Le Tailleur de Picasso: Where Style Met Art

Photo courtesy www.prologue.ca

Michel Sapone was born in 1912, in a small village just north of Naples. Following an apprenticeship as a tailor and completion of his wartime service, in the Spring of 1950 Sapone found himself in Saint-Paul-de-Vence on the Côte d’Azur, accepting a painting from Italian artist Manfredo Borsi as payment for a suit of clothes. Within a few years, Sapone was bartering tailor-made clothing for art with Pablo Picasso. Sapone soon found celebrity in the pages of TIME Magazine, and has achieved renown once again in the pages of Le Tailleur de Picasso (“Picasso’s Tailor) by Luca Masia. Originally written in Italian, and now translated into French, the novel’s leisurely narrative evidently derives in great part from letters and photographs. Many of these are part of the book, including delightful material such as Picasso's comically retouched photographs of himself with Sapone's young daughter, Aïka. 

Next to his tailoring skills, Aïka emerges as one of the keys to Sapone’s success. As she grew, she developed a look that could even be described as a visage picassien (a “Picasso face”): dark expressive eyes, strong cheekbones, a long neck, and straight hair often pulled into a ponytail. Alberto Giacometti and others also painted Aïka; in the author’s words, she herself became a work of art. The same biographical ripple effect that has given rise to parallel lives of Picasso as seen through the eyes of family members, here encompasses not only le tailleur de Picasso but also la fille du tailleur de Picasso. Aïka, moreover, provides the key to the story’s final chapter by marrying a cousin who would turn the family connection to account by establishing the Galerie Sapone.

In couture terms, there was apparently a style Sapone that was distinct from classic Parisian style. It must have been difficult to spot, however, because it was adapted to the different temperaments of the various artists. Over the 16-year period that Sapone worked for Picasso, producing an estimated 100 jackets and 200 pairs of trousers, he never once received specific instructions. There were striped trousers (christened pantalon à la Courbet in homage to Gustave Courbet’s self-portrait with striped collar in the Musée Fabre in Montpellier), and a Cubist coat, which Picasso only wore in private. Psychologically shrewd, Sapone made the 5-foot-4-inch artist appear taller. Another good client, Hans Hartung, liked “Mao collars” (cols à la Mao), but not, as you might suppose, as a reflection of his political sympathies—Hartung supported President Charles de Gaulle in 1968, leading to noisy debates with Aïka, who was a student during that year’s May événements.

A few artists managed to resist Sapone’s charm, preferring to stick with a traditional cut, or claiming to be too old for a sartorial makeover (how unlike Picasso!). Alberto Magnelli, for example, grumbled about Sapone's assistants, and Jean Arp complained about his buttons (Arp was in poor health at the time, and shrinking inwards from his original measurements, which cannot have helped). One or two others were happy to wear the suits, but failed to deliver the promised works of art in return. Most, however, were appreciative: Antoni Clave created a collage incorporating a piece of Sapone’s fabric, and Picasso reciprocated a genuine artisanal interest in Sapone's tailoring.

So, what do we learn about the relationship between Sapone and Picasso? Both men were exiles, for whom French was their second language—contented exiles, but with occasional pangs for their more southerly homelands. Both had undergone periods of uncertainly about their immigrant status: Picasso during the First World War, and Sapone during the Second. In spite of its emphasis on friendship, the book does acknowledge the quasi-commercial nature of their transactions. Sapone sought Picasso's blessing for the occasional sale of a work, for example. There is also an awkward moment when Sapone tries to retrieve a drawing from Picasso's wastebasket—clearly a faux pas, whatever his intentions. 

Ultimately, the establishment of the Galerie Sapone would never have been possible without the shared history between Michel Sapone and Picasso. It was this shared history that enabled the tailor's son-in-law to approach the artist's secluded widow, Jacqueline, to collaborate on an exhibition of Picasso’s œuvres domestiques. Here, for just a moment, the book opens a door onto the tensions and turbulence recounted in other books and movies about Picasso, referring to the “thousand poisons of the master's private life.” Then the door closes again, and our lasting impression is one of bonhomie and mutual respect, lived in the sun.



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