Reputed for her no-nonsense work ethic, Jeanne Lanvin built a lifestyle empire from scratch.
Nothing predestined the designer, born Jeanne-Marie Lanvin in Paris in 1867, to head a luxury powerhouse which, at its peak, employed 1,200 people making everything from made-to-measure clothing for women, men and children to furs, athletic wear, home wares and perfume.
The daughter of a journalist father and homemaker mother, Lanvin was the eldest of 11 children. She started working at the age of 13 as an apprentice at millinery houses including Madame Félix, whose customers included Empress Eugénie.
Nicknamed “la petite omnibus” for her habit of saving her carriage fare and making her deliveries on foot, Lanvin used her savings to buy fabric and sew clothes for dolls, which she sold on the Place du Marché Saint-Honoré.
By the age of 18, she had set aside sufficient funds to open her own workshop in a tiny room near the market. Following a brief stint with Barcelona-based dressmaker Maria-Berta Valenti, Lanvin set up shop in 1889 at 16 Rue Boissy d’Anglas.
Her marriage in 1895 to Italian aristocrat Henri Émile-Georges di Pietro was to change her professional course in unexpected ways. Her daughter Marguerite, born in 1897, would become an inexhaustible source of inspiration for Lanvin, who made all the little girl’s clothes.
Soon, her millinery clients began ordering outfits for their daughters, and it wasn’t long before they were demanding similar creations for themselves.
“Jeanne Lanvin launched the concept of comfort and elegance. It was quite groundbreaking at the time,” notes Laure Harivel, the house’s archivist, sitting in the founder’s office, which has remained essentially unchanged since her death in 1946.
The designer combined fluid fabrics like silk with comfortable textiles like jersey and wool. “It’s that slightly innovative and unusual side that made customers want the same thing for their little girls, and very quickly, the mothers wanted to dress like their daughters,” added Harivel.
In 1909, Lanvin opened two departments for women and their daughters with new premises at 22 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, and joined the Syndicat de la Couture, France’s dressmakers’ union, marking the birth of France’s oldest surviving couture house.
From then on, she would continually expand into new areas with an unerring instinct for modernity.
Despite her modest upbringing, Lanvin became an avid traveler, frequently teaming up with Charles-Emile Hermès, her neighbor on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré — at a time when the fledgling luxury artery still housed poultry and wine merchants.
From her exotic trips, she would bring back textiles that inspired intricate embroideries, while the intense blue of a Fra Angelico painting in Florence is said to have spawned the signature Lanvin hue.
She also promoted her brand at a number of prestigious events overseas, attending the Panama–Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915 and presenting exclusive creations on the inaugural transatlantic voyage of the ocean liner Normandie in 1935.
Lanvin also became friends with some of the leading artists of her generation: Writer Colette, actor and director Sacha Guitry, composer Francis Poulenc, fellow couturier Paul Poiret and painters including Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne and Édouard Vuillard, whose portrait of her now belongs to the Musée d’Orsay.
“She did not study, having started worked at a young age to help support her family, and she was not a socialite,” said Harivel, noting that Lanvin never matched the high social profile of peers like Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel.
“She was self-taught and she created her own social circle made up of photographers, writers, theater people — all these very influential people who helped her on her way up. Despite that, she was not the exuberant type. She never really wore her creations and she was reserved, but she really knew everybody,” Harivel related.
It was Poiret who introduced Lanvin to interior designer Armand-Albert Rateau, with whom she would set up her own interior decoration store in 1920.
The pair collaborated on the design of Lanvin’s apartment in Paris, a portion of which is now on display at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs; the Théâtre Danou and the temporary Pavillon de l’Élégance, a space dedicated to fashion designers at the Paris Exhibition of 1925, which marked the high point of the Art Deco movement.
He also managed the Lanvin sport business, which sold outfits for activities ranging from golf to skiing and swimming, and designed the round black bottle for Lanvin’s Arpège fragrance. It featured the now-famous stylized logo by Paul Iribe based on a photograph of Lanvin and her daughter Marguerite heading to a costume ball.
Lanvin was also one of the first designers to recognize the power of celebrity, dressing the leading actresses of the day — including Yvonne Printemps, Cécile Sorel, Mistinguett and the Dolly Sisters — both on stage and off.
Her passion for theatrical costume inspired a signature Lanvin style, the robe de style — elaborately embellished evening dresses with 18th century-inspired hoop skirts, which the designer continued to offer alongside the more streamlined flapper looks of the Twenties.
By the mid-Twenties, Lanvin was also active in categories including fur, men’s wear and cosmetics, which she launched in 1923 with a selection of fragrances followed by products including sun lotion, lipstick and home fragrances. Arpège, launched in 1927 to mark the 30th birthday of Marguerite, by now known as Countess Marie-Blanche de Polignac, went on to become one of the world’s classic scents.
By that time, Lanvin had expanded her physical presence to three buildings on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. In addition to having an in-house embroidery workshop, she also owned a dedicated dye factory in Nanterre, outside Paris, that allowed her to create vivid pastel hues such as Polignac pink and Velazquez green.
She also innovated with unusual materials.
“Jeanne Lanvin was always on the lookout for new things,” said Harivel. “She always wanted to be one step ahead of the pack. She worked with Bakelite, celluloid, corals — things you didn’t necessarily find elsewhere — in order to distinguish herself and be more modern and diversified.”
Lanvin also stood out with her progressive employer practices. Long before the advent of paid holidays in France, she bought a chalet in Switzerland where her employees could vacation. Staff also benefited from a day nursery and a canteen, and the founder hosted an annual feast for St. Catherine’s Day.
Nonetheless, the woman known to all as “Madame” ran a tight ship, with employees banned from speaking in the workshops and rarely allowed into her third-floor office, designed by Eugène Printz and filled with sketchbooks, travel diaries and fabric inspirations (a sign on the door reads “MADAME/No entry/Ask opposite”).
“She really was at the head of the empire. She managed those 1,200 people. Everything really ran like clockwork, so I think you need someone at the top who is quite rigorous and severe,” noted Harivel.
Little is know about Lanvin’s private life. After getting divorced in 1903, she married Xavier Melet, a journalist who later became French consul in Manchester, England, in 1907. By all accounts, the couple spent much of their time apart.
Her professional achievements, however, garnered her France’s highest civilian decoration. In 1926, she was made a Knight of the Legion of Honor, and subsequently elevated to the rank of Officer of the Legion of Honor in 1938.
Following her death in 1946, Lanvin’s daughter took over the business, which remained in family hands for several decades before undergoing several changes of ownership beginning in the late Eighties.
In 1990, it was sold to investors including cosmetics giant L’Oréal, which became the sole owner of the company in 1996.
In 2001, it was taken over by its current owner, Taiwanese businesswoman Shaw-Lan Wang, who appointed Alber Elbaz creative director.
Under his stewardship, the Lanvin brand has regained its luster, providing a reminder that Jeanne Lanvin paved the way for the way modern fashion houses are run.