Claude Montana, troubled fashion designer known in the 1980s as ‘King of the Shoulder Pad’ – obituary

Claude Montana in 1987
Claude Montana in 1987 - PIERRE GUILLAUD/ AFP via Getty Images

Claude Montana,  the French fashion designer, who has died probably aged 74, defined the exaggerated silhouettes that characterised power-dressing women of the 1980s, when he became known as the “King of the Shoulder Pad”.

At first, Montana’s aggressive silhouettes, heavily influenced by constructivism, shocked critics and buyers. His first collection, in 1979, almost entirely made of leather, provoked a volley of abuse. Critics described it as “flashy, trashy, and demeaning to women” and “hooker fashion”. He was accused of being misogynistic and promoting a “neo-Nazi” aesthetic, although in fact his aggressively sexual leather-zipper-and-studs look owed more to the gay subculture of which he was an active member than to any political movement.

Yet his razor-sharp tailoring, skill with leather, and masterful use of colour meant that, by the mid-Eighties, Montana’s catwalk shows – with their haughty, Amazonian models, had become the hottest ticket in town. What Montana did one season, others copied the next. Cher, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Grace Jones, Elizabeth Taylor and Sally Field all wore Claude Montana – as did Don Johnson, Bruce Willis and Mickey Rourke.

By the late Eighties, his fashion empire included women’s and men’s ready-to-wear; licences for such products as scarves, ties and eyewear, and a best-selling perfume, Montana Pour Femme.

Claude Montana shows his 1980 spring-summer women's ready-to-wear collection in Paris
Claude Montana shows his 1980 spring-summer women's ready-to-wear collection in Paris - Pierre Vauthey/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

Then things began to go badly wrong. In 1989 he turned down the job of head designer at Christian Dior because he found the assignment too demanding. “I need room,” he told The Washington Post. “I don’t want to have all this money and go to an asylum.” The job went to Gianfranco Ferre. Later the same year the ailing house of Lanvin hired Montana to do its haute couture line. Montana won the Golden Thimble, couture’s top award, two seasons in a row, but Lanvin was losing too much money on couture and did not renew his contract.

Even by fashion industry standards his dismissal was brutal. His employer phoned the press hours after he had shown his January collection in 1991 to announce that Montana was out. The highly sensitive designer was devastated.

Blue leather aviator coat with sheerling lining with matching helmet and pantsuit in the Claude Montana Autumn/Winter 1983 show
Blue leather aviator coat with sheerling lining with matching helmet and pantsuit in the Claude Montana Autumn/Winter 1983 show - Fairchild Archive/Penske Media via Getty Images

Deeply wounded, he retreated to his ready-to-wear business and continued to produce leather bomber jackets and zipper-encrusted dresses. But his designs seemed old fashioned among the grunge, waif and romantic looks that monopolised the catwalks in the early 1990s. His futuristic all-white autumn womenswear collection  in 1995 won praise, Women’s Wear Daily concluding “nobody beats Montana for his precision tailoring”, yet it was not enough to halt the slide in sales.

Meanwhile, his personal life fell apart. In 1993, after being jilted by his long-time male companion, Montana shocked his friends by marrying his androgynous catwalk muse, Wallis Franken. In what was widely seen as a cynical move to bolster a faltering career, he staged the wedding in July, in the middle of Paris couture week, the bride’s white satin cowboy jacket over tunic and pants contrasting with the groom’s buckskin suit.

Three years later Madame Montana committed suicide by diving head-first from the kitchen window of their flat in the seventh arrondissement of Paris, while her husband slept in his bedroom. Her jewellery had been left neatly arranged on the kitchen table. The model’s friends, and many people in the industry, indirectly blamed Montana. Not only had Wallis had to put up with her husband’s addiction to the gay club scene, and his possessiveness of her, he had allegedly begun to ridicule her as “old and ugly”.

The following year Montana filed for bankrupcy.

Claude Montana in 1993 with Wallis Franken after their marriage
Claude Montana in 1993 with Wallis Franken after their marriage - GERARD JULIEN/AFP via Getty Images

According to various normally reliable sources Claude Montana was born in Paris on June 29 1949, to a German mother and a Catalan father, although some sources claim he was born two years earlier - in 1947. He fell into fashion by chance when his father tried to persuade him to follow in the footsteps of his elder brother, a scholar pursuing chemical research. “I had to leave home,” he recalled.

He and a friend set out for England, with no job prospects and no money. “We remembered a Mexican recipe for making bracelets out of toilet paper, glue and rhinestones,” he recalled. They baked the papier-mâché jewellery in an oven at night and sold it on street stalls during the day. In 1971 his designs were featured in British Vogue, and he was able to eke out a living for six more months, until he was asked to leave the country because he did not have a work permit.

Claude Montana at home in Paris,  in 1978
Claude Montana at home in Paris, in 1978 - Guy Marineau/WWD/Penske Media via Getty Images

Montana returned to Paris, but failed to drum up any interest in his jewellery designs. Instead he tried to get odd jobs as an extra in the opera and films. Openly gay, he sported black leathers, a Hitler moustache and dyed orange hair, and was rarely seen without a cigarette.

Eventually, a friend who made ballet costumes suggested he should move into fashion, and he found a job as a design assistant at a leather company called MacDouglas, taking over when the designer left. He held his first fashion show in 1976. In 1978, he told Women’s Wear Daily: “Next season everything will have the biggest shoulders I can make.” So big, retailers later complained, the clothes kept falling off the hangers. In 1979 he established his own label.

From the beginning, Montana’s sexuality influenced his approach to design. A tireless clubber, he invariably appeared at Club Sept, a Paris nightspot, at the head of a phalanx of leather-clad young men. So it was no surprise that his clothes for women drew on the world he knew so well. He also had a fondness for uniforms, producing variations on the outfits worn by airmen, marines, factory workers and even members of the French Academy.

Attending the 1985 Council of Fashion Designers of America Awards in New York with the singer Cher
Attending the 1985 Council of Fashion Designers of America Awards in New York with the singer Cher - Pierre Vauthey/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

Over the years, Montana honed his image as a tortured perfectionist. He was known to stay up all night before a show, throwing tantrums over the slightest imperfection. He tended to steer clear of large social gatherings, even when he was the guest of honour. During one Tokyo fashion week, when he was one of five designers whose work was featured, he declined an invitation to a gala dinner and was seen instead at a night club, where he stayed until 6 o’clock in the morning. He was not universally popular.

In 1998 a French investor group led by a former manager of the Nina Ricci perfume house took over Montana’s fashion business for around $821,000. Ironically, part of the agreement called for Montana to give up the rights to his name, something he had fought so vehemently for in the past. The designer would, however, maintain the right to design for the house for another ten years.

Montana seemed happy with the arrangement and, freed from the pressures of running a business, he rebounded quickly. In 1999 he unveiled Montana Blu, a line of affordable clothing for younger, hipper women, which was successful enough to spawn its own fragrance. Later, with fashion’s return to harder, sculpted styles, Montana became an inspiration for a new generation of designers, including Alexander McQueen.

Claude Montana, born June 29 1949, death announced February 23 2024