Swarovski's cultural programme this year includes the first major retrospective of French couturier Jeanne Lanvin at the Palais Galliera in Paris. The exhibition - organised in collaboration with Alber Elbaz, artistic director of Lanvin, and with Olivier Saillard, Director of the Palais Galliera as General Curator - is the first one in the French capital dedicated to the French couturier and to the oldest Parisian fashion house still operating.
Born in 1867, Jeanne Lanvin started her career as an apprentice for the milliner Madame Bonni and, in 1885 she opened her own millinery business. Her first "Lanvin (Melle Jeanne) Modes" store was based in 16 Rue Boissy d'Anglas, and, in 1893 she moved to 22 Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré.
The birth of her daughter Marguerite in 1897 prompted the designer to launch a collection of children's clothes, followed in 1909 by the Young Ladies' and Women's department. As the years passed, Lanvin slowly yet relentlessly expanded, coming up with a brides' section, departments for lingerie and furs and launching in the early 1920s interior decoration in partnership with Armand-Albert Rateau, and sport, followed by menswear in 1926.
A year later, she celebrated her daughter Marguerite's thirtieth birthday with the creation of the perfume Arpège sold in Armand-Albert Rateau's round, black bottle, characterised by a gold print of the famous logo designed by Paul Iribe, depicting Jeanne with Marguerite (now Marie-Blanche de Polignac). In the logo mother and daughter are dressed for a costume ball and they are holding hands and looking into each other's eyes.
The logo - designed in the 1920s, applied to all Lanvin's packaging, including perfumes, hat boxes, wrapping, notepaper and gift boxes, and still used as the symbol of the maison - was chosen by Jeanne to show the love she felt for her child and to hint at the origins of her inspiration, children's clothes.
The exhibition features over one hundred models (mostly women's wear from the 1920s and '30s) from the Palais Galliera and the Lanvin Heritage collections. All the pieces display Lanvin's taste for quality, something she had inherited from Paul Poiret. The garments and accessories are not showcased in a strictly chronological and academic order, but follow a series of themes and are displayed flat in steel-and-glass boxes with mirrors above.
The starting point is Lanvin's logo, celebrated in the first section, "From Logo to Black & Gold". The logo and the bottle are showcased in this section together with key garments (one important thing to keep in mind is that, rather than numbering her creations, Lanvin preferred to give them names) such as the "Lohengrin" coat (1931) in silk satin gold lamé topstitched in silk thread, and the "Walkyrie" (or "Brunehilde", 1935) gold lamé evening gown. The latter also featured a wide topstitched sash ending in a train that was inspired by the Japanese obi.
The techniques Lanvin loved are explored in the second section that allows visitors to focus on embroideries, fabrics, airiness, topstitchings, intertwinings, spirals, black and white geometrical patterns, ribbons and Swarovski crystals, beads, appliqués, and transparent and opaque elements and details (the "My Fair Lady" dress from 1939 in black organdie with a bias-cut ribbon and a large black taffeta knot is a perfect example of this juxtaposition).
Topstitching is analysed a bit more in-depth in this section: this technique borrowed from traditional garments became indeed Lanvin's trademark and the designer often employed quilted topstiching in geometric patterns but applied it to luxurious fabrics to create voluminous garments.
The "Neptune" dress (1926-27) in this section made in black silk satin and fringes on the bias is testament to Lanvin's passion for fringes, while the "Rarahu" (Summer 1928) afternoon coat in wild silk and waxed black lace reminds viewers of her passion for geometrical elements mainly employed to highlight the cut of a garment. A black wool coat (1936) from the wardrobe of Countess Greffulhe is among the highlights of this part and features a very modern and architectural arrangement of brick-like rectangles that make it look like a surrealist wall.
An interlude section featuring photographs, headed notepaper and labels and a series of models - "Orphée", "Passionata", "Concerto", and "Sèvres" - that played on the positive-negative effect, focuses on Lanvin's passion for the black and white twin tone aesthetic.
Visitors who like colours will instead fall in love with the next section: Lanvin was inspired indeed by the intense blue in frescoes by Fra Angelico, a shade that became her favourite colour and that she applied to a variety of creations - "Vitrail", "Azur", "Delft", "Lavande", "Firmament", "Bleu nuit", "Saphir", "Indigo", "Lazuli", "Outremer" - in various nuances of lavender, royal, electric and stained-glass blue.
One dress from 1911 beautifully combines black and midnight blue, while the midnight blue silk velvet and silvered metal sequin embroidery evening gown "La Diva" (Winter 1935-36) calls to mind the tunics donned by Fra Angelico's angels, the silver sequins creating striking contrasts with the deep blue shade. Interior designs fans will make interesting connections in this section since Lanvin and Armand-Albert Rateau chose a special shade of blue for the Théâtre Daunou, and for the bedroom and boudoir in the designer's townhouse on the Rue Barbet-de-Jouy.
