In 1925—having decided that opening his own maison du couture was the only way he could afford to dress his young wife in style—a handsome Frenchman named Marcel Rochas abandoned a career in law to begin designing beautiful clothing. Before long, the Rochas name was appearing prominently in newspapers and fashion magazines alongside those of the most influential designers in Paris: Chanel, Lanvin, Patou, Lelong, and Vionnet.
In 1931, he and Elsa Schiaparelli both introduced a broad, padded shoulder that would soon become the dominant silhouette. Often hailed for his creative color combinations, he turned the old two-color rule on its head in 1934, using three in one outfit, deftly blending muted tones with brilliant brights. “Count your colors!” he urged. A strong sense of whimsy ran throughout Rochas’s daywear; pockets took the form of handprints and leather coin purses, lapels resembled flames.Young women flocked to maison Rochas to get a glimpse of the darkly handsome “Valentino of the Couture”, Vogue reported in a 1936 profile of the designer.
Following a visit to Hollywood, Rochas began dressing the biggest stars of the day, including Marlene Dietrich, Loretta Young, and Joan Crawford—all of whom favored the power-shoulder look. Rochas was mesmerized by the saucy siren Mae West; in fact, a glimpse of her bodacious form in a lacy black dress would later inspire the bottle and packaging of the house’s signature scent, Femme.
Rochas played Pygmalion to the cornflower-blue–eyed Hélène, molding her into his ideal muse. Following the premature death of her husband in 1955, Hélène Rochas took over as president and became one of France’s first female CEOs. Though she had never had any intention of becoming a femme d’affaires, she proved to have the better business brain of the two. She worked ten-hour days, and introduced hit new scents like Madame Rochas and Moustache for men, to increase profits tenfold over the course of a decade.
In 1970, Hélène cashed it all in to enjoy her hard-earned success. The fashion division had already been dormant many, many years.
Finally, in 1990, after briefly mulling a return to couture, the house hired the Irishman Peter O’Brien to design a luxury ready-to-wear line. Mostly, this was a method of drumming up publicity for perfume launches, not an end in itself. It wasn’t until 2002 that the moribund house realized it could benefit greatly from a youthful injection of cool. The Belgian wunderkind Olivier Theyskens, who had shot to fame dressing Madonna in a goth glam look for the 1998 Oscars, was the dark prince tapped to revive Rochas’s sleeping beauty.
“The Rochas house identity is established—ladylike with a cool-girl edge,”Women’s Wear Daily proclaimed in 2006. That same year, however, the house’s parent company, Procter & Gamble closed the couture house. The fashion world was stunned. Theyskens was a prodigious talent, and he had just won the CFDA International award. In 2008, the house’s fashion division was revived once again, this time with a focus on creating luxurious, yet practical, clothing at a more accessible cost. Marco Zanini, an alumnus of Versace and Halston, was the man for the job. Since his debut collection, which he built around the ladylike slip dress, Zanini has been turning out soft and womanly clothing for real women who have the confidence to mix up their wardrobe in unexpected ways. “For me,” he said in 2011, “Rochas is all about playing with this kind of femininity, rather than obvious sensuality and mainstream glamour.”