Jeanne Lanvin was the founder of the oldest surviving fashion house in Paris, with its roots as a millinery shop beginning in 1889, though her place in history has never been acknowledged with quite the fanfare of her early 20th century contemporaries, women with big personalities like Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, or Madame Vionnet.
A new exhibition that opened at the Palais Galliera during Paris Fashion Week seeks to rectify that omission in a somewhat unusual way, in that the museum’s general curator, Olivier Saillard, worked in close collaboration with Alber Elbaz, the current artistic director of Lanvin. Contrary to what you might expect, there is not a direct comparison of the historic and contemporary versions of Lanvin, but instead a sincere exploration of only the historic side. In a way, that becomes more interesting, because even most fashion professionals have never had the opportunity to see the marvelous decorations Jeanne Lanvin created herself. At the same time, the exhibition shows clearly the roots of Elbaz’s designs, his use of tulle, frayed edges, and unique placement of embroideries.
Encountering an exquisite black and white ball gown with a slash of red abstract embroidery on one side of the bodice, the thought occurs that it could have been from one of Elbaz’s recent collections, but the year was 1939. A portrait of Odette Alfano by Albert Braïtou-Sala wearing the dress shows just how sensational it must have looked.
“If you were to ask me for the picture of French elegance, I would say Jeanne Lanvin, particularly in the 1930s,” said Saillard at a preview on Friday. “To me, she was the combination of elegance and, this is probably not the right word, but boring.”
By that, he means that Lanvin, to the best of our knowledge, was never one to make a spectacle of herself, nor did her designs broadcast ostentation. She was most widely known for the elegance of her embroideries and in fact was running three embroidery workshops by the mid 1920s. Many of her designs incorporated floral or animal motifs rendered in crystal embellishments. There is a gorgeous black dress with a big silver bow depicted in Swarovski crystals, for example, and another from 1928 with a bird in flight along the bodice, one of its wings extending all the way up the strap of the dress.