American Courtier in Paris

June 27th, 2020  |  Published in June 2020

This column has often focused on the haute couture area of the fashion design landscape. Maybe it’s because the handcrafted construction required of these designs naturally align more with the sentiment that fashion is an artform – one to be worn and lived in, but an art nonetheless. Maybe it’s because the collections and fashion shows are just generally more interesting due to their elaborate sensibilities. Either way, we step into the world of haute couture yet again for this issue.

 

As designers from around the globe continue to navigate runways seasons in our new physically distanced world – it was announced that Paris Fashion Week be presented digitally in July – let us not look to the future. Instead, let us delve into the past.

 

Generally-speaking, American designers have not made a substantial mark on the French couture scene. Historians have noted that this may be because the American fashion design community is based on ready-to-wear and quite simply doesn’t have the overarching structure in place for couture. To clarify and as a reminder, for fashion to be known as haute couture, it must be crafted in Paris under the guidance of the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode.

 

There have been some notable exceptions of course, like Mainbocher and Ralph Rucci, but it’s fair to say that the United States has not led the way in haute couture over the years. Though limited, it is important to acknowledge and celebrate the couture history we do have.

Many fashion observers do not know that the first American to lead a French couture house was the extremely talented Jay Jaxon, who is also African-American. Born in Queens and having lived part of his life in Philadelphia, Jaxon reportedly found his love for fashion and sewing through a girlfriend who worked as a seamstress. Even though he was studying law at New York University at the time, he chose to follow his dream of becoming a fashion designer – focusing his career path on costume design instead of law.

Jaxon studied under some of the greatest French fashion designers the world had ever seen – Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior. During this time in Paris, fashion house Jean-Louis Scherrer, which opened its doors in 1962, took notice of the then-24 year old’s talent and appointed Jay Jaxon as its head designer in 1965.

He moved back to the United States in the mid-1970s to work on his own collections and also designed for Pierre Cardin, Jay Jaxon for Muney and many others. From New York to Los Angeles, his work then led him to design costumes for countless musical artists (Diahann Carroll, Sammy Davis Jr), television shows (Angel, Ally McBeal), movies (Mr. & Mrs. Smith) and stage productions (Ailey Celebrates Ellington).

With Jaxon’s distinction as being the first American designer to lead the design of a French couture house, it’s notable that most people don’t know his name. Actually, it’s quite surprising. Curator Rachel Fenderson attempted to shed light on Jaxon’s often overlooked accomplishments with an exhibit of his life’s work called “Jay Jaxon: Fashion Designer, Le Couturier, Costumer | 40 Years of Fashion Design Brilliance” in his hometown of Queens.

As was said earlier, the lack of American presence in the history books of haute couture is notable. And so it is that Jay Jaxon is not celebrated for his accomplishments more in the American fashion community.

It is with great hope that this exhibit and more articles in the future, will put his name in its rightful place as a groundbreaking fashion designer who did what many before (and after) couldn’t do. He found his way as a leader and great artisan in the difficult and demanding world of Parisian haute couture.

–Jennifer Perusek

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