Born: Paris, 11 October 1889. Education: Studied business, Hautes Études des Commerciales, Paris, 1911-13. Military Service: Performed military service, 1914-17, awarded Croix de Guerre. Family: Married Princess Natalie Paley (second wife). Career: Designed first collection, 1914; joined father's dressmaking firm, 1918; house of Lelong established, 1919; showed designs under own name, from 1923; Parfums Lucien Lelong established, 1926; Éditions Lucien Lelong ready-to-wear established, 1933; president, Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, 1937-47; retired from couture, 1948. Died: 10 May 1958, in Anglet, France.
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While Lucien Lelong dressed many a fashionable lady during the 1920s and 1930s, he is most remembered for his heroic diplomatic efforts to sustain Parisian couture during World War II. He was, in every respect, a hero of both world wars fought during this century.
He received his call to serve during World War I two days short of showing his first collection at his father's already established dressmaking shop. He served from 1914 until 1917 when he was severely wounded. He was one of the first seven Frenchmen to be decorated with the Croix de Guerre for his heroism.
In 1918, after recuperating, he rejoined his father's firm. By 1923 he was designing under his own name. As a contemporary of such designers as Chanel, Vionnet, Molyneux, Lanvin, and Patou, he designed for café society during the 1920s and 1930s. His designs were characterized by classic lines, following the major silhouettes of each period. He was not particularly innovative, choosing rather to concentrate on fine workmanship and fabrication. He was, however, the first designer to introduce a lower priced line—he called it Édition—to cater to less wealthy clients in 1933. During the height of his career he employed 1,200 workers.
His election as president of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture in 1937 proved to be his greatest challenge and contribution to fashion. Faced with threats to move the entire couture to Berlin and Vienna, Lelong negotiated, cajoled, and lied to the Germans throughout the occupation of Paris. "One of the first things the Germans did was break into the Syndicate offices and seize all documents pertaining to the French export trade. I told them that la couture was not a transportable industry, such as bricklaying."
When not one foreign buyer appeared in Paris after war was declared, Lelong sent an emissary to New York with gowns and models to prove couture was still a viable industry. In January 1940, despite having to be routed through Italy, 150 buyers appeared for the showings. By 1941 the Germans had issued textile cards, comprised of a point system, to every design house. It was obvious that compliance with these regulations would spell the end of Paris couture. Lelong, through difficult negotiations, obtained exemptions for 12 houses. "Unfortunately the Germans noticed at the end of six months that 92 houses were operating, which led to more discussions. Finally we succeeded in keeping 60." Madame Grés and Balenciaga both exceeded their yardage requirements one season and were ordered to close for two weeks. Banding together in a show of unity and force, the remaining houses finished these two collections so they could be shown on time.
Lelong is credited with saving over 12,000 workers from deportation into German war industries. "Over a period of four years, we had 14 official conferences with the Germans…at four of them they announced that la couture was to be entirely suppressed, and each time we avoided the catastrophe." Paris couture had won its own, private war.
Lelong, much as Hattie Carnegie did in the United States, employed talented young designers and gave them the opportunity to grow professionally. Christian Dior, Pierre Balmain, Hubert de Givenchy, Jean Ebel, Serge Kogan, and Jean Schlumberger were all employed by Lelong at one time or another. "It was from Lucien Lelong that I learned fabrics have personality, a behavior as varied as that of a temperamental woman," said Christian Dior.
Exhausted from his efforts during the war and his earlier wounds, Lelong retired in 1948 and died a decade later near Biarritz. He showed a total of 110 collections during his career, and though closed his couture business, he continued the fragrance business. While Lucien Lelong's clothes were elegantly conceived and executed, he will be remembered as fashion's leading diplomat during the German siege on Parisian couture.
More than half a century after Lelong retired, his exquisitely designed perfume bottles are among the most collected in the world. The fragrances themselves are still popular today, continuing the Lelong legacy.
—Mary C. Elliott;
updated by Sydonie Benét