Weaving Rainfall: The First Major Collaboration Between Fashion and Art

French artist Michel Dubost worked with the Lyonnaise silk weaver François Ducharne from 1922 to 1933. Together, they produced some of the most beautiful silk weaves and prints used by Parisian couturiers including Vionnet, Poiret, Lelong, Schiaparelli, and Chanel

Writing about artist Michel Dubost in the preface to a 1930 table book entitled 28 Compositions for Silk Weaves by Michel Dubost, the French author Colette waxed lyrical about “he who weaves the sun, the moon, and the rain’s blue bands”. The tribute sounds even better in the original French: “celui qui tisse le soleil, la lune, et les rayons bleus de la pluie”.

Dubost had endured the horrors of trench warfare, rendering the beauty and otherworldliness of some of the pieces comprising the recently discovered hoard of his designs and samples that prompted this essay all the more moving. Dubost was so traumatized by what he experienced on the Western Front that he was demobilized and sent home in 1917.

Born in 1879, Dubost died in Grasse in 1952. Over sixty years later, when some books from his private library were found in an old storage facility and publicly auctioned, the auctioneers nearly threw away a folder containing over a hundred original designs and a quantity of photographs, including the only three images of Michel Dubost known to survive.

The folder contained a few samples of silk weaves, including a couple of extremely light pieces interwoven with very fine gold threads, one of which incorporates yellow, red, and white gold. Amongst the designs executed in paint and ink on paper is a gold and black motif closely resembling the fragment of black silk with gold thread.

Some curators and students of fashion history believe Colette’s dreamy passage to be a tribute to Ducharne rather than Dubost but they may not have seen the original book, which unequivocally gave Michel Dubost top billing and which, moreover, was commissioned by François Ducharne as a tribute to his collaborator and friend.

The organizers of the 1975 retrospective Les Années Folles de la Soie at the Musée Historique des Tissues in Lyon gave Ducharne’s name top billing on the catalogue’s title page, immediately followed by Colette’s words. Dubost is credited further down the page. Had he still been around in 1975, Ducharne would surely have abhorred this revisionism.

However, the exhibition was supported by the Lyon Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the late François Ducharne was, of course, one of their own. Michel Dubost had died over twenty years earlier at his home in Grasse in 1952 and, as any business person will tell you if you stand still long enough, artists are ten a penny and would starve but for business people.

Dubost was just 15 when the Beaux-Arts School in Lyon accepted him in 1894. Dubost’s innate talents as an artist and painter were obvious but his family’s relatively modest financial circumstances left him in little doubt of the need to acquire a formal education and to make his art pay because talent alone would not feed him.

The Beaux-Arts’ appreciation of the young prodigy’s potential was underlined just two years into his course when the renowned Professor Adolphe Castex-Desgranges took him on as a Classe de la Fleur student before he was even 18. To see this from a modern perspective, the Flowers Class equated to what we might describe today as a Master of Arts course.

His studies completed, Michel Dubost worked with various ateliers, most notably that of Prelle, which was Lyon’s oldest silk mill, founded in 1752. Dubost became close to one of the house’s sons, Aimé Prelle, a fellow painter who would also be known for his engravings and, in the years to come, his silk designs and weaves.

Like other artists of the Belle Époque, Dubost hired himself to silk and textile houses and by 1910, already well-respected and liked in the Lyon milieu, had managed to found his own atelier, which had several employees. He struck up a close friendship with the Anglo-French sculptor John Wasley, whom he had met at his parents’ home.

Wasley introduced Dubost to other Parisian artists who formed part of Wasley’s circle in the Château des Brouillards quartier of Montmartre. Whenever Dubost could spare a few days, he would take the train to Paris and spend time with these new friends who were widening his cultural and artistic horizons.

The artists of Montmartre were not exempt from conscription when the conflict promoted as The Great War for Civilization broke out in August 1914. Having survived a serious illness as a young man, leaving him in fragile health, Dubost could probably have obtained an exemption from active service but off to war he bravely went.

Many of his friends were killed or terribly mutilated but the death in action in March 1917 at Blercourt during the Battle of Verdun of his close friend Wasley was too much for Dubost. Grief-stricken, his health failed him and he was hospitalized by the Army before being demobilized and sent home to Lyon.

Professor Castex-Desgranges was himself gravely ill and when asked to designate a temporary replacement, suggested Michel Dubost who, consequently, found himself in charge of the Classe de la Fleur. He proved to be a natural teacher and was very popular with the students. At the same time, Dubost continued to work privately for silk firms.

When Castex-Desgranges died at the end of 1917, Dubost was formally confirmed as Head of the Classe de la Fleur, an unprecedented appointment for someone not yet 40. Dubost revolutionized the course and the way in which it was taught, taking his students out of the lecture halls and into the open air and the botanical hothouses to study and paint flowers.

On the grounds that his students were essentially involved in designing clothes, Professor Dubost engaged young women to pose for them, at first naked and then draped with fabrics, so that the students could better understand the relationship between the textiles they were designing and the human form or, more precisely, the female form.

Dubost’s students were taken on field trips to Paris to attend modern art exhibitions and visits to the ateliers of the most fashionable couturiers. Whilst in the capital, they went to concerts and other cultural events. As well as two courses at the Beaux-Arts, Dubost also taught a history of cloth course at the Municipal School of Weaving in Lyon.

