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Suzy Menkes

Vogue International Editor Suzy Menkes is the best-known fashion journalist in the world. After 25 years commenting on fashion for the International Herald Tribune (rebranded recently as The International New York Times), Suzy Menkes now writes exclusively for Vogue online, covering fashion worldwide.

Jeanne Lanvin: the Power of Quiet Fashion

A new exhibition in Paris

23 Марта 2015

Jeanne Lanvin Credit: Palais Galliera Collection © Katerina Jebb, 2014; Jeanne Lanvin par Harcourt; © Lanvin Heritage
Jeanne Lanvin Credit: Palais Galliera Collection © Katerina Jebb, 2014; Jeanne Lanvin par Harcourt; © Lanvin Heritage

The dress is paper thin but malleable, raindrops of sparkle drenching the cream surface. It is laid out on a table whose top, like a grand piano, lifts up to reveal a mirrored underside. 

Mirrored reflection of a dress on display at the exhibition
Mirrored reflection of a dress on display at the exhibition

Two visions of this scintillating Jeanne Lanvin dress were therefore in front of me. Yet already I had learned a lot about this designer, famous in the 1920s for her cloche hats, her genteel dresses, a particular shade of blue inspired by the frescoes of Fra Angelico, and her daughter — pretty, perfectly behaved Marguerite, who was immortalised with her mother on the Lanvin logo. 

Mirrored reflection of the Salambo crêpe embroidered dress with glass beads. This piece was presented to the exhibition of Art Decorative in Paris in 1925.
Mirrored reflection of the Salambo crêpe embroidered dress with glass beads. This piece was presented to the exhibition of Art Decorative in Paris in 1925.

That signalled the first lifestyle brand — children’s clothes, a trousseau, daywear, evening dresses and men’s and women’s sports clothes. 

Jeanne Lanvin (at the Palais Galliera, Paris, until August 23) is an exhibition curated by Olivier Saillard with Alber Elbaz, Lanvin’s current artistic director, as an alter ego. The result is as light, fresh and charming as lilies of the valley on a May day. 

Evening gown illustration ’Bel oiseau’, 1928 Picture credit: Patrimoine Lanvin
Evening gown illustration ’Bel oiseau’, 1928 Picture credit: Patrimoine Lanvin

The dresses — some so fragile after nearly 100 years spent sleeping in a trunk — are a female joy: respectful of the body, with their soft bodices, neat waists and skirts swelling from the hips. You can imagine the “oufff!” of joy as these Twenties women kissed goodbye to bones and corsets, wearing instead these light-as-a-breeze dresses. 

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‘Marguerite de la nuit’, dress, summer 1929 Picture credit: Palais Galliera Collection © Katerina Jebb, 2014

‘Marguerite de la nuit’, dress, summer 1929 Picture credit: Palais Galliera Collection © Katerina Jebb, 2014

‘La Diva’ evening gown, made of midnight-blue velvet and silver-metal sequins. Winter 1935-36 Picture credit: Collection Palais Galliera © Katerina Jebb, 2014

‘La Diva’ evening gown, made of midnight-blue velvet and silver-metal sequins. Winter 1935-36 Picture credit: Collection Palais Galliera © Katerina Jebb, 2014

’Scintillante’ evening gown made of embroidered tulle and crêpe. Summer 1939 Picture credit: Palais Galliera Collection © Katerina Jebb, 2014

’Scintillante’ evening gown made of embroidered tulle and crêpe. Summer 1939 Picture credit: Palais Galliera Collection © Katerina Jebb, 2014


They came in Jeanne’s favourite colour, blue — from azure to Delft china, lapis lazuli to indigo, showing the range of Madame Lanvin’s favourite shades. 

‘Alcmène’ evening ensemble (dress, slip and jacket) made of pink silk crêpe embroidered with tubes and Swarovski crystals, 1929. Picture credit: Palais Galliera Collection © Katerina Jebb, 2014
‘Alcmène’ evening ensemble (dress, slip and jacket) made of pink silk crêpe embroidered with tubes and Swarovski crystals, 1929. Picture credit: Palais Galliera Collection © Katerina Jebb, 2014

From azure to Delft china, lapis lazuli to indigo, they show the range of Madame Lanvin’s favourite shades. 

