Emmanuelle Khanh, Who Reinvigorated French Fashion, Dies at 79


It was a 1930s-inspired look once described as “the droop, the slump and the forward slither.”

She used unconventional materials like denim, chenille, plastic and Harris tweed in her coats and suits with dog-ear collars, low-waisted dresses, “Jules and Jim” caps and knickerbockers.

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Ms. Khanh in 1964 with her husband, Nguyen Manh Khanh, a Vietnamese engineer known as Quasar Khanh.

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Larry C. Morris/The New York Times

Instantly recognizable by her oversize tortoiseshell eyeglasses and Vidal Sassoon bob, Ms. Khanh was sometimes called the French Mary Quant, a reference to London’s leading Mod designer.

“Everyone talks about young this and young that,” Elie Jacobson, a co-owner of the Paris boutique Dorothée Bis, said in 1963. “Emmanuelle is the one that really senses what young girls want.”

Her designs caught on quickly in Britain and the United States. Macy’s featured her clothes in its boutique-like Little Shops, and Henri Bendel signed her to an exclusive contract. “Emmanuelle has Seventh Avenue in a swivet,” The New York Herald Tribune wrote in 1964.

Ms. Khanh remained a force through the 1970s and into the 1980s. She formed her own company, Emmanuelle Khanh Paris, in 1971, and Emmanuelle Khanh International in 1987. Her enormous, heavy-framed eyeglasses, some with ostrich, lizard or python skin, sold in the millions, and she led the way with hip-hugger skirts, ankle socks, trench coats, fake fur, shorts and culottes.

In the early 1970s, anticipating the ethnic trend, she began making peasant skirts in Italian fabrics with Romanian embroidery.

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An Emmanuelle Khanh dress modeled in Paris in 1966.

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Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho, via Getty Images

“The couture is dead,” she told Life magazine in 1964. “I want to design for the street.”

She was born Renée Georgette Jeanne Mézière on Sept. 12, 1937, in Paris. Her father, René, was a page designer for Combat, which began as a French Resistance newspaper during World War II. Her mother, the former Ernestine Hayman, died when Renée, known as Nono, was 10, leaving her to look after her three siblings.

After graduating from business school, she decided to try her luck in fashion. “I opened the phone book under the word couture and called the first name on the list — Balenciaga,” she told Life magazine. After being hired as a fitting model, she took the name Emmanuelle.

In 1957, she married Nguyen Manh Khanh, a Vietnamese engineer educated in Paris who adopted the first name Quasar and became well known as an inventor and a designer of inflatable furniture. He died last year. In addition to her son, she is survived by a daughter, the fashion designer Atlantique Ascoli, and three grandchildren.

After modeling for Balenciaga and Givenchy for four years, Ms. Khanh began designing for women like herself, stylish but impatient with the current fashion language. In 1962, she and Christiane Bailly produced a collection under the label Emma Christie — a fusion of their first names — that captured the attention of Elle and soon went on sale in boutiques like Dorothée Bis and Laura.

Overnight, Ms. Khanh was installed as the leader of the French new wave.

“She was all the rage in Paris, in every magazine,” the hairdresser Vidal Sassoon wrote in “Vidal: The Autobiography.” “Emmanuelle was about 5-foot-6, slim and exotic, the epitome of why men loved French girls.”

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Ms. Khanh in an appliquéd suit from her Spring 1990 line, wearing the famous glasses she created in 1971.

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Keith Beaty/Toronto Star, via Getty Images

By the time Life caught up with her, she was running a $4 million business, designing collections for Cacharel, Missoni, Krizia and other top names. La Redoute’s catalog hired her to produce a limited-edition collection.

“Everybody thinks that the ’60s was all about London, but Paris played a surprisingly important part in the fashion revolution,” Valerie Steele, the director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan, said in an interview. “She really was part of an international wave of women who moved into fashion and brought a street influence to the high, formal style dominated by men.”

The museum included a 1968 striped Op-Art dress by Ms. Khanh in its exhibition “Paris Refashioned, 1957-1968.”

Ms. Khanh later moved into knitwear, skiwear and lingerie, sold under her own label. In 1977, she began opening her own boutiques.

“I want to make clothes that a woman doesn’t throw out because they become part of her life, part of her memories of when she wore them,” she told The Toronto Star. “The thing that touches me most is when someone says, ‘I bought your coat 10 years ago and I still have it; now my daughter borrows it.’”

In the late 1990s, plagued by financial difficulties, she closed her company. Her label was acquired in 2007 by a Dutch conglomerate.

“In the 1960s and ’70s, it really was all about ready-to-wear, clothes designed with women in mind, because there hadn’t been anything like it before,” Ms. Khanh told the magazine L’Express in 2016, when she sold her private collection at a vintage-clothing auction. “In the ’80s and ’90s, it was ‘ready to show’ — runway fashion. In the 2000s, it’s ‘ready to throw away’ — you buy it to wear it for one season, and that’s it.”

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