Born: Renée Meziére in Paris, 12 September 1937. Family: Married designer Quasar Khanh (Manh Khanh Nguyen), 1957; children: Othello, Atlantique-Venus. Career: Model for the Balenciaga and Givenchy fashion houses, Paris, 1957-63; began creating own designs and with Christiane Bailly, 1962; created collections for Belletête, Missoni, Dorothée Bis, Laura, Cacharel, Pierre d'Alby, Krizia, Max Mara, and Le Bistrot du Tricot, 1963-69; founder/director, Emmanuelle Khanh label and fashion garment and accessory company, from 1971; opened first Paris boutique, 1977; president, Emmanuelle Khanh International, from 1987. Awards: Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, Paris, 1986. Address: Emmanuelle Khanh International, 45 Avenue Victor Hugo, 75116 Paris, France.
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Women inspire me—fashions bore me.
My strength is to make clothes which are timeless. To create clothes for me is a wonderful way to participate and belong to my era.
While Mary Quant was revolutionizing fashion in England at the beginning of the 1960s, Emmanuelle Khanh was at the vanguard of the young French ready-to-wear movement. From the French pronunciation of the Beatles' "Yeah, yeah, yeah," the emerging clothes were known as yé yé fashion.
Khanh began as a model for Balenciaga and Givenchy. In 1959 she realized that haute couture was appealing only to a small portion of a larger potential audience. She believed the time was right for rebellion against the strictures of haute couture, and she was not alone in this thinking—during this time, Daniel Hechter created a style between comfort and sportswear, Cacharel redesigned its shirts, Michele Rosier began to create a cosmic line of windbreakers and anoraks, Chantal Thomass created her minidresses, Elie and Jacqueline Jacobson created Dorothée Bis, and Sonia Rykiel launched her knitwear line.
Khanh began to make attractive clothing for the masses. Her individuality quickly caught on in France, where she modeled and sold the clothes herself. In 1960 the magazine IT carried an article about Khanh and her work and her modern fashions soon reached the U.S. and were in demand in major department stores. The clothes Khanh had been making for herself, with the help of her husband, Quasar Khanh, were then noticed by Elle magazine. This exposure led to Khanh's collaboration with another ex-Balenciaga model, Christiane Bailly, to design their own groundbreaking Emmachristie collection in 1962.
Khanh criticized haute couture for hiding the beauty of the body. For her own designs, she emphasized femininity by cutting clothes along the body's curves, to follow the movement of the body, unlike Balenciaga's gowns, which could practically stand alone regardless of the woman's body within them. Khanh created an architecturally classic mode with a twist: careful seaming, narrow armholes, a slim, close to the body "droop" silhouette. Her suits had the surprise element of skirts that were actually culottes. Innovations included dog-eared collars, long fitted jackets with droopy collars, and blouses and dresses with collars consisting of overlapping petal-like shapes along a U-shaped opening.
Khanh also had a democratic approach to fabric. She used denim and tie-dyeing, chenille, and plastic. A characteristic evening top in 1965 was made of crépe appliquéd with fluorescent plastic circles. Khanh often used Shetland wools and Harris tweeds long favored by middle-class French women. In the late 1960s, she introduced ready-to-wear furs and tulle and lace lingerie. In cooperation with the Missonis, Khanh made fashions from Italian knit fabrics. The results of her work for the Paris ready-to-wear house of Cacharel, and her work with designer Dorothée Bis, resulted in dresses with a long, slim, flowing 1930s feeling. The use of Romanian hand embroidery became a hallmark of the clothes Khanh produced under her own label.
Keeping pace with the ethnic trend of the 1970s, Khanh created short, loose, peasant-style dresses out of colorful Italian gauze fabrics. Feminine blouses were be trimmed with scalloped embroidered edges, short skirts were frilled, and lace was used to trim soft linen in her designs of the period. Khanh also joined the likes of Guy Paulin, Anne Marie Beretta, Karl Lagerfeld, Luciano Soprani, and Jean Charles de Castelbajac designing clothing for Max Mara. Later in the 1970s Khanh turned to designing knitwear and skiwear. A casual summer look consisted of a wide, striped cotton skirt, buttoned down the front, worn with a matching halter top and wedge-heeled shoes of matching fabric. The matching shoes were a couture touch for ready-to-wear.
During the next decade, Khanh continued to freelance, making soft, individualistic fashions, bouncing creative ideas off her engineer, inventor, and interior-designer husband. Her signature line of boldly-rimmed glasses (á la Drew Carey) is one such example. She often tells her favorite story about how her glasses line came about: "I had always refused to wear glasses because I thought it was ugly and, as a consequence of this whim, I have experienced quite a few annoyances…But most embarrassing…as I was waiting for a taxi to pick me up some place, I got inside the personal car of someone I never met before!" Ever since, Khanh—now never seen without her own pair of glasses—admitted glasses were an essential accessory to her daily life.
Khanh is well known for her original eyewear designs and especially in her innovative use of genuine lizard, snake, ostrich, crocodile, and shark skin on the frames of her handmade "EK"-initialed glasses. Khanh's clear plastic umbrellas have also been successfully marketed around the world.
In the 1980s, her clothes had a retro feeling about them, with extended shoulders and cinched waistlines that flattered the figure. One outfit featured a very long, very loose camel hair coat falling freely from the shoulders, caught about the waist by a narrow leather belt, worn over a soft, dark brown, wool jersey jumpsuit. In 1982 Khanh released a line of clothing under her own name and, in 1987, created Emmanuelle Khanh International. Some 150 boutiques around the world attest to her lasting popularity.
Khanh continued to be active in the 1990s. For Jet Lag Showroom in 1990, she designed a suit consisting of a waist-length, tightly fitting jacket, worn with a long, full flannel skirt. She continued throughout the decade to create comfortable simple jackets and coats for special orders from the firm. Indisputably, this successful woman was one of the pioneers of ready-to-wear fashion of the 1960s and hopefully will continue to amaze the fashion world in the future.
—Therese Duzinkiewicz Baker;
updated by Daryl F. Mallett