April 02, 2015

The Elegance of Jeanne Lanvin

One of the lesser known but truly wonderful museums holding the official Musée de France accreditation is the Palais Galliera - the City of Paris Fashion Museum.  Housed in a Neo-Classical palace built in 1895 to display the art collection of the Duchess of Galliera, the building, in Paris' elegant 16th arrondissement, went through several permutations before its present function.  Since becoming the official home of the Fashion Museum in 1977, the Palais Galliera has expanded its collections to include 18th, 19th and 20th century fashions, haute couture, accessories, undergarments as well as departments of photography and prints and drawings.  It is also the repository for the archives of many of the couturiers for whom Paris is so famous.
Of the notable French fashion houses, one of the most dominant and the oldest still extant, is Jeanne Lanvin.  In a long overdue homage to this pioneer of haute couture, the Palais Galliera, in collaboration with Alber Elbaz the artistic director of Maison Lanvin, recently opened a fantastic retrospective of Lanvin's amazing career.   Dramatically presented as pages fallen from a book, the life and work of Jeanne Lanvin unfolds against a stream of mirrors.  Over one hundred dresses, gowns, coats and accessories as well as sketches, magazine illustrations, publicity and pattern books tell the story of this influential couturier.

Jeanne Lanvin (1867-1946) began her illustrious career as a milliner opening her first shop "Lanvin (Melle Jeanne) Mode" in 1889.  In 1897 she gave birth to her only child, a daughter named Marguerite, who became her inspiration and who was immortalized in the Lanvin logo of a mother and child.  A forward thinker in both business and a woman's role in society, Jeanne Lanvin expanded her empire to include children's wear, bridal gowns, evening clothes, lingerie, furs, sportswear, perfume, interior decoration and eventually menswear.  Beside the Paris addresses, she opened boutiques in Deauville, Biarritz, Cannes, Le Touquet, Barcelona and Buenos Aires and participated in World's Fairs and International Expositions throughout Europe and the United States.

Women's bonnets, circa 1912

To maintain her exacting standards of workmanship, the Maison Lanvin employed over one thousand highly trained seamstresses and needle-workers and offered an on-site nursery for her employee's children.  She was also one of the first designers to create four collections a year, one for each season, with each season comprising 200 looks.

One would almost expect an enterprise of this size to produced a "churned out" look, but nothing could be farther from the truth.  A Jeanne Lanvin gown was a creation unlike any other.  A masterpiece of proportion with exquisite attention to detail and virtuoso embellishment such as embroidery, beading, cut-outs, topstitching, soutache and applique.

Vest "Vogue", 1924
Detail of beading and Swarovski crystal embroidery
on a black velvet background

The exhibition begins at the beginning with Lanvin's earliest designs in black and white and gold lamé (she was one of the first to use this fabric).  By 1911 however she was experimenting with what was to become her signature color - Lanvin blue - inspired by Fra Angelico but made definitively her own with private dye shops to produce exactly the right shade which she often paired with black in a rather daring color combination for the time.

The "robe de style", a sort of garden party dress with a tiny waist and a full skirt became known as the "Lanvin dress" in the 1920s.  Usually decorated with her opulent ornamentation, the style was interpreted for children, girls and women and was a steady best seller.

Robe de Style "Colombine", 1924-24
Ivory silk taffeta with black velvet appliques,
large flat beads embroidered with gold thread and 
a red silk velvet bow

Indeed, the extensive decoration of Lanvin designs with metallic, crystal and glass beads, sequins, buttons and applique turned the dresses into pieces of jewelry that shimmered and glittered as the wearer moved.  While the motifs ranged from the naturalistic to the surreal, each was jaw-droppingly gorgeous - and unquestionably the work of Jeanne Lanvin.

Evening gown "La Cavallini", 1925
Black taffeta with bow embroidered in
silver threads, beads, Swarovski crystals and pearls

Jeanne Lanvin drew her inspiration from sources as diverse as ecclesiastical vestments, the French colonial empire, Russian peasants, Wagnerian opera, and the geometry of Art Déco.

 Dress "Boulogne", Summer 1920
 Beige and red crêpe, red stitching,
navy blue appliques and embroidered with white beads

Looking back over the life and career of Jeanne Lanvin, one realizes how truly extraordinary and ahead of her time she was.  The original "lifestyle guru" she was a devoted mother, and successful business woman even during the Great Depression, and the company she founded continues to thrive to this day.  And if the long queue of people waiting eagerly to enter the Palais Galliera is any indication, the legacy of Jeanne Lanvin will live on well into the future.

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