French designer working in Italy
Born: Pau, France, 24 October 1932. Education: Studied fine arts in Paris. Career: Design assistant, Balmain, Paris, and freelance illustrator, Vogue, Femina, Album du Figaro, and Marie-Claire, late 1950s; textile consultant, Legler; design consultant La Rinascente stores, Italy; designer/coordinator, Apem, 1960-63; design consultancies in Italy and France, including Christian Dior boutique, and others; moved to Milan, 1963; designed for Rosier, 1963-66; designed own ready-to-wear with own label, from 1965, and for Confezioni Amica, Treviso; first show in Milan, then New York, in 1966; Caumont SrL founded with Paolo Russo in Treviso, Italy, 1968; knitwear line for men, then women, introduced, 1968-69; men's ready-to-wear collection, Monsieur Caumont introduced, 1970; signed contract with Gruppo Finanziario Tessile (GFT), producing exclusive menswear line for Canada and U.S., 1986; boutiques opened in Milan, Tokyo, and New York; introduced Jib fragrance line. Awards: Oscar from Rome fashion school; Oscar from Store Palacio de Ierro, Mexico. Address: Corso Venezia 44, 20121 Milan, Italy.
Mulassano, Adriana, The Who's Who of Italian Fashion, Florence,1979.
Khornak, Lucille, Fashion 2001, New York, 1982.
de la Falaise, Maxime, "Right for the Moment: Jean Baptiste Caumont," in Interview, January 1980.
Moor, Jonathan, "Caumont: Classic Renegade," in DNR: The Magazine, 28 January 1980.
"Champion a l'étranger," in Madame Figaro (Paris), No. 12471.
Scio, Marie Louise, "Four Stars to Caumont and Missoni," in the International Daily News, 12 June 1990.
Throughout his long career, Jean Baptiste Caumont never wavered from his original vision: classic, sophisticated ready-to-wear clothing and accessories for men and women. Beginning with his first women's collection in 1966, Caumont consistently delivered stylish, refined sportswear, knits, leather, and evening clothes aimed at the well-bred customer who wanted a look of elegance and ease devoid of affectation.
A Frenchman originally from the Basque country, Caumont based his operations in Italy. He was one of the original group of designers (Walter Albini, Cadette, Krizia, Missoni, and Ken Scott) who broke with the Italian fashion industry in Florence and brought Milan into the limelight. His first foray into womenswear was quickly followed by men's knits and then a complete menswear collection. As his reputation as a tastemaker grew, his business continued to expand, including luggage, handbags, shoes, jewelry, and other goods. But Caumont continued to adhere strictly to his notion of line, form, craftsmanship, and control, creating clothing and accessories using rich fabrics, elegance of cut and richness of color, never sacrificing quality to mass production no matter how fast his fortunes grew.
Caumont often looked to the past for inspiration for his classic styles. He was particularly drawn to the styles worn by the wealthy during the early 20th century, clothes that might have been worn on Grand Tour holidays or at exclusive resorts. But these references were used only to conjure a mood—never for slavish revival. Some design sources, for example, were the glamor of luxury travel on the Orient Express, the prim uniforms of English schoolgirls, and the natty men's silk smoking jacket. But instead of degenerating into clichés, in Caumont's capable hands these sources were translated into great sweeping fur and leather coats, classy traditional sportswear separates, and oversized quilted evening coats for women.
In keeping with his taste for clothes that suggest patrician nonchalance, Caumont's trench coats, suits, blazers, and other sporty looks for men and women were frequently fashioned of richly-textured tweeds, houndstooth, and glen plaids. His daytime looks often featured layering, using wools and cashmere for pullovers and sweaterjackets for colder weather, linen and silk for summer/resort wear. For evening he favored unabashed luxury, with soft silks and crêpe de chine. Whatever the occasion, the telling Caumont signature was understatement—his clothes signaled their high quality with quiet restraint.
Caumont's devotion to subdued luxury also resulted in the use of a relatively pared-down palette. Early collections were nearly monochromatic, with black, gray, and white punctuated very occasionally by a dash of red. Otherwise, he has shown a predilection for earth tones, marrying various camels, beiges, and tans to create subtly harmonious variations on a theme. It was only after many seasons that he began to experiment with brighter hues, tropical tones, and bolder prints, as fashion dictates in the 1970s began to loosen the notion of proper palettes for men and women.
Caumont placed much more emphasis on style than fashion. "Fashion is a thing of the moment," he had remarked, "Fashion is a gimmick. Who can afford to pay for a gimmick?" During the 1980s his design philosophy paid off, as the trend toward elegance and glamor placed Caumont yet again at the forefront. His menswear— combining his hybrid talent for Italian tailoring, French lines, and English coloring—was especially well-received as being fresh, comfortable, and eminently wearable. The Caumont look, a worldly and sophisticated one, was considered at once timeless and yet essentially Milanese, embodying the urbane chic for which the Italian center of fashion became known.
Caumont designed for himself and others of his kind: well-traveled, well-heeled clients who believed in a refined and understated way of life. Not a true fashion innovator, he nonetheless found his niche as a designer—clothes spoke of elegance, gentility, and propriety, and never went out of style.