They also came in dawn-pink and cloud-grey, designed for taking a walk in the park with your daughter; or a short, primrose yellow dress, its streams of sparkles as though caught in the spring rain. 

’Lesbos’ absinthe-green silk and satin dress embroidered with strips of lamé, glass beads and silvered tubes,1925 Picture credit: Lanvin Heritage © Katerina Jebb, 2014
’Lesbos’ absinthe-green silk and satin dress embroidered with strips of lamé, glass beads and silvered tubes,1925 Picture credit: Lanvin Heritage © Katerina Jebb, 2014

Alber Elbaz remembers his first encounter with the trunks from the atelier’s attic when he joined Lanvin in 2001. The collection of more than 500 dresses had been found in the early Eighties along with 300 albums of drawings and gouaches — all stored away since Madame Lanvin’s death in 1946. 

“The first thing I saw was all these gowns that they showed me, and I thought: how fragile!” says Elbaz. “It looked almost like the lining of the dresses and not the dresses themselves. And lining is almost like pyjamas — the most intimate piece we have in our wardrobe — because it touches us. It is not about the exterior. Lanvin is more like a pearl than a diamond — it doesn’t shine out, it shines in.” 

‘La Cavallini’, evening gown, made of black taffetas ornamented with a knot embroidered with pearls, crystals and metallic threads, 1925 Credit: Lanvin Heritage © Katerina Jebb, 2014
‘La Cavallini’, evening gown, made of black taffetas ornamented with a knot embroidered with pearls, crystals and metallic threads, 1925 Credit: Lanvin Heritage © Katerina Jebb, 2014

As the oldest French house, founded in 1889, that is still functioning in fashion, the image that defines the house of Lanvin is a gouache of a woman, cropped 1920s hair above a flat bust line, with a little girl plucking at the pink skirt decorated with bunches of flowers and a flat blue bow. 

Original painting representing mother and child, circa 1925 Picture credit: Patrimoine Lanvin
Original painting representing mother and child, circa 1925 Picture credit: Patrimoine Lanvin

The show opens with black dresses, but always showing the expertise of the designer in the illumination with Swarovski crystals; or the light and shade of different textures as silken fringes fall over bias-cut black satin. 

Manteau, 1937 Picture credit: Lanvin Heritage/Katerina Jebb
Manteau, 1937 Picture credit: Lanvin Heritage/Katerina Jebb

Other dresses are in spring colours: primrose yellow, moss green, taupe. And in airy fabrics that move as if caressed by a breeze: crêpe de chine, taffeta, tulle in the 1920s; slightly heavier silk velvet or lamé as the work enters the 1930s. 

’Colombine’ Robe de style dress made of silk taffeta and velvet with embroideries of pearl and metallic thread. Winter 1924-1925. Picture credit: Palais Galliera Collection © Katerina Jebb, 2014. Jeanne Lanvin par Harcourt. © Lanvin Heritage
’Colombine’ Robe de style dress made of silk taffeta and velvet with embroideries of pearl and metallic thread. Winter 1924-1925. Picture credit: Palais Galliera Collection © Katerina Jebb, 2014. Jeanne Lanvin par Harcourt. © Lanvin Heritage

Significantly, in an era where museums are so often used for promoting fashion brands, the Lanvin of today has no role among these fragile, yet intensely hand-decorated dresses. 

‘Lesbos’ absinthe-green silk and satin dress embroidered with strips of lamé, glass beads and silvered tubes,1925 Credit: Lanvin Heritage © Katerina Jebb, 2014
‘Lesbos’ absinthe-green silk and satin dress embroidered with strips of lamé, glass beads and silvered tubes,1925 Credit: Lanvin Heritage © Katerina Jebb, 2014

“I want to give her space,” Elbaz told me. “For so long she was not on the radar of anyone, because Madame Grès was the queen of technique, Vionnet the queen of pattern and volume — and Chanel the queen of everything! I realised that Jeanne Lanvin was the first lifestyle designer, she was the smartest of them all. She did couture, menswear, furniture, children’s clothes, perfume, make-up, powder. She was really the first one, and maybe one of the most intelligent.’’ 

