Blog 75 28/01/2019 Emilie Flöge , Designer and Muse to Gustav Klimt
Emilie Flöge, Designer and Muse to Gustav Klimt
Emilie Louise Flöge was an Austrian fashion designer and businesswoman. She thrived in an era when women’s rights and freedoms were restricted and her contribution to fashion history still lives on, especially among other designers. Emilie was also the life companion and muse of the painter Gustav Klimt. Today, it’s often for the latter that she is most remembered, but Emilie was far more than a muse. By the time Coco Chanel, often heralded as the designer to revolutionize modern womenswear, opened her salon at 31 Rue Cambon in Paris in 1910, Emilie Flöge had been producing cutting-edge designs in Vienna for several years. This woman was a powerhouse of creativity. Born in Vienna in 1874, she was the fourth child Hermann Flöge, a manufacturer of Meerschaum pipes, and had two sisters, Pauline and Helene, and a brother, Hermann. Her first job was as a seamstress, and she later became a couturier. In 1895, her elder sister, Pauline, opened a dressmaking school and Emilie worked there. In 1899 the two sisters won a dressmaking competition and were commissioned to make a Batiste dress for an exhibition.
After 1904, Emilie, together with her two sisters, Helene and Pauline, established a haute couture fashion salon known as Schwestern Flöge (Flöge Sisters) in one of the major Viennese thoroughfares, Mariahilfer Strasse. Emilie was the creative head, Heelene was engaged with the customers, and Pauline ran the office. The salon was designed by the architect, Joseph Hoffmann. It was here that she would create the textiles and fashions that she became widely known for – designing clothing in the avant-garde style of the Wiener Werkstätte. Her trips took her to London and Paris where she followed the latest fashion trends from Paul Poiret, Coco Chanel to Christian Dior.
However, when Austria was annexed by the Third Reich in 1938, sadly, Schwestern Flöge closed down. At that time it had become the leading fashion house for Viennese society but Emilie lost many of her most important customers who either fled or were forcibly taken away. After 1938, she worked from the top floor of her home at 39 Ungargasse, Vienna.
What made Emilie’s work so different is that she was a member of the Viennese bohemian circles of her day. This was a period of radical change in Vienna. In 1858, Emperor Franz Joseph I ordered the destruction of the remnants of the old medieval walls that encircled the central part of the city, leaving a large circular space to be redeveloped into today’s tree-lined Ringstrasse with its large bourgeois apartment houses, and civic and imperial government institutions, including theatres, art museums, the University of Vienna, and the Austrian Parliament building. Vienna was entering a Golden Age of industry, research, and science, driven by modern advancements in these fields. The new artists wanted to shake of the constraints of the past and forge new ideas. It was also a time when the retail industry in Vienna was extremely polarized. Department stores made ready-to-wear clothes available to the masses and skilled tailors served an increasingly formidable pool of upper-class women. At its height, Schwestern Flöge employed nearly 80 workers and paid fair wages in accordance with a progressive association of fashion houses that issued minimum wage requirements. Emilie maintained a hands-on role in production, uncommon for an upper class woman of this era.
As a designer, Emilie was associated with the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop), which evolved out of the Vienna Secession, founded in 1897 as a progressive alliance of artists and designers. It was established in 1903 by Koloman Moser and Joseph Hoffman with backing from the industrialist, Fritz Wärndorfer. The artists and designers worked in fashion and textiles, ceramics, silver, furniture and the graphic arts. Following financial troubles due to WWI, it finally closed its doors in 1932. The Bauhaus, Art Deco, Scandinavian design from 1940-1960, and Italian design between 1960 and 1980, were all strongly influenced by the Wiener Werkstätte.
Emilie’s long association with the painter, Gustav Klimt, began when she was eighteen. In 1891, her elder sister, Helene, married Ernst Klimt, Gustav’s brother. When Ernst died the following year, Klimt was made Helene’s guardian and he became a frequent guest at her parents’ home. At that time Emilie was eighteen years old. Many of Klimt’s summers were spent with the Flöge family at Lake Attersee, a place he often painted.
It has long been the subject of speculation as to whether the two were lovers. Surviving correspondence between them shows their relationship as deep, but platonic. Their meetings involved such innocent activities as French lessons and one wonders whether the family would have tolerated Klimt’s constant presence if the two had been clandestine lovers? Klimt was a known philanderer who never married and is credited with fathering 14 illegitimate children. His personal life is also the subject of considerable speculation, especially given his numerous portraits of women, including Emilie, and his many personal erotic sketches. But knowing all this, it is doubtful whether he would openly have paraded his mistress at the opera and theatre, as he did Emilie, given the social mores of the time. Klimt’s real lovers were not the middle-class ladies, but rather models and charladies. If Emilie was the love of his life, it must have been something different, not the prostitutes and lower class women who inhabited the dark alleys off fin-de-siecle Vienna.
Klimt’s portrait of Emilie, painted in 1902, was the first to present its subject as a gilded beauty. The forerunner of the “gold” portraits of 1906-1907, the picture was radical at the time, and neither Emilie nor her family liked it. So much so, that the Floges refused to hang the painting in their home. In 1908 it was acquired by the City of Vienna. Because of Klimt’s standing in the art community, he was able to help Emilie with her business and introduced her to a host of prosperous clients, By 1914, her clientele included most Viennese fashionistas, women who belonged to the enlightened circles of the Jewish industrialists and who commissioned portraits from him. Together they inspired each other. He helped her design new dresses and she was a model for some of his finest works including The Kiss (1907–08). Many think the painting portrays Klimt and Emilie as lovers.
Theirs was definitely a meeting of the minds and their collaboration continued until he died from a stroke in January 1918. His last words reportedly were, “Get Emilie”. While so much remains hidden behind closed doors, I can’t help wondering if there really was a physical relationship. Two radical artists together! I only have to look at their faces in photographs of them together and I see a deeper emotion. Or is that the romantic in me?
After Klimt’s death, Emilie inherited half of his estate with the other half going to his family. During the last days of WWII, her house in the Ungargasse caught fire, destroying not only her collection of garments, but also valuable objects from Gustav’s estate. Like Klimt, Emilie never married. She died in 1952.