Unlike Coco Chanel, Paul Poiret or Elsa Schiaparelli, Jeanne Lanvin was a very private person – she would rather stay on background than dissolve herself into the lights of fame and social glamour. Dressed in black, she was more keen on concentrating on her designs and communicating with fabrics rather than people.
She began working very early. 13-year old Jeanne was helping dressmakers with their orders. She used to run around Paris by foot instead of paying tickets fees and was nicknamed 'The Little Omnibus'.
At the age of 18 Lanvin finished her apprenticeship as a milliner with “Madame Felix” at 15 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore and set up her own atelier in an attic in Rue du Marche Saint-Honore.
She had the passion, unique talent, energy, enormous potential, capital of one gold louis and a client.
Jeanne also run some study courses and it was during one of them at the Longchamp race course when she met her future husband, the Italian aristocrat Emilio di Pietro. The marriage lasted for 8 years (they married in 1895 and divorced in 1903) and the best thing about it was the birth of their little daughter, Marie-Blanche, Comtesse de Polignac or simply Marguerite or “Ririte” as Lanvin lovingly nicknamed her.
Marguerite was the inspiration and driving force behind Lanvin’s designs. Jeanne Lanvin created the looks of eternal youth, so that her daughter was the most beautiful woman in the world. Designing dream outfits that her daughter could wear gave Lanvin a chance to relive her own life as she’d always dreamed of. The life she had to sacrifice to her work.
According to Louise de Vilmorin, an authority on society psychology Jeanne Lanvin “dazzled everyone with her work, but she did it for the sake of dazzling her daughter.”
|Jeanne Lanvin, Marie Alix & Marguerite|
While Jeanne Lanvin as a mother enjoyed taking care of her baby girl, the business woman in her saw the birth as an inspiration and opportunity for a new venture – a line of children’s clothes. What started as a few dresses, turned into the most gorgeous wardrobe ever worn by a child – simple but luxurious clothes, from dresses to coats to jackets, gloves and hats made with the most beautiful fabrics and embroidered by hand.
The haute couture pieces that were wearable and allowed a child to move and breathe freely attracted a well-deserved attention and suddenly became all the rage among Parisiennes so much so that Lanvin had to add a children’s department to her already successful ladies’ one.
The line became the essence of Lanvin.
|Veilleur de Nuit silk dress 1924|
In 1909 Jeanne Lanvin joined the Syndicat de la Couture and continued working on her collections that remained highly popular and in demand through the war times.
In her book Elisabeth Barille wrote, “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.
|Lanvin boutique, sketches, embroidery, fabric swatches & label|
Her 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 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.”
In 1927 she launched her first perfume, “Arpege”, inspired by Marguerite practising her scales on the piano. The fragrance created by Andre Fraysse contained beautiful flower notes of Bulgarian rose, jasmine from Grasse, honey suckle, bergamot, neroli, vanilla and lily-of-the valley. The bottle, spherical La Boule perfume flacon, was designed by Armand-Albert Rateau, a decorator introduced to Lanvin by Paul Poiret when she needed someone to decorate the interior of her home in the Rue Barbet-de-Jouy. Both, the designer and decorator, shared an enormous love for beauty, luxurious materials and classic forms, although Rateau could never fully share Lanvin’s love for eternal youth and lightness and preferred eclectic designs of Babylon, Knossos and Pompeii.
Lanvin fashion empire was flourishing. In the times of Art Deco she insisted that “modern clothes need a certain romantic feel” and continued creating dresses with a timeless appeal.
“When you are constantly thinking about new designs everything you see is transformed and adapted to whatever is in hand. The process happens naturally and becomes an instinct, a truth, a necessity, another language”, she said.
She designed for women, but she also created stage clothes for no less than 17 shows in just one year.
Her clothes were about perfection. She chose the fabrics, then developed her own colour schemes and even built a dyeing works in 1923 to achieve the subtle inimitable shades she was after. She used pieces of mica, coral, minute shells, gold and silver threads, ribbons and raffia along side of pearls and sequins, so that the beading would match the fabric, the mood and the motif.
Her embroideries often included a daisy or heart representing Lanvin’s love for her daughter. There were also a knot, bay, ivy or olive leaf as well as art deco rose or rose petals.
Once she said: ”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 died on 6 July 1946, aged 79 leaving us with a stunning collection of her works and invaluable lessons about freedom and a fresh approach when it comes to fashion and life.