Can Lanvin make a comeback? That is front-and-center among the many questions swirling around what should prove a fascinating spring 2018 season. While fashion’s current revolving-door mode has set up numerous designer debuts, including those of Clare Waight Keller at Givenchy and Natacha Ramsay-Levi at Chloé, curiosity surrounding the house founded by Jeanne Lanvin in 1889 is unique for two reasons: First, its current fashion identity as perceived by the majority of the fashion-buying population is defined by the work of Alber Elbaz rather than by any concept of its founder; and second, what, from the outside looking in, appears to be a business-side philosophy and infrastructure not intrinsically supportive of the creative process and perhaps lacking a baseline pragmatism.
Given those two issues, is it possible for Lanvin to regain its not-so-long-ago luster? It is, but it won’t be easy. To the first point, exchanges with several retailers revealed a unanimous thought: There remains a customer who still craves the work of Alber Elbaz, and is currently underserved by luxury market alternatives.
Incoming creative director Olivier Lapidus arrived with high hopes and enthusiasm for his new role. In a conversation with my colleague Joelle Diderich, he professed no knowledge of the issues that reportedly plagued Bouchra Jarrar, successor to Elbaz, who left the house in July after a truncated, two-season tenure plagued by rumors of unrest almost from the start.
“I have no idea what might have happened,” Lapidus said. “It’s an aspect of things that totally escapes me. I just arrived…with the objective of producing a collection and a show in a month, and at the same time a commercial challenge to boost sales, to find that commercial direction that the house is seeking today through a redefinition of its DNA.”
Redefinition of the house’s DNA: That mandate, which Lapidus lists as essential, could prove something of an albatross. The reality is that for most clothes-buying women, Lanvin means Alber Elbaz; that he, in fact, drew from archival references in the development of his soigné evening signature means little in the client sphere; it’s likely that few women who bought this or that Lanvin dress knew it had a Jeanne Lanvin-influenced drape; fewer still cared.
Neiman Marcus’ Ken Downing is the only retailer contacted who would go on the record. (God love him.) Neiman’s carried Elbaz’s Lanvin for years, but didn’t continue with Jarrar’s Lanvin. “With any heritage brand, when people talk about going back to the codes of the house, they have to be codes that someone outside of the realm of fashion realizes exist,” Downing said. “The codes that we know from Lanvin are those put in place by Alber Elbaz. He [derived some] through working in the archives, but they were not codes that a customer, someone outside of the realm of the industry, would say, ‘Oh, this is Jeanne Lanvin.’ They were truly his signature that created the brand’s success as we knew it when he was there.”
Jarrar’s look was a considerable departure from that of Elbaz, and she had scant time to develop and see how the customer responded. Now, Lapidus gets his turn.
While he would like to replicate Elbaz’s early success with the brand, he won’t pilfer.
“Alber has enormous talent, of that there is no doubt, but I think it would be inappropriate to do remakes of Alber’s work,” Lapidus said. “It will obviously have a contemporary feel, as Alber Elbaz had his own contemporary feel, but I can’t draw on the designs of my illustrious colleague, with whom I have a very friendly relationship and who is wildly talented. It will be Olivier Lapidus for Lanvin.”
Practially speaking, that leaves Lapidus starting with the slate wiped clean of all elements most consumers know of Lanvin as a fashion source. Can a designer come in and totally re-create a brand from a current identity of zero? Absolutely. Just think Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga and Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy — both created major fashion identities not dependent upon the founders’ codes for their success. There have been other grand-scale reinventions, most notably Gucci’s two brilliant turnarounds: the first, by Tom Ford and the second, Alessandro Michele. Ford resurrected a former powerhouse-turned-laughing-stock into a cultural phenomenon; Michele did something similar, with an aesthetic that couldn’t have been more different, reviving the house that had fallen from fashion prominence. What both of those designers had to run with: accessories and an iconic logo.
Lapidus has neither. Nor does he have a business-side support system that telegraphs (to the greater industry, at least) support for its creative initiatives and an overall, clearly defined strategy. Instead, justified or not, the image is of a business in disarray. During the glory years, Elbaz and principal owner Taiwan-based media magnate Shaw-Lan Wang formed a powerful, iconoclastic pair. Early on, he told her they’d do great things together, and for quite a span, they did.
But the relationship soured as the business started to decline and Wang deflected interest from potential buyers, and even an offer from minority owner Ralph Bartel to increase his 25 percent stake with a cash infusion. He has since resigned form the board. By the time of his departure, Elbaz and Wang were doing little to hide their mutual animosity, a situation reportedly not helped by his problematic relationship with Michèle Huiban, elevated to chief executive officer in 2013 after five years at the company. Soon after her arrival, Jarrar, too, reportedly had issues with Huiban’s leadership.
One retailer who lamented Elbaz’s absence from the market called the situation “a mess,” and noted that especially at a time when luxury is so challenged, a designer must have strong business-side support. Yet while retail skepticism abounds about Lanvin’s future under its current leadership situation, a “wait-and-see” attitude prevails regarding Lapidus’ ascent, less one allows preconceptions to cloud recognition of the next hot thing.
Downing would not speak to the reported mayhem within Lanvin; he doesn’t know enough about the company’s inner workings. He did say that fashion has entered a new era in which frequent reinvention will be essential to a brand’s long-term viability.
“The revolving door of designers is the new norm,” he said. “It’s happening daily and it’s going to continue to happen. I think anyone has a chance of turning anything around if they are given the support and if they are given the opportunity to do what they are brought in to do and their wings are not clipped.
“People love the idea of Lanvin,” he continued. “It’s such a beautiful name. It has such a beautiful resonance with people who love clothes. But the brand needs to decide who it is, what it is and what it is going to represent in the marketplace.”
Despite his new house’s proven and rumored challenges — and the scant time he’s had to develop his debut collection — Lapidus has already crystalized what he wants his Lanvin to represent. He sees it as a house focused on chic, diverse evening clothes, but with room for “a daywear section that leans toward sophisticated.…Showing up in an Adidas tracksuit to a cocktail or even a smart lunch in New York is perhaps rock ’n’ roll, but it’s not for every woman.”
Such an approach, he hopes, will bring the Lanvin customer back while catapulting the house into a new phase of glory. Lapidus knows that someone is pulling for him. “Alber,” he said, “being the good sport and kind person he is, sent me a little text message of support.”