Construction-wise the next section creates a contrast with this previous one, since it focuses on Lanvin's robe de style, a garden party and formal event dress that became popular in the 1920s and found lasting success with children, girls and women. This line was indebted to the 18th century and the second Empire and to hoops and crinolines.
Characterised by a small waist, a close-fitting bodice and a bouffant skirt mounted on wire hoops and embellished with flounces, petals, lace, ribbons, rosettes or bows, this style appealed to Lanvin-wearing personalities like Jane Renouardt, Raquel Meller and Yvonne Printemps.
Robes de style were present in every collection and were widely praised by fashion magazines such as The Gazette du Bon Ton, that claimed these dresses were "works of art" for their decorative embellishments and for their names - "Casanova", "Impératrice", "Versailles", "Duchesse", "Vision d'antan", "Cendrillon" - that attempted to make connections with cultural references from the past.
Among the best designs there are two examples of this style, "Marjolaine" (Summer 1921), in bronze silk taffeta with a large decorative rosette, and "Colombine" (Winter 1924-1925), in a porcelain-like silk taffeta with a red bow and black silk velvet appliqués, elements inspired by the Far East.
Lanvin started as a milliner, so the event includes a section dedicated to women's bonnets from the first decade of the 1900s, but gives a lot of space to children's clothes.
Lanvin's first children's collection took its inspiration from the clothes she made for Marguerite and her dolls, which were admired by other little girls and by their mothers. The garments on display here show a derivation of children's clothing from adult's garments: both were characterised by beautiful fabrics, such as silk chiffon, and details like silver metallic lace, fringes and flowers.
The next space is extremely colourful: Lanvin was part of the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris (she was its executive president and the president of its clothing section that comprised 70 couturiers).
Her designs were showcased in the Pavilion of Elegance as jewels: they were covered in beads, crystals, gold and silver lamé, and came in bright shades such as absinthe green (see "La Duse" or the "Lesbos" dresses, both from 1925; the former inspired by actress Eleonora Duse; the latter featured two loose, embroidered braids forming a double string of beads). In contrast with these crêpe and silk satin dresses covered with thin glass beads, metal threads and gold lamé appliqués, the exhibition includes "La Cavallini", a black robe de style with an oversized embroidered bow.
Lanvin was known among the Parisian houses for her use of embroidery and beads: the house's dresses were indeed conceived as canvases for a variety of sources and innovative materials and Lanvin also founded her own embroidery workshops to prevent being copied. New embroidery samples were created by Camille and Madame Mary, Lanvin's artistic directors, and, while she didn't draw herself, Lanvin took inspiration from her library that included books about botanical and travel topics and volumes on paintings.
This explains the exotic or geometric inspirations behind some of the designs included in the next section, entirely dedicated to flamboyant garments with beautiful decorative motifs including sequined necklines and collars, trompe l’oeil jewellery and belts, or sober and sophisticated dresses with straight lines and a high waist like the one with appliquéd gold frogging with wavy embellishment that belonged to Madame Combe Saint-Macary, a client of Jeanne Lanvin's, or the powder pink "Alcmène", a copy of a model worn by Valentine Tessier in the role of Alcmène in Giraudoux's 1929 play made for a client of the fashion house.
Another key source of inspiration for Lanvin was her collection of fabrics from all over the world, and of ancient textiles (she would buy them in her travels or at flea markets). This inspiration emerges in the exotic and ethnic section of the exhibition with decorative motifs borrowed from far away countries including China ("Tirelire", 1920; the embroidery in this design was derived from Chinese bronzes) and Russia ("Donatienne", Winter 1920-21, a simple peasant dress with striking coral decorations).
Lanvin was also inspired by religious garments such as ecclesiastical vestments and monastic lines, as proved by some of the names of Lanvin's models - "Alleluia", "Angelus", "Reliquary" and "Stained Glass". The violet "Jupiter" evening coat (1920) with geometrical patterns in gold thread influenced by Egyptian and Byzantine décor, featured for example a trompe-l'oeil effect on the back creating the illusion of a large hood that recalled orthodox ecclesiastical vestments, while the "Fausta" (or "Petit dîner", 1928-1929) dress with its austere cut, a series of trompe l’oeil silver bracelets and a cross motif on the front was testament to Lanvin's liturgical inspiration.
Geometry and Art Deco influences were instead derived from the passion for Cubism and abstraction in the 1920s: the "Boulogne" (Summer 1920) dress in beige crêpe, red crêpe, red stitching and navy blue appliqués featured a repetitive triangular pattern that hinted at the possibilities of geometrism.
