Sophie of Saks – Sophie Gimbel America’s Courtier


Sophie of Saks – Sophie Gimbel America’s Courtier

‘You don’t have to have lots of clothes in order to be chic. But you most certainly have to have the right clothes.’ These are the timeless words of the relatively unknown today, but seminal mid-century American couturier, Sophie Gimbel. As we near ever closer to the Haute Couture shows starting on Monday in Paris, on Tuesday The Sheila C. Johnson Design Centre at Parsons School of Design in New York will present Sophie Gimbel: Fashioning American Couture.

Sophie Gimbel was an ‘outspoken champion of American fashion’ says Beth Dincuff Charleston, curator of the exhibition. This does make us wonder why such an important figure in fashion is not more widely known, especially since her client list included Greta Garbo, Édith Piaf, actress Claudette Colbert and the Duchess of Windsor. Gimbell even made the cover of TIME magazine in 1947, the first American fashion designer to do so.

From the 1930s until the late 40’s Gimbel was director and head buyer of the Salon Modern at Saks Fifth Avenue where she was responsible for bringing couture collections including Schiaparelli, Balenciaga and Vionnet to the American public.  Alongside the crème of French couture   houses, in the 1940’s the Salon Modern became a platform for Sophie’s own designs ‘Sophie of Saks’ that were specifically aimed at American women’s tastes. Her designs were created using simple lines that retain a timeless elegance. According to Dincuff, “She (Gimbel) rejected the radicalism of Christian Dior’s New Look, she was speaking to an intelligent consumer who was no longer willing to follow fashion dictates from a distant European capital.”

During WWII there was a crisis in the production of couture in Paris meaning there was a limited supply of French couture for the American market.  With this couture shortfall Gimbel played a crucial part in organising group shows of American designers work, which became the precursor to New York Fashion Week. Furthermore, when journalists couldn’t travel to Paris during the war her work was featured in the inaugural September issue of US Vogue in 1940.

Gimbel was also very vocal on her distain of anything too revealing. Before her retirement in 1969 she took a stand against mini-skirts and short-shorts. “I don’t show the bosom, the stomach or the fanny,” Mrs. Gimbel said. “Clothes that do belong in the beachwear department.”


But aside from her opinions on post war fashion trends the importance of this designer has been brought centre stage. Her designs have been described as subdue elegance, ultra-feminine with simple lines by way of clinched waists, full skirts, and lots of tulle, all crafted and embellished to perfection. According to Mrs Gimble “A woman and her waistline must never be separated.”

Within the exhibition there will be 18 garments on display from the Parsons Archive that were laboriously crafted by skilled artisans in the Salon Modern studio. Alongside these will be students work from a Parsons couture class that feature Gimbel finishes, such as elaborate tucks and pleats, impeccable embroidery or subtle, whimsical embellishments.

Starting this week Saks Fifth Avenue will be showcasing a selection of Gimbel’s finest garments in its windows. “Sophie is one of the unheralded great American designers,” said Stephen I. Sadove, CEO of Saks.

In an age of fast fashion, the curtains of ‘slow fashion’ are pulled back reveling what we’ve all been missing; sublime craftsmanship, and Sophie, it’s never looked more beautiful.

Sophie Gimbel: Fashioning American Couture

January 22 – February 12, 2013

Lecture: February 8, 5:30 pm

The Sheila C. Johnson Design Center
Parsons The New School for Design
66 Fifth Avenue, New York

 Images courtesy of The Met New York, Julia Noni for Saks


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