Birthplace: London, England
Pursuing his desire to become a painter, Molyneux studied art and initially made a living by sketching for advertisements and magazines. After his sketch of an evening dress won a design contest, he was hired by the contest's sponsor, Lucile (Lady Duff Gordon). In 1911 he began by working as her sketch artist and was promoted to designer for her Paris operations.
Molyneux's career took a brief detour beginning in 1914 when he served in World War I. He was wounded three times and earned the rank of captain, a title by which he would be known for the remainder of his life. After the war he renewed his career in fashion by moving to Paris and opening his own house in 1919. He achieved immediate success with simple, elegant styles which expressed the modern aesthetic of the 1920s.
Earlier in the 1900s, lace, ruffles, and embellishment had been part of the fashionable look, but the war began to popularize a more utilitarian look which evolved into the more minimal, boyish look of the 1920s and the sleek, sweeping lines of the 1930s. Molyneux embraced this movement and became one of the leaders of fashion during this period. In addition to dresses, he designed furs, hats, lingerie, and perfume. He introduced his most famous scent, Numero Cinq, in 1926 and followed it with Vivre in 1930 and Rue Royale in 1943.
Molyneux's designs centered on simplicity, versatility, and refinement. Most of his work was crafted from luxurious fabrics in neutral colors such as black, navy, beige, and gray. His clothes embodied a restrained elegance enhanced sometimes by fanciful embroidery or beading. Most important, his dresses had the flexibility to be worn with a variety of jackets and hats, allowing the wearer to transform the look of a single garment.
The 1920s and 1930s were Molyneux's heyday; he dressed members of the social elite including actress Getrude Lawrence and Princess Marina of Greece. During the 1920s, he echoed the changing moral attitudes about divorce by ending his 1928 collection with two wedding dresses: one for the traditional bride and the other for the growing population of second-time brides. His designs of the 1920s and 1930s won him the admiration of fashion luminaries Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain. Balmain was his apprentice during the late 1930s.
At the height of his popularity, Molyneux fled Paris when it fell to the Germans during World War II. He escaped to England and spent the remainder of the war bolstering the Allied war effort. He donated the proceeds from his London operations to the British Defense Budget. Also, he helped design clothes that met the strict requirements of British wartime clothing regulations. In France he opened a camp for war victims and a school for couture workers.
He returned to Paris in 1946, after the war, but his health began to fail. On December 31, 1950, he closed his business and gave the Paris location and much of his clientele to Jacques Griffe. He began painting again, and his health gradually returned. In 1965, he produced a ready-to-wear line called Studio Molyneux, which achieved only limited success. See also: Christian Dior.
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