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Jeanne Lanvin

Jeanne Lanvin
Everything is there, classified, filed and collected in dark bindings that are indistinguishable from account books except for the fact that the year's date is stamped on the spines in fine gold - the scallops of mother of pearl and mica, the Greek key pattern borders of coral, the sprinklings of pearls and interlaced silver threads.
Everything is there, every kind of ornamental knot, every silk trimming, every hat design, and innumerable sketches where a vermilion highlight on a belt, a wash of orange on a sleeveless bodice, or the dark shimmer of a sable stole all look as if they have been applied just a moment ago.
The Lanvin archives are fascinating for two reasons. They have, firstly, a unique importance in the history of fashion. They include samples of beadwork and embroidery covering nearly  twenty-five years, the complete set of drawings for the couture collections, more than five hundred designs ranging from wedding dresses to theatre costumes, as well as a mass of other documents assembled by Jeanne Lanvin herself. This hoard is carefully preserved at 22 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, the head office of the couture house. Secondly, the archive is particularly remarkable today for its vitality, which seems to stem from more than just the indulgent mood of a period when time stood still for a while, apparently on a whim. The striking array of colours is reminiscent in its variety of the poet Ronsard, or a dream-like rose garden; it is impossible to overlook the clear but discreet signals of an unspoken creed.
Jeanne Lanvin was a woman of few words. In the world of rustling silks and gossip into which she was drawn as she went from client to client, this is a disconcerting characteristic.
Although she was unconventional, like Paul Poiret, and imperious, like Gabrielle Chanel, she chose to stay in the background.
Silent and reserved, almost taciturn, invariably wearing her trademark black suit with minimal white details, she seemed to distance herself from her society clients. They were not amused when told: 'We have instructions not to disturb her, she doesn't particularly want to speak to you.'
What was it that preoccupied her? Some claimed it was hopes for her daughter Marguerite's success; others were sure she thought only about the success of her collections, which could be said to be the same thing. Marguerite was a pink and white Lanvin beauty from head to toe, and the couturier's only child. A brilliant marriage gave her a title and a new first name: Marie-Blanche, Comtesse de Polignac. Her elegance caused a sensation in the salons; her pure voice was perfect for performing Poulenc songs at the Sunday musical gatherings patronized by the cream of Paris society. Lanvin's daughter more than fulfilled the extraordinarily modest fashion designer's private dreams. The focus of her admiration, she was also her muse; she lived and worked for her alone.
Louise de Vilmorin, an authority on society psychology, declared: 'She dazzled everyone with her work, but she did it for the sake of dazzling her daughter.'
For Lanvin, more than for any other designer of haute couture, fashion and love were indistinguishable because they had the samestarting point: Marguerite-Marie-Blanche. As a child she was dressed in fairy-like clothes; as an adolescent she was adorned like a woman. Later she was presented as a young woman who was still partly a child, in dresses with a renewed vitality and naturalness.
Jeanne Lanvin came to mean eternal youth; in this way she was able to relive her own youth, which she had sacrificed to her work. Lanvin was thirteen when she began to earn her living. There was nothing unusual in this; in Paris there were hundreds of dressmakers' errand girls who, like her, did the rounds of clients with armfuls of their orders - dresses, hats or trimmings. But there were few with her determination.
She was nicknamed 'The Little Omnibus', because she ran along behind the horse-drawn bus to save herself the fare. Five years later, at the age of eighteen, when she finished her apprenticeship as a milliner with 'Madame Felix' at 15 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, she set up in business on her own. Her workroom in an attic in Rue du Marche Saint-Honore was a modest beginning, but she was undaunted.

