashion zeitgeist, still shaping the clothes that we see and wear today.

Inspired by the extravagant staging and luxurious décor of the world of theatre, Montana would sneak out from an early age, with the help of his beloved sister Jacqueline, to play walk-on parts at the Opéra Garnier Theatre. Submerged in this world of exquisite costume design, fantastical make-up and the buzz of performance – little did Montana know that these childhood experiences would prove to be the catalyst for his future career in fashion.

“I was fascinated by the sceneries, the sumptuousness of the colours and the costumes; but also by the dramatism of the direction. From this period of my teenage years, I keep in my mind some unforgettable moments such as Marc Chagall repainting the ceiling of the Opéra Garnier at André Malraux’s request,” recalls Montana. During one backstage encounter, Simone Signoret – darling of French Cinema – told the young Montana, after her performance in Pierre Mondy’s Les Petits Renards (1962) at Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt, that he was sure to be “somebody”. These early words would of course ring true. Montana has since been heralded as one of the most pivotal designers of fashion as we know it.

An avid sketcher and all-round creative, Montana left home after passing his baccalaureate – in search of freedom to ‘swinging London’. Here, Montana’s early papier-mâché jewellery garnered him attention from the iconic photographer David Bailey and resultantly Vogue editor Beatrix Miller, who used his innovative accessory pieces on the magazine’s cover in the early 1970s. This first public airing of Montana’s work proved a great success, causing a frenzy amongst women, desperate to get their hands on his designs.

In 1973, returning to Paris, Montana went on to work as a design assistant and, after a year, as head designer at Mac Douglas Leathers, the luxury leatherwear brand worn by stars of the time Brigitte Bardot and Steve McQueen. Here Montana, who was arguably the first designer to bring leather into mainstream fashion (previously it was relegated to accessories), learnt his trademark impeccable cutting techniques and innovative use of the fabric, moulding it in his hands like a sculptor.

After the triumph of his jewellery, Montana’s vision for creating what women wanted continued, and in 1975 he released his debut collection to huge critical acclaim. With spectacular proportions, sharp tailoring and bold lines, Montana introduced a totally new shape to the catwalk. “Whatever she wears, the Montana woman has to make it hers,” he stated. A journalist at the time, Frédérique Mory, who attended his shows recounts; “What really struck me about him at the time was the power of his clothes. People were mad about them, even early on, at his private shows. Right from the first collections, we had a sense that this designer would go far.”

Not only were the press captivated, heralding Montana as “the most innovative fashion designer working anywhere in the world”, but women fell in love with his empowering clothes which paradoxically combined a delicate provocation with a strong femininity. “I admire a sumptousness in a woman,” Montana declared, “and sumptousness does not exist without boldness. I want to be able to dream when I make clothes.”

From his signature fabric of leather, which he innovatively combined with lace, silk, satin and cashmere, to his use of masculine shapes – bomber jackets, overcoats, and tuxedos – which beautifully hung, or in many cases stood proudly aloft, from the female figure; Montana transformed fashion – daring to do what no one had done before. Dominique Issermann, Montana’s long-standing campaign photographer, recalls: “What Montana did so beautifully was to create a certain type of woman. The way I see it, an outfit by Montana upsets the status quo completely. He invented a new form of seductiveness for every show.”

Using the most unique colour palette, Montana wouldn’t settle until he had just the right shade, and when it came to sourcing fabrics he would take the most exquisite materials from the world of haute couture. “When I choose a fabric, it has to be a living thing,” explains Montana. “What matters is the way it falls, the way it feels to the touch and the association of unusual colours. If a particular shade doesn’t work, then I’ll dye the sample.”

Montana’s innovation was unfaltering, and he was one of the first designers to present an entire show in a single colour or in two distinct colours. Causing a stir, he also broke convention by incorporating winter colours in his summer collections, and vice versa. In his autumn/winter 1985 collection, hues of peach, emerald, blue, mango, pink and mauve were used over jacquard sweaters despite being the traditional colours associated with lingerie. And in the same collection navy blue, “the” colour of summer, appeared for the first time in complementary combinations with brown. Prior to Montana these experiments with “mismatched” colour would have been unthinkable.

When it came to the theatrics of his catwalk shows, Montana’s imagination ran wild. “They were the first big runway shows and they were so beautiful!” remembers Mory. “The music, the lights, the décor, the models and the clothes, all of it conspired to create the impression of a high mass. My hands hurt from clapping! The level of emotion was extraordinary. The crowd waiting outside would be yelling.”

Paying an incredible attention to detail in every element of the presentation, just like the intricate costume designs he had seen in his childhood, Montana would place a zip here and an elaborate collar there, a nip at the waist and extra padding at the shoulders – all with the intention of adding to the overall drama of the performance. He worked closely with the casting of his models and direction, requiring strong faces and height to allow for the extraordinary proportions of his clothes: Kristen McMenamy, Linda Evangelista, Helena Christensen, Christy Turlington, Carla Bruni, Yasmin Le Bon, Axelle, Leslie Winer and Yasmeen Ghauri all graced Montana’s catwalk.

