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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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
’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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.’’
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.
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.
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.
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.
Exotic- and ethnic-inspired dresses – including the ’Boulogne’ dress, summer 1920, on display at the exhibition
Inside the exhibition
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.
“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.’’
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.