The Enduring Allure Of Erté’s Artistic Hands
A tiny man, impeccably dressed, sitting among a group of fellow aristocratic Russian exiles: That was my first sight of the designer known as Erté.
“Oh no! You couldn’t possibly be Monsieur Erté – he would be really old, “I declared at the age of 18 at a Paris soirée.
“Madame, I assure you that I am Erté, “replied the elegant artist, whose real name was Romain de Tirtoff – hence the French pronunciation of his initials” R “and” T “.
Romaine de Tirtoff (originally Roman Tyrtov), or Erté, c. 1920, when he was making costumes and film sets for the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studio
A few years later, after I had stretched my tiny budget to indulge in a set of Erté’s numerals series, my walls were lined with sinuous bodies in a mesmerizing mix of sexuality and elegance – naked Adam and Eve couples entwined in leaves as number four; or a half-animal, half-human curled into number nine.
The “Alphabet” series by Erté, on display at the Hermitage Museum in 2016 for the exhibition, “Erté, Art Deco Genius: A return to St Petersburg”
My memories of Erté includes my visit to his tiny flat near the Bois de Boulogne, where a series of ingenious cupboards were made so that the doors unfolded with a drawing hung on each side.
Right from his beginnings, Erté’s vision was exquisitely attached to a new style after the First World War. Wedded to modernity ever since he visited the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900, the artist’s work made him the godfather of Art Deco even before the war.
The “Love” illustration by Romain de Tirtoff, popularly known as Erté (1929)
The artist himself passed away in 1990 at age 97, but with continuing support from Seven Arts, the agency founded by the art collectors and dealers Eric and Salome Estorick, Erté’s work is having another of his artistic moments at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, where a collection of jewelery and accessories inspired by Erté is for sale at its gift shop.
The “Erté-Zizi” necklace and Earrings from the Erté collection, made in partnership with Sevenarts Ltd and The Metropolitain Museum of Art, New York
As so often with fashion today, I don’t know which designer gave me the most surprise in the use of elements of Erté’s work. Michael Halpern, who prefers to be known only by his family name, grew up in America with artistic parents, but came to Central Saint Martins in London and stayed in the UK, launching his own line in 2017.
Halpern’s Autumn / Winter 2019 show was inspired by, and dedicated to, Erté
Halpern, who rose to fame with sparkling dresses that became a worldwide trend, moved away from pure glitter. But he developed silver and gilt for shimmering dresses and coats with rich, shiny swirls. It was Art Deco patterns inspired by Erté, whose work the designer had found among his parents ’books, which illuminated Halpern’s work.
Erté’s illustration of a perfume bottle for British Fashion, June 1973
© Fashion UK
“It was just so enthralling to see when Erté had things that morph into others – animals that become fish, that become trees – and every time you look at it you see a different color,” the designer explained.
Halpern Autumn / Winter 2019 show reflected Art Deco silhouettes and fabrics referencing Erté
His interest in Erté’s work came from growing up with the books his mother had collected when she was fascinated by art, before she “fast-tracked” into banking.
Halpern’s story about his 20-year-old future mother, who ran away from New York in the middle of the night in 1969 to go to Paris to find Picasso, suggest a family dedicated to art.
Erte’s Art Deco patterns and textures at Halpern’s Autumn // Winter 2019 show
“She always had all of these art history books and Erté was someone I gravitated towards since I was really young,” Halpern said. “I had some in my room and my mother questioned me with prompts like, ” Why do you like this?’ “
“It was the fantasy about it,” he continued. “It was so crazy to have a snake growing into a tree. It seemed so nonsensical and that made me happy. I love to look at it still; the honest way Erté worked was just so beautiful. “
Details of Erté drawings from the Helene Martini collection, auctioned n 2013 at Drouot in Paris
The latest on the Erté trail is Stella McCartney, a designer with a sporty, “strong woman” approach, whom I would not have expected to send out a re-working of Erté’s fantastical patterns.
But Stella told me an unexpected story: How, traveling with her mother as a youngster, they met Erté on a plane journey.
Erté in his Paris apartment in 1985, when hes was 93 years old
A friendship offered Stella a chance to work with Erté. And then, for the Autumn / Winter 2020 collection, she revitalized the patterns.
“This collection was about bringing some sort of romance, a little more theatricality,” she explained. “I met Erté when I was about 12 on an airplane, and my mum knew I wanted to be a fashion designer and said to me, ‘If you really want to be a designer, you should go talk to that guy who is sitting over there. ‘ “
A fabric sample by Erté. He produced more than 130 fabric designs for the Amalgamated Silk Corporation in New York from 1929-1930
“I was completely intimidated and freaked out: He was much older and quite extreme,” Stella admitted. “But I sat with him for the entire plane ride and then I went to do a work placement and I was just in love with the theatricality of Erté’s work – the drama, the absolute glamor.”
“Starfish” (1946), an original gouache by Erté
“But I could never figure out how to translate it into the runway because it was too much,” she continued. “It was never wearable and it was never anything that I felt was real. So I wanted, this season, to look into his more glamorous work. You see a lot of Erté prints at the end – the first time they’ve ever been used. I went back to the archives and to the other gentleman I met with Erté on the plane. He still works for the Erté Foundation and these are Erté’s original prints and original colors. So it was very much taking things that I grew up with as a fashion designer that I found so dreamlike, but trying to bring them into the now. And trying to make them functional and real. “
Stella McCartney’s Autumn / Winter 2020 collection has revived Erté’s colors and prints
Stella worked hard to translate Erté’s vision into her own aesthetic vocabulary – always with its compelling tension of the feminization of masculine clothing. But, among the very real elements of vegan leather and animal-free shearling, the designer added a touch of artistry: The “Jelly Fish”, “Tumbling Locks”, and “Starburst”, all originally from Erté’s artistic hands.