Spending hours rehearsing with them before each show, Montana wanted to make sure that exactly the right level of confidence, poise and stature would be given, often with the most commanding and captivating results. Montana and his designs imbued a powerful persona into his catwalk models. “They had style,” explains long time collaborator, renowned make-up artist Olivier Echaudemaison.

“I loved doing the casting with him and seeing them parade up and down. Models fought one another to do Montana’s shows. They were really sexy. The music, the lights, Alain Mikli’s glasses, the hats by Jean Barthet, Madame Paulette or Stephen Jones – it was all part of the same thing.” He adds, “Being dressed by Montana gave a woman a lot of style and power. Women are always unsure of themselves, but the Montana woman was full of confidence. What’s more, Montana clothes looked as good on a slender young girl as they did on a woman who was all curves.”

A precursor to the new found feminine freedom of the 1980s, Montana was particularly fond of the androgynous look, “‘The feminine dandyism’ is a theme that means a lot to me,” he explains. Reinventing men’s clothes for women, Montana used masculine fabrics across a range of men’s shapes, including a variety of trouser suits and dinner jackets. “One of my favourite pictures dedicated to my creations is the one by Arthur Elgort with the model Leslie Winer, in which she appears with a short haircut wearing an oversized vest and tie, both borrowed from the menswear wardrobe.”

Montana’s passion for women transferred into his womenswear, and in wearing his designs women were left with a strong sense of self-assurance and seductive power. “I would say I was dressing women who were assuming their own personality,” reminisces Montana. The 1980s were a time of great freedom of expression, that gave rise to some of fashion’s most iconic names. Not only were designers able to design with self-determination and creativity but women were ready to wear garments with conviction.

“We were able to express ourselves so freely,” recounts influential designer of the time and friend of Montana, Chantal Thomass. “We were a jolly little bunch – Mugler, Montana, Beretta, the Jacobsons … It was a constant party. You could show all sorts of extravagant stuff on the runways. People expected it …”

In late 1990, Montana’s childhood dreams of artistic production and luxurious theatre came true when he was invited by Léon Bressler, Lanvin’s new chief executive at the time, to join the fashion house. “By granting me a total freedom,” Montana recalls, “I was allowed to develop another view of couture, by shaking the haute couture, which must be the reason why my first presentation had been so criticised by an important part of the press.” Turning convention on its head – something Montana was very well known for – unfortunately meant that his first collection was received with doubtful and even highly damning reports.

“A preview presentation has always been an incredible period of anxiety to me,” he explains, “as you cannot plan the press and buyers’ reactions. For me my most treasured fashion moments are the beginning and the end of the fashion show.” However, Montana was undeterred and his following two haute couture collections for Lanvin (autumn/winter 1990 and spring/summer 1991) each won him a Golden Thimble – the highly esteemed award for outstanding excellence in fashion design.

“Those two golden thimbles in a row meant the supreme award of the high fashion world. It was an extremely emotional moment shared with the workshops as it is thanks to their talent and complicity that I had been able to excel.”

After using rich and luxurious materials in his ready-to-wear collections, the fabrics of haute couture were well known to Montana. Approaching them with the same kind of inventiveness and dynamism he was famed for, Montana imposed a new vision of what haute couture could be. With shirts and reversible coats in luxurious materials and evening textiles manipulated for day, he played with convention whilst transporting women to a world of fantasy.

“Women today dream only of practical fashion. I want them to be divine. With haute couture, I’m moving towards divinity.” From embroidered shells to feathered trims, sheared mink and iridescent beading, Montana’s Lanvin couture was nothing short of extraordinary. “Haute couture made me look at things differently,” he explains. “With ready-to-wear, there are limits that you are not allowed to overstep; with couture, there are no constraints. What is important is that clothes should make you dream – from that point on, anything is possible. Thanks to Lanvin ateliers, I have been able to make dreams happen. And I have lived a dream, working with a team of people who are talented and determined and who love their job.”

Departing from Lanvin in 1992, and his own fashion house in 1997, Montana left behind him an incredible legacy. With his unique vision and boundless approach he created his own vocabulary of fashion that continues to live on today; inspiring contemporary designers such as Alexander McQueen – who cited Montana in many of his collections – and most recently Montana’s influences can be seen in the sumptuous proportions of Tom Ford’s debut women’s wear collection.

As power dressing makes a return to the catwalk, it is Montana’s 1980s designs that create the basis for Stella McCartney’s autumn/winter 2011 voluminous silhouette, Balmain’s pointed and padded shoulders and Martin Margiela’s exaggerated angles. A true fashion radical, it is hard to define Montana and is best put by the man himself: “Stylist – no. Couturier even less. Aesthete is pretentious, and designer doesn’t mean very much. Let’s say … dream-maker!”

by Lucia Davies

From the Glass Archive – Issue Six