Fashion designers tend to find their greatest inspiration in eras past, but André Courrèges had his feet firmly planted towards the future. The designer, who passed away yesterday at age 92 after battling Parkinson’s disease, preferred to bypass the archives and put his energy into innovative space-inspired looks. A former engineer, he had a lifelong fascination with science and technology, and called his studio his “secret laboratory.” He even went so far as to design a bubble-shaped electric car called La Bulle — back in 1969, long before Tesla came on the scene. Later on, he turned his design energies to Hitachi robots, Honda motor scooters and Minolta cameras. “Sometimes a dress isn’t able to communicate all the emotions that I wish to convey,” he said.
Born in Pau, a city in southwest France, Courrèges began studying civil engineering before switching to fashion. He worked under Cristóbal Balenciaga for a decade before starting his namesake line in 1961 (with a fiscal assist from Balenciaga himself). The press wasn’t always sure how to take his message, especially in the era of incipient women’s lib. Some found it infantilizing, with the AP saying, “[H]e stops just short of diapers in giving age-conscious American women the youngest collection of clothes ever cut in adult sizes.” But women caught on faster than the critics did, and soon enough, everyone from Catherine Deneuve to Nancy Reagan could be seen in his designs. Audrey Hepburn sported one of his signature “little white dresses” while playing a kooky heiress in How to Steal a Million.
He was widely credited with inventing the miniskirt (though that distinction is disputed, with Mary Quant also laying claim to it) and the so-called “second-skin”— think a onesie made from tights. Some inventions, like oversized sunglasses with eyelashes on their lenses, never went beyond the realm of sixties curios. Perhaps his biggest innovation, though, was his insistence that women be comfortable. He favored flat shoes, modern fabrics like PVC and plastic, and A-line silhouettes that were meant to be worn without a bra, as opposed to the strict New Look with its wasp waists and padded busts. “The clothes float,” he said. “You don’t feel them.”
As the sixties waned and women began to gravitate towards easy sportswear and away from mod, childlike fashions, he continued to fly the flag for his vision. He celebrated the moon landing by designing a mirrored onesie, and he could often be seen wearing getups like Mylar jumpsuits and shiny white go-go boots. NASA even brought him in to visit mission control at Cape Canavaral, surely a first for a fashion designer. But as fashion marched on, the consummate futurist didn’t adapt to the present day, but clung to his own — now seemingly dated — vision of the future. The press began to treat him as a relic, with Libération writing in 1983, with somewhat ironic phrasing, “Courrèges evokes a modernism so dated one is almost amazed he still exists.”
In the ’90s, he left his label to become a painter and sculptor, and his wife and longtime collaborator Coqueline took over design duties at the house. Since then, the brand has changed ownership several times — most recently, it was acquired by former ad men Jacques Bungert and Frédéric Torloting in 2011. They hired the duo behind Paris label Coperni Femme, Sébastien Meyer, and Arnaud Vaillant last year, and Meyer and Vaillant presented a spring 2016 collection that riffed on the founder’s mod touchstones. It appears, at least, that the future of futurism is in capable hands.