Claude Montana, French fashion designer, is dead

He was one of the designers who shaped the aesthetic of Parisian fashion in the 1980s

Claude Montana, French fashion designer, is dead

He was one of the designers who shaped the aesthetic of Parisian fashion in the 1980s. Claude Montana died on February 23 at the age of 76. His life, punctuated by great successes but also serious failures, addictions and intimate dramas, is as romantic as it is tragic.

Born in Paris on June 29, 1947, to a Spanish father and a German mother, Claude Montana – real name Montamat – discovered very early an appetite for pageantry and costumes. His parents, bourgeois Parisians, did not want to hear about their child's aspirations. So, with his little sister, Jacqueline, he sneaks out of the family apartment to browse around the Opéra Garnier, smell the smell of the costumes, and discover the art of draping and fabrics. At the age of 16, he became an extra in Don Carlos, by Verdi, on the stages of the Paris Opera, without his parents knowing.

In 1967, with his baccalaureate in hand, he headed to England and its Swinging London, which was in full swing. It was there that he tried his hand at creation for the first time, making small series of papier-mâché jewelry, with toilet paper and rhinestones. The British edition of Vogue magazine spotted him and published his creations on its front page. Montana's name begins to circulate in the small fashion circle.

True to leather

He returned to Paris a few years later, and joined the brand specializing in leather Mac Douglas. This is where he gets involved with cutting, pattern making and clothing creation. Leather will remain his preferred material throughout his career. “It’s the one I feel closest to, the one I started with. And then, it’s not a trivial matter. Leather has strength, rigidity, power. It fits well with my vision of women,” he confided to Inrocks in 2010.

His vision of women? It is indeed powerful and conquering, and he presented it in 1975 through a first Parisian fashion show: the shoulders are square and disproportionate, the hips are emphasized, the waists tightened as much as possible, the legs are elongated. Leather is everywhere, and the colors sparkle: yellow, mauve, red... The Montana look intrigues and stands out in the bourgeois landscape of French fashion driven by the elegance of Yves Saint Laurent, or the multicultural inspirations of Kenzo Takada or Issey Miyake.

Officially launched in 1979, the Montana brand would then draw the contours of an Amazon-style fashion, which imposed as much in the architectural cuts as in the warrior look. He attached himself to it alongside a few, like Thierry Mugler – who was his roommate for a time before becoming his rival – or the designer Anne-Marie Beretta.

Drunk with success, Claude Montana then gives in to the lure of alcohol, drugs, nights spent at the Palace alongside his clique. However, he nourished unfailing creativity and offered, throughout the 1980s, desirable and modern collections. The Montana woman, who always has leather as her favorite material, drapes herself in soft coats or structured jackets, pants with puffed legs and graphic prints or dresses with ever more fitted waists.

His fashion shows, throughout the decade, were truly live shows, popular throughout Paris. An exercise that he fears, however. “The worst time is before the parade. We haven't slept at all for two days. I go home to take a bath and shave. They come to pick me up by car to take me to the big top [a tent set up in the Tuileries]. It's like going to the slaughterhouse. The journey is terrifying. This silence. I can not say anything. I try to believe it and I don't know anything anymore. It's death. Afterwards, if it went well, we have fun. Otherwise... We don't realize it right away. The signs are coming little by little. We are in pain. Failures are also necessary, they prevent you from sclerosis,” he confided to Le Monde in March 1984.

In 1990, after refusing an offer from Dior, he joined the house of Lanvin to imagine haute couture collections, while maintaining his own brand. He won two consecutive golden dice – the equivalent of the fashion Oscars at the time – for the fall-winter 1990-1991 and spring-summer 1991 lines. However, he left Lanvin after only two collections, injured by the poor reviews from the specialized press.

In 1993, he married his longtime friend and muse, American model Wallis Franken. This union is surprising, as the designer has never hidden his homosexuality. But Wallis committed suicide in 1996, by throwing himself out of the window of his marital home on Rue de Lille. A tragedy from which Montana will never truly recover.

Withdrawn from the world

The following year, he declared bankruptcy and was forced to sell his brand. The house was then bought in 2000 by businessman Jean-Jacques Layani and changed its name to Montana Création. From then on, Claude Montana gradually withdrew from the world, only leaving his Parisian apartment near the Palais-Royal on rare occasions.

His creations have, for their part, endured in the collective imagination. The Montana look will be a source of inspiration for many designers of the 1990s and 2000s, including Alexander McQueen, Olivier Theyskens and Riccardo Tisci. In 2013, he reappeared through the back door by signing three silhouettes for his friend Eric Tibusch's fashion show. “I miss fashion. Because when something is present throughout your life, it becomes a part of you. I miss all that, like holding the fabric in my hands,” he declared on this occasion to the American magazine Vanity Fair. He was named Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in 2014.

In 2019, English designer Gareth Pugh paid tribute to him through a collection of 14 silhouettes imagined for the luxury online sales site Farfetch, in collaboration with Byronesque, a site specializing in the search for archive pieces for collectors. He then explained: “Claude is a cult figure, his influence is immense.”