She had boundless energy, capital of one gold louis, one client to back her, and credit of three hundred francs with her suppliers. those who had faith in her were proved right. She moved twice, to larger and better located premises, in less time than it took to construct the Arcimboldesque concoctions of flowers, fruit and feathers that were the crowning glory of the feminine form at the turn of the century. Hats with the Lanvin label had not yet achieved the understated luxury for which they would be famous from f910 onwards. Her first move was to the Rue Saint-Honore, her second to the Rue des Mathurins.
Like her contemporary, the writer Paul Morand, Jeanne Lanvin was a young woman in a hurry, and this meant constantly creating new designs and showing what she was capable of. Those who have never felt a sense of vocation might call her ambitious, but a better word would be single-minded. She was utterly committed to her talent, her passion for her work, the pride she felt in providing for her whole family (her brothers very soon joined her in her workrooms), and to the middle-class belief in the virtue of work.
So what did she think of the leisured class - the courtesans, society ladies and unconventional beauties who commissioned her to adorn their carefree heads? She looked on them with detachment rather than envy, from the standpoint of a woman who was secure in a role that she had created for herself and which she would not change for anything.
Nevertheless, Lanvin captivated the Italian aristocrat Emilio di Pietro when they met at the Longchamp racecourse, that open-air theatre of social life where she made a study of style and bearing. They were married in 1895 and divorced in 1903. Their meteoric union produced a star, their daughter Marguerite, born in 1897. In the excitement of new motherhood, the businesswoman suddenly saw the possibility of a new project: children's clothes.
She started to sew especially for 'Ririte', as she called her, decorating an organza christening robe with a deftly worked scattering of bright yellow daisies. Gradually she designed an entire wardrobe, the most dazzling ever worn by a child, sewn with love and inspiration. There was a dark blazer with gold buttons, an ermine coat fringed with black, sleeveless dresses shirred around the hem, gaiters of peau d'ange or angel skin, embroidered gloves and a Neapolitan cap made of silver mesh.
Everything was light, subtle and simple: Jeanne Lanvin had just invented children's fashion. The clothes had quite a different emphasis from the concentration in adult clothing on sophistication and appearances; it they were miracles of hand-sewing, created with good taste, but allowing childhood room to breathe.
Encouraged by the number of orders from her clients for clothes for their own daughters, Lanvin opened a children's department. It was to be the turning point of her career. The charm of the clothes added a defining characteristic to all her work. The quality of workmanship, the attention given to the choice of colours and fabrics, were the features which, little by little, as if spontaneously, became established as the essence of Lanvin. Something which she had originally conceived for little girls on an impulse, unwittingly, at a time when her maternal infatuation was overruling her business sense, would suddenly become all the rage among Parisiennes.
When Lanvin joined the Syndicat de la Couture in 1909, her girls' and ladies' departments had already made an unprecedented impact on the success of her house, which was hardly affected by the Great War.
In 1918 she took over the whole building at 22 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore. It included two workrooms for semi-tailored clothes, two for tailored ones, one for lingerie, one for hats, one that was used as a design studio, and two that were given over to embroidery; the latter was a speciality which Lanvin, unlike other couturiers, did not entrust to outside workers. During the 1920s, when her evening dresses reached a matchless brilliance, their immaculate beadwork was established as one of her firm's signatures. In 1925, the Lanvin ateliers employed more than eight hundred people, not including the sales assistants. At every collection three hundred outfits were shown from which her clients would choose around thirty. Among these clients were many
American women, who thought nothing of making a special trip across the Atlantic. Lanvin had already been in 1915 to San Francisco, where she would have responded eagerly to the vigour of the New World and the studied casualness described in his novels by Scott Fitzgerald, inspired by the delicate features of his wife, the unpredictable Zelda. In 1925 she launched her first great perfume, which was very successful in the United States.
Bit by bit an empire was established, one which continued to bear the personal hallmark of Jeanne Lanvin. It now included sports clothes, furs, men's fashions and even interior decoration. Here Lanvin was keen to add her personal touch too, anticipating by several decades the  importance attached by modern designers to their 'house style'. With this in mind she oversaw the opening of a shop at 15 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, which, in keeping with the character of the proprietress, was expected to be decorated in a discreet and sober style.
Lanvin dedicated the perfume to her daughter, and asked Rateau to design the sophisticated black ball-shaped bottle to contain it.
The sensual and mysterious fragrance was created by the perfumer Andre Fraysse, using Bulgarian roses, jasmine from Grasse, honey-suckle and lily of the valley. Some of the drawings in the archive suggest that Rateau may also have worked on the design for the bottle's gold label. This shows the couturier and her daughter getting ready for a fancy-dress ball, and is usually attributed to Paul Iribe. It is still the trademark of the house, and 'Arpege' remains one of the best known features of the Lanvin empire.
The collaboration between Lanvin and Rateau was full of contrasts. There was the youthful spirit of her style, fresh as peonies, and the exuberant world of the eclectic aesthete Rateau, who created unexpected juxtapositions of form and ornament from his fascination with Babylon, Knossos and Pompeii. However, there were profound affinities between them as well as what Baudelaire described as 'discordant words . . . which mingle in the distance'; their approaches were distinct but complementary.
