Jean Louis Profile
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Born in Paris, France on October 5, 1907, Jean Louis Berthault attended design school and after his graduation, worked for the fashion House of Agnes-Drecoll. While vacationing in New York in 1935 a friend suggested that he show his sketches to high-end New York designers. One of those he approached was Hattie Carnegie. Although she didn't have an opening at her company, she was impressed with his skill. A few years later she hired him and he remained with her in an executive position until 1944.
Joan Cohn, wife of Columbia Pictures studio chief Harry Cohn, was known for her good taste and her stylish New York clothes. She knew quality when she saw it, and she saw it in Jean Louis, who had designed many pieces of her personal wardrobe at Hattie Carnegie. In 1944, she suggested to her husband that he bring Louis to Columbia to design costumes. When an offer was made to be assistant to the legendary designer Travis Banton, Louis quit Hattie Carnegie and took the train west to Hollywood. Under Banton's tutelage, Louis learned the differences between designing for "real-life" and designing for the movies. He proved to be a good pupil because when Banton eventually left Columbia for Universal Studios, Jean Louis became Head Designer and his film credit read "Gowns by Jean Louis". He took for his assistant another Hattie Carnegie designer, James Galanos.
The key to Jean Louis' success was the simplicity and the elegance of the cut of the gowns, which would make them as modern today as they were decades ago. During his thirty year career in films he worked with some of the most beautiful women in Hollywood, like Lana Turner ( Madame X, 1966), Rita Hayworth (Tonight and Every Night, 1945), Judy Holliday (The Solid Gold Cadillac, 1956) and Kim Novak (Bell, Book and Candle, 1959) in most of their films during their contracts at Columbia. He was nominated for an Academy Award fifteen times for his work in films like Pal Joey (1957), Born Yesterday (1950), From Here to Eternity (1953), A Star Is Born (1954), Gambit (1966), It Should Happen to You (1954), and Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967). His only win was for the costumes he designed for Judy Holliday in The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956).
In the 1950s he began to design costumes for television. Between 1953 and 1961, he created fifty-two dresses for Loretta Young to wear on her Loretta Young Show. Women would tune in each week just to see what she was wearing.
Jean Louis left Columbia Pictures in 1958 and like his mentor Travis Banton, he went to Universal Studios for a few years and then worked on a freelance basis. Following in the footsteps of another mentor, Hattie Carnegie, he also opened his own salon and ready-to-wear line "Jean Louis, Inc." When Marlene Dietrich began her nightclub career she hired Jean Louis to design dresses that, from a distance, made her appear as if she were wearing sequins and beads against her bare skin. In reality, Louis helped Dietrich in her battle against gravity by creating special foundation garments and by dying silk soufflé fabric to exactly match her skin tone. He would also use this same technique for Marilyn Monroe's "Happy Birthday Mr. President" gown. When the gown was auctioned off by Christie's in 1999, it was described as a size 5 champagne silk soufflé gown with more than 6,000 beads. Nancy Valentino, senior vice president of marketing at Christie's, said, "It was impossible for her to wear undergarments with this kind of dress," Valentino says. "She was literally sewn into it, and I think what's interesting is she wanted it to be so close-fitting that it was cut to her body and actually measured to her body." The dress would eventually be sold for $1.26 million dollars.
Jean Louis made his last film in 1973. He and his wife of thirty years, Maggy, lived in Santa Barbara until her death in 1987. He then moved to Palm Springs and married his long-time friend and companion Loretta Young in 1993 and stayed with her until his death, at the age of 89, in 1997. People magazine called him "the answer to many a movie star's prayer". Carol Channing, for whom he had designed gowns for Thoroughly Modern Millie, said Jean Louis "loved each one of us...He saw us as perfect the way God made us." Another famous designer, Bob Mackie, summed it up nicely: "He understood what ladies should look like."
by Lorraine LoBianco
Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year 1998
People Weekly; 5/12/1997