The final sections focus on brides and evening gowns: from 1909, Lanvin started selling wedding gowns, bridesmaid's dresses and ceremonial and page's outfits. The bridal gown "Mélisande" (Summer 1929) in this section reunites simplicity and ornamentation (white pearls, fine pearls and gold metallic threads), while magnificent dresses and grand coats conclude the event in grand style.
There are several highlights in this section including the black and white tulle and black crêpe "Scintillante" (Summer 1939) gown with its trompe l'oeil bolero; the black taffeta "Bel oiseau" (1928) gown with its embroidery of half tubes and Swarovski crystals forming the pattern of a bird; a 1937 black taffeta evening coat embroidered with layers of sequins in a technique that multiplied the sparkling effect; and the voluminously sober navy blue silk taffeta evening coat "Sérénade" (also called "Barcarolle", Winter 1945-1946), one of Jeanne Lanvin's last creations.
Lanvin died in 1946, but she left behind a huge archive preserved by the house's heritage department (Patrimoine Lanvin) that also stores the entire set of all the drawings from the collections of Jeanne Lanvin and from the creators who succeeded the founder, including amongst others Antonio del Castillo (1950-1963), Jules-François Crahay (1964-1984), Claude Montana (1990-1992) and Alber Elbaz (2001).
At the end of the exhibition you get the feeling that Jeanne Lanvin was a real innovator since, like Poiret, she conceived a fashion label as a 360° lifestyle that offered clients not just garments and accessories, but also beauty, fragrances and interior design products.
Fashion-wise this event remains memorable for its terrifically striking sobriety: there are no designs by Elbaz in this exhibition, so his fans may be disappointed, but all the pieces on display look poetically modern and even more desirable than the present collections. It is indeed definitely impossible to compare a beautiful velvet swimsuit covered in mirror embroideries dated 1924 with some of the ensembles in many contemporary collections.
These garments clearly display the excellent skills of the craftspeople at Lanvin's workshops, so visitors are warned - it will be very difficult to get out of the Galliera without craving the quality, quiet elegance, precise cut and intricate embellishments displayed by these pieces, proof of Lanvin's curiosity and timeless virtuosity.
"Jeanne Lanvin" runs through 23rd August 2015 at the Palais Galleria, Paris.
Image credits for this post
1. Jeanne Lanvin, Exhibition Poster.
2. Jeanne Lanvin by Harcourt © Patrimoine Lanvin.
3. Jeanne Lanvin and Marguerite; Lanvin's logo.
4. Jeanne Lanvin draping cloth on a model, by Laure Albin Guillot © Laure Albin Guillot / Roger-Viollet.
5. "Alcmène", Evening Ensemble, 1929, Pink crepe silk with embroidery and Swarovski crystal tubes, Collection Musée Galliera © Katerina Jebb, 2014.
6. "Marguerite de la nuit", Summer 1929, Silk tulle, appliqued silk satin flower, sequin embroidery, Collection Palais Galliera © Katerina Jebb, 2014.
7. Sketch for "La Diva", Winter 1935-1936. © Patrimoine Lanvin.
8. "La Diva", Winter 1935-1936, Midnight blue silk velvet and silver metallic embroidery, Collection Palais Galliera © Katerina Jebb, 2014.
9. "Colombine", robe de style, Winter 1924-1925, Silk taffeta, silk velvet applications, beading and metal thread, silk velvet bow, Collection Palais Galliera © Katerina Jebb, 2014.
10. Sketch for "Les petites filles modèles", 1925. © Patrimoine Lanvin.
11. "Les petites filles modèles", Children dress, 1925, Embroidered organza lace and organza rosettes, Patrimoine Lanvin © Katerina Jebb, 2014.
12. Sketch for "Lesbos & Claire de lune", 1925 © Patrimoine Lanvin.
13. "Lesbos", Evening Gown, 1925, Absinthe green silk and satin and beaded straps, Patrimoine Lanvin © Katerina Jebb, 2014.
14. Sketch for "La Cavallini & Rita", 1925. © Patrimoine Lanvin.
15. "La Cavallini", Evening gown, 1925, Black taffeta decorated with a silver thread embroidered knot, beads, crystals and pearls, Patrimoine Lanvin © Katerina Jebb, 2014.
16. Sketch for "Scintillante", Summer 1939. © Patrimoine Lanvin.
17. "Scintillante", Evening gown, Summer 1939, Tulle, crepe sequin embroideries, Collection Palais Galliera © Katerina Jebb, 2014.
18. Coat, 1937, Taffeta, kimono sleeves, sequin embroideries, Patrimoine Lanvin © Katerina Jebb, 2014.
19. "Vogue", Swimming suit, Summer 1924, Silk velvet, embroidery tubes, round mirrors and Swarovski crystals, Collection Palais Galliera © Katerina Jebb, 2014.
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