Lanvin may be the oldest fashion house in Paris, but it has also managed to remain one of the most relevant. Through many years and many designers, it has stayed true to the vision of its founder, Madame Jeanne Lanvin, always valuing fine craftsmanship and impeccable ornamentation above all else.
As the unusually domestic logo of the brand—a mother and child, holding hands—underscores so poetically, Lanvin has always been a family affair. Jeanne Lanvin was born into a household of modest means, one of eleven children, in 1867. She took her first job in fashion at thirteen, making and delivering hats for the milliner Suzanne Talbot. A decade later, she opened her own first hat boutique, in Paris, in 1889. She branched into clothing design when she began creating beautifully adorned dresses for her young daughter, Marie-Blanche. Grown women were charmed by little Marie-Blanche’s outfits and requested the designs for themselves. With no financial backing, a sure vision, and much hard work, Lanvin became one of the most sought after couturiers of her day.
Lanvin is credited with blurring the lines between women’s and children’s fashions, introducing a more youthful aesthetic in womenswear. She also was among the pioneers of the idea that a woman could create a personal style that would carry her throughout her life—instead of conforming to the day’s strictures regarding the proper attire of a young lady, bride, wife, mother, or grandmother.
Her patterns were simple, but embellished intricately with embroidery, appliques, ribbons, and sunbursts. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the house turned out “robes de style,” ornamental dresses made in silk taffeta, velvet, chiffon, lace, and other rich fabrics, with pleated skirts and wide necklines. The atelier was visited by many prominent clients, including the actresses Marlene Dietrich and Mary Pickford, the writer Louise de Vilmorin, and the queens of Romania and Italy. Said her nephew Yves Lanvin,
“She was a lucky woman. She went from success to success in the course of a career that proceeded without a hitch.”
The aesthetic of the Lanvin collections was deeply influenced by the visual arts. Jeanne Lanvin had an extensive collection of paintings in her apartment at 16 rue Barbet-de-Jouy; she favored the work of Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir, Eugène Boudin, and Edouard Vuillard. In no small part thanks to the chic interiors of her home, the Lanvin name became nearly as well known for impeccable home-decor products as for coveted womenswear. (Some of the rooms of her apartment were later re-created at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.) A good half-century before it became a necessary business model in the fashion industry, Lanvin capitalized on her brand by disseminating it even further, through a gamut of sidelines. Early on, she expanded into fragrance, lingerie, sportswear, accessories, fur, and menswear.
Lanvin’s use of color also became a signature. On a trip to Florence, she saw a Fra Angelico fresco, and its “quattrocento blue” would become a staple in her work; the shade will be known as “Lanvin blue.”
When Jeanne Lanvin died in 1946, her daugher, Marie-Blanche, took over both the creative and business ends of the company; she was in charge until 1950. After that, for about three decades, a succession of designers put their oar in, including Maryll Lanvin, who was chief designer for several years in the mid-1980s (she was the wife of Jeanne’s grand-nephew) and Claude Montana, who had a go in the early 1990s.
The house had been in decline for a good decade or more when the Chinese entrepreneur Shaw-Lan Wang bought it and hired Alber Elbaz, a gifted and refined designer who had honed his skills at Yves Saint Laurent, Guy Laroche, and Geoffrey Beene. Picking up the threads of Mme Lanvin’s legacy, Elbaz has shown fine Grecian draping, painstaking tailoring, and lavish embroidery—among mounds of tulle and silk—to much critical acclaim. By 2004, Lanvin had gained a notable following of smartly sexy actresses and models, including Kate Moss, Sofia Coppola, Chloë Sevigny, Gwyneth Paltrow, Nicole Kidman, and Sarah Jessica Parker. Sevigny, a longtime fan, has called the new Lanvin “very elegant, very classy, very ladylike. It will stand the test of time more than any other collection right now. You could wear it today or in 60 years.”
Elbaz initially ran the company—as Madame did—on an intimate scale. “He’s like a good film director who realizes he shouldn’t go to Hollywood,” said Alexandre de Betak, who works on Lanvin’s runway shows, in an interview with Vogue’s Sally Singer. “He’s better as an independent.” But as commerce at large has shifted to a more global model, so, too, has the house of Lanvin. The company now operates stores in several cities in the United States, as well as numerous international locations. In 2010, Elbaz partnered with the fast-fashion retailer H&M to do a capsule line; he won the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s International Designer of the Year award for that collaboration. And in 2005, he spoke to Vogue about maintaining a certain mystique in a multimedia world: “We’re not trendmakers or dictators anymore,” he said. “You could get away with that when fashion had more mystery. But now I can see my own show four hours later on the Internet, and zoom in and out of every detail. Now there’s only reality left. And that’s what you have to work with.”
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