Pauline Trigère: “She Had an Eye”

French-born American fashion designer Pauline Trigère once said of her divorce from Lazar Radley, a tailor, “He didn’t like the competition. That’s why I’m not married to him anymore.”

The split occurred in 1942, when Lazar walked out on his wife and two sons; the little family had lived in New York for several years at that point, having fled Paris in 1937 to escape the Nazis. When they first arrived in New York, Trigère did not plan to run a business. As she said years later of this time in her life, “I was really a little housewife with two small children and I had a husband who really didn’t want his wife to work.” But Trigère listened to the inner voice that encouraged her to create, eventually putting together a collection of 11 dresses, which her brother sold out of a suitcase to department stores across the East Coast. The effort was a success and thus Trigère’s business was born. But her drive to succeed had its roots in deep practicality rather than a desire for fame. After her husband’s defection, “There was no drive because I wanted to become a great designer,” Trigère once said. “I had two small children and a mother, and we all had to eat. That’s the drive I had.”

Over the years, the designer became known for classic, frill-less women’s fashions characterized by near-invisible seams, from princess-line dresses to black capes that reversed to vivid pink. She also designed scarves, jewelry, and men’s ties, earning three Coty Awards and inclusion in the Coty Hall of Fame along the way. Trigère held her designs to a high standard: “The clothes have to perform for me” is how she once put it.

She had her own way of doing things. Trigère embraced yoga decades before it became common practice and stood on her head every morning to “bathe her brain.” She wore only her own designs, generally accessorized with her trademark turtle pins, and when she was creating, she did not sketch; rather, she cut and draped from bolts of fabric. She was one of the first designers to use “common” fabrics such as cotton and wool in evening wear, and in 1961, she attracted attention as the first name designer to work with an African American model, Beverly Valdes. If some of her actions were seen as bold, she didn’t care: after a major Memphis store, angered by her decision to work with Valdes, threatened to boycott her designs, Trigère unapologetically held her ground. The store gave in and continued their working relationship. Of the hoopla, Trigère once deadpanned, “We only lost one customer, in Birmingham, Alabama. We didn’t miss her.”

That tenacity served her well as a Solo Mom, too. Trigère worked hard, dressing legendary figures such as Bette Davis and Lena Horne, even as she raised sons Philippe and Jean-Pierre. “I brought up my boys alone—not one half penny from their father,” she once said. “He left me because I wanted to work, be myself.”

Though she officially retired in 1997, Trigère continued to create in one capacity or another until her death in 2002 at age 93, even designing a line of walking sticks for seniors. As her son Jean-Pierre, who worked with his mother’s fashion house for years, shared with in 2002, “She could always come up with a [design] solution nobody else could. She had an eye that way.”

In a 1984 interview with Inside Fashion host Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel (shown above), Trigère discusses those first 11 dresses, a profound dislike of deadlines, and her definition of glamour.

Thumbnail credit: Screen grab from Inside Fashion: Pauline Trigère, 1984

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