After much anticipation, the BBC’s starry new adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love will make its debut this weekend. If the trailers and photos are anything to go by, it promises to be quite the stylish affair, complete with a host of spectacular period costumes.
It’s something that would certainly be important to Nancy Mitford herself, who, along with her five aristocratic (and controversial) sisters, was known for her eye for fashion. Edward Molyneux was a favourite designer among their social set – a man celebrated for his striking, modernist take on the traditional couturier’s art – who even gets a mention in Nancy’s novels.
Born in London in 1891, Molyneux left school at 16, following his father’s death, in order to work to support himself and his mother. Having shown an early talent as a painter and illustrator, he began his career as a sketch artist for society and literary magazine The Smart Set. His glamorous drawings were spotted by Lady Duff-Gordon, the British couturier and founder of the eponymous Maison Lucile. In 1910, she employed Molyneux to be a sketcher in her London salon. The talented young man quickly ascended the ranks, promoted to assistant designer at the house’s Paris outpost by the end of 1911, aged just 20.
Molyneux embarked on quite the cosmopolitan lifestyle, spending time between London, Paris and New York while working for Lucile. With the arrival of World War I in 1914, however, he joined the Duke of Wellington regiment in the British Army. Molyneux was injured while fighting in the Battle of Arras, a British offensive on the Western Front in 1917, losing his sight in one eye. He was also made a captain, going on to work in the cryptanalysis section of the British Admiralty, dubbed Room 40.
Molyneux was then invalided out of service, so returning to his work at Lucile. A falling out with Lady Duff-Gordon, however, meant that the two parted ways in 1919, with Molyneux opening his own fashion house later that year. The flagship location was based in Paris, then regarded as the couture capital of the world, before Molyneux grew his empire to Monte Carlo in 1925, Cannes in 1927, and – in a fitting homecoming – London in 1932.
Keeping up with the radical new sensibilities influencing the worlds of art, culture and ideology at the time, Molyneux developed a refined, modern style, dispensing with superfluous flourishes in favour of striking simplicity. One of the most highly-regarded designers of his day, his work influenced the likes of Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain. He soon became a high society favourite, dressing European royals like Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark (who became the Duchess of Kent), as well as silver screen stars including Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Vivien Leigh.
Moving in such circles meant Molyneux had a coterie of glamorous friends, including the playwright Noël Coward, as well as the similarly literary Mitford sisters. He also had a romantic relationship with then Foreign Office diplomat Harold Nicolson, who helped fund the launch of his first Paris salon. Nicolson was at the time married to novelist, poet, and journalist Vita Sackville-West, but – quite the bohemian pair – he was transparent with her about his affairs. In 1923, Molyneux married Muriel Dunsmuir, known as Jessie, one of eight daughters of the Hon. James Dunsmuir, a Canadian industrialist and politician and a former Premier of British Columbia. The match was short lived, however, with the couple divorcing in 1924.
Molyneux was also an accomplished painter, exhibiting his work in Paris and New York. A number of his pieces were purchased by his eminent friends and acquaintances, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Greta Garbo. He was quite the art collector, too, with a number of Impressionist paintings that included works by Picasso, Manet, Monet, and an impressive 17 by Renoir.
In the World War II years, Molyneux uprooted his headquarters in Paris to operate from London, later returning to the French capital in 1946. He retired from the house he founded in 1950, handing over the reins to the French designer Jacques Griffe. Not one to rest on his laurels, however, 1964 saw him launch Studio Molyneux, designing high-end ready-to-wear (although the line received a mixed reception). He departed from the venture in 1969, with Studio Molyneux carrying with his cousin, John Tullis, at the helm, until its demise in 1977.
Molyneux died in Monte Carlo in 1974, aged 82, leaving a memorable imprint on the fashion landscape behind him.
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