Claude Montana obituary

Claude Montana obituary

Women had worn shoulder-padded hard tailoring before the 1980s – look at Joan Crawford starring in Mildred Pierce (1945), whose fur coat is elevated half-way up to her ears. But no designer had proposed, and succeeded in imposing for more than a decade, such a radical reshape of the whole female torso as Claude Montana, who has died aged 76.

Montana’s high shoulders, also extended as far outwards as the pauldrons of armour, were not just hangers for his skilled if melodramatic tailoring (retailers complained his garments could not be railed on actual hangers, as they flumped off), but acted as guardians of the torso.

Fashion traditionally demanded the upper body be vulnerable, exposed at least at the base of the throat to the male gaze – and weathers; Montana carapaced it and transferred to the wearer by zip the power to display only as much flesh as she wanted. Even his open necklines had a fill-in T-shirt or polo neck beneath.

The overall Montana effect could be contradictory: from their narrow waists up, his models were accoutred for a tournament joust, while their lower halves might be near-immobilised in long tight skirts and high heels. Although the upper panoply could also be worn with his perfectly tailored trousers.

Claude Montana, centre, with two of his models. Photograph: WireImage

Montana synthesised this original vision out of his own sexuality and experiences. He early left his Parisian family home for London, where he avoided penury by baking bracelets, from a papier-mache of toilet paper, glue and rhinestones, which he sold on a street stall. This got him into Vogue magazine in 1971, before he was ejected from the UK for lack of a work permit.

He then drifted in Paris, an extra at the Opera and regular attender at Le Sept and even gayer bars, with their culture of pastiche Hollywood glamour, heavy biker leathers and military, cowboy and workwear uniforms. That led to a cutter’s job at the luxury leatherwear company, MacDouglas, where he developed such rapport with the medium, especially new, supple tailoring skins, that he soon took over as designer.

In 1977, he staged his own work, and two years later, a first formal Paris show, almost all in leather. Japanese swathed layers were then fashion’s somewhat ragged cutting edge and the critical response to Montana was thrilled outrage: “clothes only fit for Studio 54”, “flashy, trashy, and demeaning to women”. Joan Juliet Buck of Vogue wrote more coolly that they had a “rock star wife” vibe.

Among the clients who did not feel demeaned over the next seven years, when Montana, with other outsider outrage-purveyors Azzedine Alaïa and Thierry Mugler, dominated Paris and influenced ready-to-wear, were Grace Jones, of course, but also Diana Ross, Cher and Barbra Streisand. Don Johnson wore Montana as a break from habitual Armani, so did Micky Rourke, with every sense that the designer was a bad boy.

Claude Montana in New York, 1981. Photograph: Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images

Montana was indeed his own worst problem. He was diffident to eyes-downcast shy in the public situations – catwalk bows, foreign tours, presentations – necessary to what became his sizeable business. He was also aware that the success of his shock-based designs, and the whole glamazon mode, was time-limited. “If they understand it, it means that it’s not that new any more,” he said of customers as he softened his extreme silhouette in the later 80s.

His nervous perfectionism made the runup to his runway shows a torment for him and his staff, although the actual shows, after long waits, were sensational. He occasionally and suddenly disappeared for days or weeks without explanation. The fashion world understood that he had been a hard drug consumer since early club forays.

Montana stayed creative and reliable enough for Bernard Arnault, the new owner of the House of Dior who, in 1988, dismissed Christian Dior’s successor Marc Bohan, to ask him in as artistic director. Montana refused, claiming publicly the pressure would be too much while privately believing Dior was not prestigious enough. Instead he accepted an offer in 1990 to be head of haute couture at Lanvin, which he thought grander, though it was faded and changing backers fast. Montana appreciated the superlative textiles and techniques at heritage couture level, handling satin as he had butter-smooth leather, and winning Paris’s Golden Thimble in 1991 and 1992.

However, he lost the house around $50m, and Lanvin announced direct to the press that his contract would not be renewed just before he showed his final collection in 1991.

Montana’s personal life was woeful. His relationship with his parents, a Catalan textile manufacturer father and a German mother, was so strained Montana told the world no more than that they were “bourgeoise” and he had fled them young, though he stayed close to his sister Jacqueline, who later did his business PR. And he changed his name from the family’s Montamat, because, he claimed, it was difficult to pronounce.

His longest relationship was with the makeup artist Bobby Butz, whom he met in 1979 on Fire Island, which he visited with his besotted friend, muse and sometime model Wallis Franken, who was as much into clubs and drugs as he was.

After 14 years Butz escaped, weary of being the abused object of his lover’s rages and jealousies. Butz had remained friends with Franken, who had returned to her native New York, and took refuge with her there. Montana then asked Franken to come to Paris, where they married during haute couture week, 1993.

Parisians assumed it a “show wedding”, publicity for Montana’s designs. By then, these felt démodé. Dana Thomas, who interviewed many involved, revealed that Montana beat up and demeaned Franken during their three-year marriage. It says much about his deep understanding of power, clothes and vulnerability that he repeatedly locked Franken, shoeless, clad in only T-shirt and underwear, out of their apartment. Finally, she jumped to her death from its kitchen window.

Montana’s fortunes never really recovered. During financial turbulence in 1998, an investment group bought his business and the rights to his name; the business bankrupted before his 10-year contract to design for it expired.

He grew reclusive and was reported recently to be suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Claude Montana (Montamat), fashion designer, born 29 June 1947; died 23 February 2024

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