PARIS — When Lanvin owner Shaw-Lan Wang hired Alber Elbaz as artistic director in 2001, she invited the Israeli-born designer to come wake up a “sleeping beauty.”
And when Elbaz began working on the “Jeanne Lanvin” retrospective at the Palais Galliera here, he was reminded of Wang’s words as he plunged into drawers and boxes and gazed at scores of beautiful dresses at rest.
He and curator Olivier Saillard opted to display fashion treasures mostly from the Twenties and Thirties flat in mirrored cases propped open like a piano, reflecting the museum’s ornate ceilings, visitors and the couturier’s delicate wizardry.
“The exhibition is whispering. It’s so silent,” Elbaz said Thursday morning as he led a tour, pausing at cases to scatter the dresses more haphazardly, as if a woman just tossed them on a bed.
The showcase, which opens to the public Sunday and runs through Aug. 23, calls attention to an often underappreciated figure in early French fashion sometimes overshadowed by the “virtuosity” of Madeleine Vionnet and the “artistry” of Elsa Schiaparelli, according to Saillard, who considers Lanvin a key torchbearer for French elegance, and an innovator with her “lifestyle” approach to design.
More important, her dresses exemplify quiet chic and haute refinement, he said, noting that the couturier housed three internal embroidery ateliers capable of the most delicate beading and metallic filigrees on gossamer silks. “It’s light, very feminine, timeless, never overpowering,” Saillard marveled.
While thematic rather than chronological, the exhibition demonstrates how fashion changed markedly after 1910, with Elbaz and Saillard repeating the refrain — “Look at that, it’s so modern” — as the tour alighted on countless looks that could be worn today: A black slip style squiggled with ivory ribbons; an austere T-shirt dress in black silk, or a bohemian caftan in pale green — a shade that reappears frequently — along with black and ivory.
“It doesn’t feel like a period exhibition, even though it’s 100 years ago,” Elbaz said.
Happening upon a velvet swimsuit from 1924, beaded to the hilt with mirrored embroideries, he remarked: “Beyoncé would love that.”
The showcase, part of the house’s 125th anniversary festivities that spilled over into 2015, is also an ode to elite savoir-faire.
“Look at the workmanship, look at the fragility,” Elbaz said as he inspected an evening ensemble in silk crepe embroidered with silvered tubes and crystals by Swarovski, a key sponsor of the exhibition. “Of course, we live in a world of computers, but we are still an industry that depends on seamstresses and a needle and thread. We are a human industry and that’s what we show in this exhibition.”
Elbaz included none of his Lanvin designs, preferring to leave the spotlight to the founder, an homage that spans dozens of photos, scrapbooks, sketches and even the triptych mirror she kept in her office for fittings.
Jeanne Lanvin started out in 1889 with a millinery shop on Rue Boissy d’Anglas, later branching out to women’s wear, children’s clothes, bridal fashions, lingerie, furs, interior decoration and men’s wear. Renowned for her drive and intuition, she died in 1946.