Chanel's rival: The roaring '20s designer you've never heard of

Nearly a century ago, Chanel wasn't the only big name in fashion. The Paris designer Jenny also set styles in the Jazz Age, was even made a chevalier of the Legion of Honor for her contributions to the French fashion industry. Randy Bryan Bigham recalls the achievements of this forgotten couturier.

Jenny was one of the most influential early 20th century couture labels. The house, active between 1909 and 1940, was headed by Jeanne Sacerdote (1868-1962). Herself a celebrity in the Paris fashion world, noted for her beauty and personal style, Jenny was one of only three female designers of the era to be made a chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur, following Paquin and preceding Lanvin.

Yet Jenny has been overlooked by writers steeped in the lore of Poiret whose actual impact on fashionable dress, as recent studies show, was more inspirational than literal. Jenny, on the other hand, exerted a tremendous bottom-line influence on the international ready-to-wear trade, her simple-lined gowns and suits lending themselves well to faithful reproduction, especially by American mass-market garment manufacturers.

Jeanne Sacerdote ("Jenny"), painted by Henri Gervex, 1921

Lady behind the label

Born Jeanne-Adele Bernard at Perigueux in 1868, she was the wife of Achille Sacerdote. Although she had aspirations to be a professor, studying French literature at university, Jeanne grew disillusioned and left academia for fashion, taking a job as a vendeuse for the newly established house of Bechoff-David around 1907. From there she gravitated to Paquin where she served as a premiere.

In 1909, joined by her personal dressmaker Marie La Corre, Jeanne opened her own couture establishment in the rue Castiglione under the name Jenny. The business was an almost immediate success, and by 1911 it was registered as Bernard et La Corre; the trade style, however, remained Jenny.

Although not a seamstress or a “modeliste,” Jenny worked closely with La Corre and a team of technicians to carry out her design ideas. In this way, she was similar in her approach to fellow couturiers Louise Cheruit and Jean Patou in that she guided the work of her designing staff, suggesting touches and changes to achieve a final result that reflected her taste.

Jenny’s overall look was simple and youthful, each gown showing unusual details that set the house apart from rival labels. Almost from the beginning, the “bateau décolleté” or “boat neck” was a hallmark of Jenny’s afternoon gowns (it was known as the “Jenny neck”). A severe gray Jenny suit with unique tailoring details also became a sought-after street style early in her career.

Vogue characterized Jenny’s clientele as being “chiefly composed of Parisians who appreciate refinement and conservatism,” adding that the clever simplicity of her gowns was making the label “a new star in the Parisian constellation,” a salon to be “classed among the most important houses in Paris.”

By 1913 Jenny was a well-known personality in French society; photos and caricatures of her often appeared in fashion magazines as well as in the popular press. Her business was also expanding, and in July 1914, just before the outbreak of World War I, she relocated her salon to 70 Avenue des Champs Elysees. The move was notable in that it marked the first time a building was constructed especially for a dressmaking concern in Paris; all other houses then operated out of old premises that had been adapted for modern use as fashion ateliers.

Jenny profited greatly during the war, becoming the most imported Paris label in America, due to the commercially reproducible lines and details of the house’s dresses and suits. While some of her French competitors closed temporarily or reduced production, Jenny was one of the few designers who, like Chanel, prospered during these critical years, helping usher in a new sobriety to fashion.

Jenny's influence

“Mme. Jenny’s salon on the Champs Elysees,” recalled Women’s Wear Daily editor Morris de Camp Crawford, “was crowded with buyers from New York. She was the joy of our wholesale trade since her models (designs) were easy to reproduce, yet with trimming enough to appeal to our fancy.”

The house of Jenny was among a select group of leading Paris designers that contributed to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. That year Jenny had also joined the Paris Defense Syndicate, founded by Poiret to protect member firms from design piracy in the United States. But like Callot, Paquin and others, she soon resigned when charges arose that Poiret’s real motive was to control his competitors.

Jenny’s influence increased after the war, both as a designer and as a personality. Vogue wrote that she “comes as close to anyone else to being the chief inspirer of modern simplicity in dress.” The magazine also regarded her as “one of the most distinguished and distinctive figures in Paris dressmaking.”

Her house, which was reorganized as a joint stock company in 1923, was at its height during the jazz age. Her exhibited fashions won the coveted Grand Prix d’Elegance two years in a row (1927-1928) and she profited from commercial endorsements, including the Rayon Institute’s range of trademarked fabrics in 1929.

Privately, Jenny moved in the brilliant café society of the day, hosting parties at her villa in Nice and at the Chateau l’Evenge at Perigord, her 14th century country place, famous for its rose gardens. Jenny was petite with dark hair and eyes, and often wore varying shades of brown, edged in copper and “old rose hues.” She also had a “passion for odd jewelry,” including exotic turquoise pieces, recalled Crawford. In 1921 Jenny was painted in her favorite brown by Henri Gervex; the portrait was exhibited that year in the Salon de la Societe Nationale des Beaux Arts. Jenny was soon a favorite with other artists; both Jean-Gabriel Domergue and Kees van Dongen painted her in 1923.

Innovative eye

Meantime, her house’s collections launched some of the decade’s most classic and versatile styles. Decorative accents were a specialty with her, she claimed. “Though keeping in view the purity of line in designing my collections,” she told Vogue, “I give careful attention to all the important details.”

She sponsored “gauntlet" cuffs, a selection of reversed fabrics, and insertions of bias bands. Jenny also put her imprimatur on a small, loosely-knotted scarf that she often wore herself, and which became known as the “Jenny scarf.”

Perhaps Jenny’s most defining look for day and evening in the mid ‘20s involved an asymmetrical, rippling jabot that was widely copied. Crawford remembered the influence of this style: “There was a notable model in black with a white jabot down one side which became almost a uniform for our sophisticates.”

In 1926 a flared flounce or peplum beneath a drop waist was another fashion Jenny claimed as her own.

Her peak personal moment in fashion came later that year when the French government conferred on her the Legion of Honor for her services to haute couture and the decorative arts. She was only the second woman in her profession to receive the medal; Paquin was the first to win the honor in 1913.

When asked by reporters about the accolade, she was charmingly modest. “I was not even born in the business,” Jenny said. “And I have never been a working girl. In fact I studied to become a history professor. I was utterly bored by it all, so I just let it drop and entered a big dressmaker’s to learn the trade. One day I set myself up in business, and that’s all.”

Jenny's last years

The house of Jenny triumphed until 1929 when it was hard hit by the U.S. stock market crash. By then most of the firm’s investors and customers were American and their losses became Jenny’s. With the financial failure of the company the following year, her long-time business partner Marie La Corre resigned as did its president.

The business continued and Jenny remained an active partner in the house which relocated in 1933 to smaller quarters at 5 rue Royale. But the end was near. In 1937 she left when the board of directors decided to merge with Lucile Paray and to appoint the latter designer as head of the new joint venture.

The combine Lucile Paray-Jenny was not a success, producing its last collection in Fall 1939 and entering liquidation the next year.

Jeanne Sacerdote, the famed “Jenny,” lived out her exceptional life at her homes in France and Italy, dying in Nice in 1962, aged 94.

Jenny's mark on fashion has left a rich legacy, as many of the styles she pioneered regularly enjoy a re-imagining by modern fashion and costume designers, few of whom realize they're plucking gems from the 1920s collections she once launched amid such fanfare.