For her and all who wanted to emulate her, Jeanne Lanvin produced between 1920 and 1935 a classic dress suited to varieties of mood and build, with slit sides, a loose top, and either sleeved or sleeveless. Also specifically designed for the changing moods of the young shingle-haired pioneers was a black taffetta dress with either short sleeves and a few flowers on the bodice, or long sleeves and a deep decollete embellished with paste ornaments.
One of the couturier's concerns was never to be dictated to by the preoccupations of the period in which she lived. In f 925 the spare styling of Art Deco made a widespread impact; but though its austere lacquer and chrome provided the ideal setting for Gabrielle Chanel to develop her own language to maximum effect, Lanvin had no hesitation in making stylish clothes that were delightfully dated. They were close fitting, with the high waists of the Second Empire; or they had long sleeves and shawl collars, with distinct echoes of the fifteenth-century Lady with Unicorn tapestry. Or they had flounced skirts, cartridge pleats, and decolletes with netting inserts based on old fashion plates.
Debutantes chose to make their first appearance in society in some of her elegant and simple outfits. 'Modern clothes need a certain romantic feel,' she declared, emphasizing that couturiers 'should take care not to become too everyday and practical'. The many wedding dresses she designed were clearly created in this spirit. Jeanne Lanvin, perhaps in common with all women, had a deep attachment to the romantic, one which was hardly affected by the fashion of the day.
It is not surprising, therefore, that her designs attracted actresses and women writers, such as the poet Anna de Noailles, the novelist Louise de Vilmorin, the American star of silent films Mary Pickford, the actress Cecile Sorel, and of course Yvonne Printemps, for whom she made stage clothes as well as everyday outfits.
Her children's clothes and lingerie, two of the most successful aspects of her business, were based on the high precision skills learned at that time.
Lanvin's office was more of a connoisseur's study than a dress designer's studio, full of thousands of treasures gleaned from around the world by someone with a sensitive, resourceful and enquiring mind. There were sculptures, books, jewels, as well as an astonishing collection of fabrics and clothes; among them Indian saris, Persian silks, mandarins' robes, Breton waistcoats, embroidered African tunics and Coptic embroideries. It was a priceless booty, meticulously labelled and catalogued with a bibliophile's obsessive care; Lanvin even called it her fabric library.
By giving it an air of mystery, she gave it a life of its own. She was like a bee, tasting everything in order to make her exceptionally delicious honey. It might be a Mantegna virgin, a Byzantine mosaic, the statues of Saint Mark's in Venice, or a particular spot of red on a Holbein painting. Her art blossomed with every discovery. As for the lavender blue that is nowadays called Lanvin blue, she saw it first in a fresco by Fra Angelico, giving herself a stiff neck, she said later, from peering at it for so long.
The Lanvin colours were exclusive to her. As well as Lanvin blue there was a coral, pale pink, cerise, mauve and almond green.
Lanvin undoubtedly developed her innate sense of colour through her contact with painters, both those she knew, for instance the Nabi painter Edouard Vuillard, and those whose work she collected, such as Auguste Rodin and the enigmatic Odilon Redon.
Other strong points were embroidery and beading. She used pearls and sequins, of course, but also tiny pieces of mica, coral, minute shells, gold and silver threads, ribbons and raffia. The variety of materials was matched by the variety of motifs. The influences were very mixed; she was sometimes inspired by Coptic and Celtic crosses, and firework bursts, and there were even hints of Zen. It is impossible to give a comprehensive idea of these geometric cantatas, other than to underline recurring themes, the leitmotifs of what could be called a silent art of the fugue.
The daisy represented Jeanne's inexpressible passion for her daughter. There was the heart shape too. Often stylized, sometimes indecipherable at first glance, it was the basis for many of the embroidery and beadwork designs. Another consistent motif was the knot, and certain leaf shapes, such as sweet bay, ivy and olive - trees of infinite symbolism. The stylized Art Deco rose, a favourite of Paul Poiret, was also used, sometimes embroidered or beaded, or sewn on petal by petal to give an effect of lightness and movement.
Her use of beadwork and embroidery reached its peak between 1920 and 1925, and was slowly replaced by attention to the fabrics themselves.
Lame was first used in the Lanvin collections in 1930; by 1936 and the daring creation of a silver lame wedding dress for the Princess of Alcantara, there was a new emphasis on so-called atelier work. There were satins bisected by parallel lines of stitching, or with smocked plastron bodices and shoulder wings; coiled braid work, narrow cording to accentuate the structure of the tailored clothes; ruching with pinked edges; intricate folds producing astonishing optical effects;  applique, flounces and tucks.
It all added up to a range of effects which showed an intimate knowledge of fabrics. As she said herself: A design inevitably reflects the artistic motifs stored in one's memory, drawing on those which are the most alive, new and fertile all at the same time'. Jeanne Lanvin continued to vary these endlessly right up to the 1940s.

Every designer has a secret. The discreet Jeanne Lanvin always took good care not to unveil a mystery which perhaps unintentionally she continued to deepen. During the fifty years following her death, a succession of gifted designers have served at the head of her house, but the imprint of Jeanne Lanvin herself is as rich and enigmatic as ever.
There are several images of her to choose from. There is the devoted mother. There is the impassioned but modest pioneer, as committed to her work as she was at the beginning of her career.
There is the traveller, constantly on the lookout for new visual stimuli. There is the aesthete, who in the heart of Paris at 16 Rue Barbet-de-Jouy realized her dreams in a luxurious Eastern decor, with marble statues here and there, chased bronze Arab decorations, pale ivory coloured  columns, and wall hangings of Lanvin blue picked out in silver. Or there is simply the incomparable dress designer, whose invaluable lessons about freedom and a fresh approach have clearly struck a chord with the designers of today.

Source: Fashion Bank

Category: Fashion designers
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