However, Dubost had trouble making ends meet financially and had to, quite literally, moonlight for private clients, often staying up all night to complete designs for local and foreign silk and fabric firms. One of these clients was François Ducharne, a young entrepreneur who would set up Ducharne & Cie in Lyon in December 1920.

Ducharne had escaped mobilization in 1914 because of a lung disorder resulting in a six-month confinement to hospital a few years previously, during his military service. Nevertheless, he volunteered in 1917 and was posted to a desk job in Lyon. His army duties over by 5pm each day, he was also able to develop his fabric business and make plans for after the war.

Ducharne was very much of the new world emerging from the catastrophe of the First World War. By the turn of the 1920s, women’s fashion was undergoing a radical revolution in the hands of couturiers like Gabrielle Chanel. The new styles, involving refined silhouettes, bias cuts and so on, required lightweight, flowing fabrics.

Ducharne understood the potential of the Jacquard weaving process but he needed a designer who understood the strict parameters imposed by its geometric nature. He needed more than a designer. He needed an artist. For François Ducharne, Michel Dubost was that man and, given his financial hardship, might be open to proposals.

Invented at the close of the 18th century, the Jacquard loom used perforated card templates, hence the need for strict dimensional discipline in the drawing and painting of the floral and other designs. The Classe de la Fleur had been established in 1807 by Emperor Napoleon in part to teach drawing and painting techniques in relation to the Jacquard process.

Ducharne’s offer to Dubost in 1922 asked that he work exclusively for the Ducharne firm, which was moving its registered offices to Paris; and that he set up with Ducharne a teaching workshop in Paris where the firm’s future designers and graphic artists could be trained. Dubost accepted, although it meant giving up his teaching positions in Lyon.

Dubost’s work would be showcased at the Art Deco Exhibition in Paris in 1925 and at the city’s Galliera Museum in 1927. By this point, as women’s fashions and styles became ever simpler and lighter, Ducharne’s intricate Jacquard-woven fabrics were less popular with couturiers in Paris and New York and the firm began focusing more on silk printing.

Some of the designs from Michel Dubost’s rediscovered folder are not geometric, indicating that they were intended for printed fabrics. Dubost worked with the Soieries F. Ducharne from 1922 to 1933, when, suffering from burnout, he decided to get out of textile design and focus on other things, including his own art. He was, after all, a painter.

After leaving Ducharne, Michel Dubost set up a school of his own in Paris 1933. In 1934, he experimented with silk-weaving by hand. In 1937 he returned to Lyon for a year before moving to Grasse in 1938, where many of the flowers used in perfumes produced by the major Parisian fashion houses are grown.

Dubost’s art was shown at the Galerie Simon in Lyon in 1939, 1943 and 1944. He also had an exhibition in Paris early in 1944. Ill-health returned to dog him as he neared 70 and he spent much of 1949 in bed. However, he rallied the following year and began painting again. It is said that his paintings from this final period were fabulous. Michel Dubost died in Grasse in 1952.

In the 1920s, his stunning designs had been used by most of the couturiers who mattered on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. One Dubost-related anecdote concerns a mayor of New York City who is supposed to have given his mistress a fabulous pearl and coral necklace in white gold with matching earrings.

The gift was such a success that the mayor then had a dress made for her using a three-meter bolt of silk specially woven by Ducharne with a motif inspired by the jewels. Is this story true? If it is not true, then it ought to be true because it is a good story. The folder of lost Dubost designs contained two small illustrations evoking a coral jewelry design.

It is also said that Dubost taught Raoul Dufy and Marc Chagall to paint flowers commercially. Again, these are interesting stories but the truth is obscured by the mists of time. To put the Dubost story in perspective, neither the Beaux-Arts school nor any of the fabrics museums in Lyon could even find any photographs of Michel Dubost in their archives.

They knew who he was but not what he looked like. But now we have three images showing Dubost in the 1890s, 1900s, and 1920s, thanks to an unknown public auctioneer’s porter who decided not to throw a folder of old paintings and other rubbish in the trash the day his firm sold off some dusty old books. Perhaps more photos of Michel Dubost will emerge.

Some fashion and couture pundits might say that the Ducharne-Dubost partnership was not the first major collaboration between Art and Fashion. They might cite the pre-First World War designs by the artist Raoul Dufy for the silk maker Bianchini-Férier a decade before François Ducharne thought of headhunting Michel Dubost.

Raoul Dufy’s collaboration was with the couturier Paul Poiret, who had set up a textile workshop known as La Petite Usine in 1910. Dufy and Poiret designed silk prints, which were produced by Bianchini-Férier and Dufy certainly worked directly and independently with the firm but he saw himself more as a decorator than an artist in this context.

As Dufy would later recall: “Thanks to Poiret and to Bianchini-Férier, I was able to create a relationship between art and decoration and to demonstrate, moreover, that decoration and painting drink from the same source.”.  Poiret would write: “Dufy drew on his animal instincts when he designed and sculpted those wooden blocks for me.”.

Raoul Dufy was part of a rather fringe albeit avant-garde movement and was no means the celebrated artist he would later be. Dubost was not world-famous either but he was very much of the conservative artistic mainstream and commercial fashion is nothing is not mainstream and conservative.

Ducharne sought Dubost out as an artist rather than a decorator and with this in mind, it is reasonable to describe their work together as the first major commercial collaboration between the worlds of Fashion and Art. Collaborations between brands like H&M and various artists are commonplace today, but it was quite revolutionary back in the early 1920s.



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