An unexpected phone call on a November night just over a year ago tempted Marc Bohan back into fashion. Just a few months earlier, he had been summarily dismissed from his position of more than 28 years as couturier and head designer for Christian Dior in Paris. And he wasn't sure what to do next.
His caller: Mannie Silverman, a London businessman and head of a financial consortium that had just bought the couture house of Norman Hartnell. Silverman asked Bohan whether he would be interested in becoming Hartnell's couture designer.
"The idea amused me," Bohan said. Tempting too was Silverman's offer of a 1-million salary, almost $2 million, over a three-year period.
Although the house has dressed the Queen Mother for 53 years, it had slid gently into the backwaters of fashion since Hartnell's death in 1979. The once-glittering Art Deco salon on Bruton Street, just off Berkeley Square, had become a fusty relic of past glories.
As Bohan saw it: "It is a house that has always had a prestige--Norman Hartnell designed Queen Elizabeth II's wedding dress and coronation robe--and it never did anything vulgar, so I thought, 'why not?' I never met Hartnell, but I always felt from his clothes he enjoyed what he did."
At 63, Bohan says he is not out to make a new career for himself, although he already talks about a Hartnell boutique and, possibly, a perfume. "I had offers to work in New York. In Paris, I could have stayed without working, but I like to work and here I can build in my style."
Bohan is very much a couturier in the French style, having started his career at the House of Piguet in the late 1940s. After several seasons he moved to Captain Molyneux, who had salons in London and Paris. In 1953, he left Molyneux for Jean Patou, where he stayed until Christian Dior asked him to take over Dior's London franchise. He was called back to Paris in 1961 when Yves Saint Laurent, who had replaced Christian Dior after the couturier's death, was inducted into the army.
From 1961 until 1989, Bohan was Dior, although his name never appeared on collection programs or labels. (The name of his replacement, Gianfranco Ferre, appears in large letters on every program.) During his tenure, Bohan built up a faithful international clientele; Princess Caroline of Monaco, Lynn Wyatt, Betsy Bloomingdale and some of the British royals have already indicated they will follow him to Hartnell, where his name is on the program.
In preparation for the designer's first showing for Hartnell late last week, workers restored the couture salons to their original '30s look. They polished the chrome elevators until they shone like silver and reinstalled the mirrored mantelpiece that Silverman reclaimed from the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Bohan, in his white couturier's smock, has created a mini-version of his Dior studio, with mirror- or sheet-lined walls reflecting or hiding works in progress.
"I like to be in a small house like this. There's a feeling of everyone being together, much more so than in a big machine like Dior," Bohan said. In Paris, he was often tense and irritable in the pre-collection period; here, he was relaxed and at ease. The couture fabric houses he has always worked with--Abrahm, Taroni and Gandini--either have London offices or have made the trip to see him, as has couture embroiderer Francois Lesage.
Although Bohan used to visit London regularly to see his daughter Marie-Anne, who works at Christie's auction house, living in London has been in some ways a surprise.
"Of course, I knew all about the social season: Ascot and what have you, but what I hadn't realized is what a concentration of international society lives here," he says, mentioning Greek and German royalty.
Bohan predicts that the market unification of Europe, scheduled for 1992, will boost British trade. "The stock exchange is more important here than in Paris, and on many levels it's easier to do business in London," Bohan says.
And adds, with a big smile, "It's more fun here."