Jeanne Lanvin draping fabric on a model. Credit: Laure Albin Guillot / Roger-Viollet
Jeanne Lanvin draping fabric on a model. Credit: Laure Albin Guillot / Roger-Viollet

The exhibition does not quite suggest the reach of Lanvin — the bridal gowns, lingerie, fur and the revolutionary concept of sportswear for men and women; and the stores at Biarritz, Deauville, Cannes, Le Touquet and beyond in Barcelona and Buenos Aires. 

Silk velvet embroidered with tubes and mirrors and Swarovski crystals, ‘Vogue’ bathing suit, summer 1924 Picture credit: Palais Galliera Collection © Katerina Jebb, 2014
Silk velvet embroidered with tubes and mirrors and Swarovski crystals, ‘Vogue’ bathing suit, summer 1924 Picture credit: Palais Galliera Collection © Katerina Jebb, 2014

However, there is a swimming costume from 1924, glittering with star spangles. And a section showing influences of the ethnic and the exotic, medieval and oriental. Jeanne Lanvin’s cultural sweep included the art deco of her own time and Japanese kimonos, proving that she embraced a wider world than formal Paris couture. 

Gouache illustration of the 1925 ’La Cavallini’ evening gown made of black taffetas ornamented with a knot embroidered with pearls, crystals and metallic thread Picture credit: Patrimoine Lanvin
Gouache illustration of the 1925 ’La Cavallini’ evening gown made of black taffetas ornamented with a knot embroidered with pearls, crystals and metallic thread Picture credit: Patrimoine Lanvin

You get the sense of a steely working woman behind these hyper-delicate clothes – not least in the famous fragrance Arpège, launched in 1927 as a thirtieth birthday present. The two of them are enshrined on the round black bottle. It was a tribute to Marguerite’s skills as a pianist; Jeanne wanted the perfume to capture the sense of Marguerite playing an arpeggio. 

Dress for children ’Les petites filles modes’, 1925 Picture credit: Katerina Jebb, 2014
Dress for children ’Les petites filles modes’, 1925 Picture credit: Katerina Jebb, 2014

In the discreet tribute that Olivier Saillard gives to Elbaz, and his continuation of the Lanvin heritage, the curator discusses the current designer’s vision with the analogy of a pen.

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Exotic- and ethnic-inspired dresses – including the ’Boulogne’ dress, summer 1920, on display at the exhibition

Exotic- and ethnic-inspired dresses – including the ’Boulogne’ dress, summer 1920, on display at the exhibition

Inside the exhibition

Inside the exhibition

Dress ‘Concerto’, winter 1934-35 Picture credit: Katerina Jebb, 2014

Dress ‘Concerto’, winter 1934-35 Picture credit: Katerina Jebb, 2014


“The book of his life is one of upper-case skirts, lower-case flounces, brackets in overcoats and stoles,” Saillard says. 

The curator feels in the exhibition Alber’s presence in his absence. 

Gouache illustration of the 1925 ’La Cavallini’ evening gown made of black taffetas ornamented with a knot embroidered with pearls, crystals and metallic thread Picture credit: Patrimoine Lanvin
Gouache illustration of the 1925 ’La Cavallini’ evening gown made of black taffetas ornamented with a knot embroidered with pearls, crystals and metallic thread Picture credit: Patrimoine Lanvin

“Alber Elbaz did not want his own fashion creations to become the historical and poetic tribute to the founding creator and his reticence does him great credit,’’ Saillard says. “But his presence is felt in the shared decisions about dresses and descriptions, in the dialogue between the models and in placing them in context.’’

Left to right: Lanvin’s creative director Alber Elbaz, Suzy Menkes and the exhibition curator Olivier Saillard
Left to right: Lanvin’s creative director Alber Elbaz, Suzy Menkes and the exhibition curator Olivier Saillard

This is one of the quietest fashion exhibitions I have seen. It could not be more different to the dramatic Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty show at London’s Victoria & Albert museum; nor the Jean Paul Gaultier From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk exhibition which, after opening in Montreal in 2011 and then touring the world, will finally open at the Paris Grand Palais this April. 

Yet Saillard and Elbaz have succeeded, even with the dresses laid flat, to catch the essence of Jeanne Lanvin then and now: fashion liberty, equality, fraternity.

Inside the exhibition
Inside the exhibition

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