Lanvin is among the select group of venerable fashion houses whereby mere mention of its name elicits praise. But the person behind the name, founder Jeanne Lanvin, has never been cast in quite the same legendary light as Coco Chanel or even Elsa Schiaparelli.
A new exhibition at the Palais Galliera paints a stunning portrait of the designer, framing her creations - upwards of 100 examples - in the context of her life (1867-1946). Olivier Saillard, the museum's general curator worked closely with Alber Elbaz, Lanvin's director par excellence since 2001. Together, they steer visitors through a beautiful narrative that beings with a photograph of the designer at age 70, shielding her face with her hands, and ends with a sculpted evening coat in deep blue taffeta that dates back to the immediate aftermath of WWII.
To see the maison's codes take shape - the inclusion, for instance, of the gilded dolls depicting Lanvin with her daughter Marguerite that would become the house logo in 1924 - is to realise how the brand is the sum total of personal stories. Even the signature blue, which became the official company colour in 1921, comes with a story. Saillard, in a text found in the catalogue, notes Lanvin's point of differentiation from her female contemporaries: 'Lanvin was the first to give overall thought to lifestyle.'
The show, simply titled 'Jeanne Lanvin' as if underscoring the focus, is the first of its kind in Paris - which seems even more surprising when you consider that the French fashion house holds the distinction of being oldest still in operation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is little mention of the present years.
Instead, visitors peer into chic mirrored vitrines outlined in black; deliberate or not, they evoke the grosgrain that is now inextricably linked to the Lanvin aesthetic. Dresses from 80 years back appear remarkably contemporary, with ornamentation expressed judiciously and feminine silhouettes redefined with soigné ease. But Lanvin was also highly influenced by graphic impact and travel and her prime years coincided with a high period in Art Deco (in fact, her dresses often debuted at the international exhibitions in Paris - arguably a far more impressive platform than a salon presentation).
Saillard, for his part, does acknowledge the through-line between both talents, pointing out that they share a 'taste for discretion'. Similarly, Albaz has referred to the retrospective as a 'whispering exhibition'. And as you observe the subtlety of such impressive detailing evolve over several decades, you understand precisely what he means.