LANVIN is enjoying something of a golden moment. The company has been grabbing headlines for dressing actresses including Amy Adams and Meryl Streep for the red carpet. Alber Elbaz, the artistic director, has guided it to profit for the first time in decades. And the Palais Galliera in Paris has dedicated an exhibition to Jeanne Lanvin, the brand’s founder, with a display of over 100 items from the early 20th century.
Although her company is one of the oldest French fashion houses still in operation, Lanvin herself remains relatively obscure. Like Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, her much more famous near contemporary, Lanvin began her career as a milliner. Four years later, in 1889, she opened a shop, “Lanvin (Mlle Jeanne) Modes” on Rue Boissy d’Anglas, just off the chic Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. (This is still the site of the house’s flagship store.) In 1897 Lanvin gave birth to a daughter, Marguerite, who would become her muse, and started designing children’s clothing. As her designs began getting noticed she added departments for women’s and young ladies’ clothes, and joined the Syndicat de la Couture, the fashion industry’s official governing body, in 1909.
The exhibition at the Palais Galliera, ordered thematically, starts with “My Fair Lady”, an ivory dress from 1939 adorned with a large blue bow. Other highlights include “Apollon”, an extravagantly ruffled pink gauze and gold lamé dress from 1925, and the “Scintillante”, a black and silver evening gown designed in 1939. As a rule she favoured flattering torso-hugging dresses with full skirts, often with an Art Deco twist. Olivier Saillard, a curator at the museum, describes her style as elegant, pure and discreet: “She did something very timeless, very unique.”
The exhibition shows how a rich, royal blue became the house’s signature colour, still used on packaging and bags, when Lanvin fell in love with a particular shade that she saw on a fresco by Fra Angelico in Florence. She used it in a black-and-blue striped, high-waisted silk crepe dress from 1911, and it can be seen again on an elegant velvet evening gown with silver, sequined embroidery on the sleeves from 1935, called “La Diva”.
Lanvin’s millinery skill is obvious from the craftsmanship in items like a pretty bonnet from 1912 made of cream silk, decorated with black taffeta ribbon and velvet roses, and a sparkling beaded hat from the 1920s made with silver lamé and pearls. Her particular passion was embroidery, though, and she used travel diaries, swatches of ethnic fabrics and art books to inspire her designs. Many of her gowns were embellished with intricate beading.
Also on display are some of Lanvin’s personal effects: brushes and perfume bottles from her vanity kit, and a photo of her and Marguerite holding hands, both wearing fanciful gowns. An illustrated interpretation of the image became the company logo: it appeared in 1927 on the spherical bottle used for the house’s first perfume, Arpège.
Marguerite took over the running of the company on her mother’s death in 1946. In fact, Maison Lanvin became the first fashion house to keep going after a founder’s death. Several designers have since reinterpreted Lanvin’s signature designs, including Antonio del Castillo, who took over after Marguerite, Claude Montana and Mr Elbaz. This elegant display clarifies exactly why Lanvin’s designs warrant returning to them: she had a talent for creating garments that would still be exquisite on the red carpet a century later.
“Jeanne Lanvin” is on at the Palais Galliera in Paris until August 23rd 2015