Karen Schneider
July 09, 1990 12:00 PM

In the first wintry days of 1965, Parisian couturier André Courrèges readied himself for the spring-summer show he feared might well be his fashion finale. “The world was aging, it was no longer creative,” recalls Courrèges, now 67. “Every time I did something modern, with love and enthusiasm, I was criticized. I’d had enough.” Pushed to the edge by the prevailing styles of ruffles and bows and below-the-knee hems, the French designer sketched a look so radical that he knew it would make or break his career. When the new designs pranced down the runway, they started a fashion revolution.

A mini revolution, that is, as in thigh-high skirts so heart-stoppingly short they not only startled the Paris couture crowd, they made it blush. And this summer, as the designer celebrates the silver anniversary of his most famous creation, the miniskirt has hiked back to the height of fashion along with rackfuls of ’60s-inspired geometric and psychedelic prints. Yet, looking back, Courrèges still regards his triumph with wonderment.

The initial reaction to the designer’s futuristic vision of spare, angular dresses worn up to four inches above the knee with flat white boots was stunned silence. No applause. No cheers. Nothing. Backstage, tears welled in Courrèges’s eyes. “André,” scribbled the editor of the magazine L’Officiel de la Couture on a note, “you were crazy, your collection is too short, with boots in the summer. It won’t work. What were you thinking?”

In a word, young. “I wanted to make women liberated, full of life, modern,” recalls Courrèges. “I think I achieved all that.” Indeed, just three hours after the show, Courrèges recalls, fashion photographer Peter Knapp called him and said, “André, I hear your collection was fantastic, it was genius. The girls from Vogue are superenthusiastic. They’re saying you’ve revolutionized everything.”

Hemlines at least. From the leggy European likes of Twiggy and Brigitte Bardot to less likely candidates stateside, such as Gloria Steinem and Jackie Kennedy (not to mention mother-in-law Rose), women gave naked knees the nod, eagerly donning Courrèges originals and knockoffs.

But as the look caught on, the Pop of mod took flak from the Mom. London designer Mary Quant, now 56, supported by an entire generation of young, hip fans, claimed to have originated the mini. While diplomatic historians have skirted the issue by calling it spontaneous creation, Courrèges remains adamant on the subject of Quant’s skimpy, body-hugging versions: “The exaggeration that took place in England was an extreme vulgarization of my creation. My short skirt went away from the body. It was not sexy.”

The designer who future-shocked the style world fashioned his modernist ideas while growing up in the Pyrenees mountains. The son of a chateau majordomo and his wife, André set out for Paris at age 22 to learn fashion from one of “the greats.” Courrèges convinced Cristobal Balenciaga to hire him in 1950 and spent the next 10 years under the master dressmaker’s tutelage.

When Courrèges left Balenciaga’s fashion house to start his own, he took with him another employee, Coqueline Barriere, now 54, a lively, dark-haired woman who became his partner, muse and, in 1966, his wife. A firm believer in the notion that “fashion that changes radically every two years is abnormal,” Courrèges continued to make his futuristic dresses and pantsuits. But over time his signature look and the fashion empire it spawned became an anachronism. By 1983, the French daily LibAndrération wrote, “Courrèges evokes a modernism so dated one is almost amazed he still exists.”

That he does is a tribute to his business acumen. Although the designer limits his fashions to a small collection sold in his 14 boutiques, he heads a licensing empire that reportedly grosses an annual $285 million with such products as champagne and gourmet foods. Wearing his trademark pink shirt and pants, oversize glasses and white boots, Courrèges still hankers for the danger of fashion’s cutting edge—which doesn’t leave much time for nostalgia. When asked if the ’60s revival will put him and his miniskirts back on the runway, Courrèges retorts, “My only concern is for what I haven’t done yet.”

—Karen Schneider, Cathy Nolan in Paris

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