Exhibition review: Jeanne Lanvin // Palais Galliera

This is one of the most exciting exhibitions happening in Paris this spring: Jeanne Lanvin at the Palace Galliera, for a retrospective that gathers more than forty years of creation. Even though the brand Lanvin is known worldwide for Alber Elbaz’ perfectly cut and plain coloured dresses, it is first and foremost the legacy of Jeanne Lanvin, who founded it, thus making it one of the oldest French designer house still in business. Jeanne Lanvin was a multifaceted woman: entrepreneur, curious, demanding and reserved at the same time, she imagined feminine and very elaborate dresses for the most elegant women of her time. I will describe this incredible woman who is maybe less popular but equally talented as Gabrielle Chanel in three settings.

Jeanne the enterprising

Jeanne Lanvin began her career as a milliner in 1885. In 1889, she opened her own shop in Paris, Rue Boissy d’Anglas, before acquiring her premises at 22 Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré. In 1908, Jeanne Lanvin went into children’s clothes and opened the Young Ladies’ and Women’s department. That same year, she joined the Syndicat de la Couture, the designers’ union which gave her access to the closed world of French fashion houses. She promptly opened a brides’ department, departments for lingerie and furs, as well as interior decoration and sport. The designer even launched into men’s fashion in 1926 and into perfume with Arpège in 1927. She also opened shops in Deauville, Biarritz, Barcelona, Buenos-Aires, Cannes, and Le Touquet. After her death in 1946, Lanvin was taken over by different members of the family and stagnated until the dynamic Alber Elbaz took the reins of the artistic direction in 2000.

Jeanne the challenging

 The exhibition Jeanne Lanvin is like a return to childhood. Which little girl has never dreamed of being a princess wearing shimmering dresses and being the most beautiful at the ball? Indeed, Jeanne Lanvin lived at the beginning of the 20th century, when dresses were still of the feminine sort This is why she imagined the most elegant outfits for the most honourable women of her time. It was French perfection, both with a very 18th century style: slender bust, low waist, ample skirt, but at the same time innovative in the cut of the dress. However, we are still far from the geometrical patterns and more sporty silhouettes that arose from the future influences of the Arts Decos and Cubism. As you walk through the manikins, you also realise the importance of dressmaking. Taffeta, velvet, gauze and beads intertwine and overlap, fruit of the expertise and virtuosity of the seamstresses. Because they were now represented at the World Exhibitions, the designer houses had to show off the French ‘savoir-faire’ that was so dear to Jeanne Lanvin.

Jeanne the curious 

Jeanne Lanvin used travel diaries, scraps of ethnic fabrics and a wide range of art books to feed her inspiration to create fabrics, patterns and exclusive colours. A dress was the fruit of multiple influences, from decoration to religious baroque and to exoticism. A very interesting note is that the French designer lived at the turning point in fashion history. After the First World War, artistic movements such as Cubism or abstract art began to have a more visible effect on fashion design. In parallel, the great stylists imagined more flexible and casual shapes for women, moving away gradually from the heavy and fragile evening dresses of the 1910s. The exhibition shows two surprising dresses with geometric patterns that are directly inspired by early Cubism. Breaking the codes of the early twentieth century fashion, this modern accent reflects Jeanne Lanvin audacity and openness to new rhythms.

                  Although Jeanne Lanvin’s fashion may have been less revolutionary and her personality less distinctive than that of Gabrielle Chanel, she was both an equally talented and equally enterprising woman. In the early 20s, in a world governed by male designers, she had the guts and the strength to build the Maison Lanvin which still represents French timeless elegance.

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