Fashion great Jeanne Lanvin is honoured with a new exhibition at Paris’ Palais Galliera


Jeanne Lanvin is honoured with a new exhibition at Paris’ Palais Galliera

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.


Jeanne Lanvin’s exhibition at Paris ‘Palais Galliera’

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). Oliver 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.


Jeanne Lanvin’s exhibition at Paris ‘Palais Galliera’

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.’


Jeanne Lanvin’s exhibition at Paris ‘Palais Galliera’

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.


Jeanne Lanvin’s exhibition at Paris ‘Palais Galliera’

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).


Jeanne Lanvin’s exhibition at Paris ‘Palais Galliera’

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.


The Doyenne of French Design, Madame Carven, Passes Away at 105

She dressed Edith Piaf, Leslie Caron and Begum Andrée Carron Aga Khan. She created uniforms for more than a dozen airlines and dressed French traffic police. When she launched a fragrance, she provocatively named it Ma Griffe, which can mean either ‘my signature’ or ‘my claw’ in French. She was a force and a character. She was Carmen de Tommaso, or as she was better known in the world of haute couture, Madame Carven. On June 8 Madame Carven passed away at the age of 105, leaving behind an incredible legacy, both in the world of fashion and fragrance.


Marie-Louise Carven, Paris, 2002 (Photo Gamma, Click to enlarge).

De Tommaso was introduced to couture by her aunt Josy Boyriven, the last three letters of whose name, ‘ven’, got joined with ‘car’ of Carmen to form Carven –and she started designing both out of fascination and frustration. She was dismayed by the limited choices for petite women and the lack of attention from the fashion masters.

France was learning to dance again after the war and I wanted to be slinky. This desire to be attractive inspired a few reflections

mentioned Madame Carven in interviews.

“First I noticed that I wasn’t the only petite woman I knew, and that the grand couturiers weren’t very interested in us. But I had a feeling for proportion and volume. All that remained for me to do was to create, with the help of friends who were scarcely taller than I was, dresses that would allow us to be ourselves. I’d found an opening where there was no competition and a moment when Paris was overflowing with happiness.”


Madame Carven at work (Click photo to enlarge).

When the Carven fashion house opened its doors in 1945, she rose to fame for her elegant lines and a dose of whimsy. By the time Jacqueline François sang of “les robes de chez Carven” in her 1949 hit, Mademoiselle de ParisCarven embodied French chic.  In the male-dominated world of fashion, Carven was a breath of fresh air. Her sense of balance and style gave her an edge, while her marketing genius made her a tough competitor. Madras checks, batik prints, African patterns, raffia embroideries and Aztec-inspired motifs featured on outfits bearing names such as Amphora, Ivory Coast, Chiquita and Opium, the latter shown in 1964, more than a decade before the Yves Saint Laurent fragrance of the same name.

Carven Ma Grife

Equally groundbreaking was her signature fragrance. Let’s consider for a moment today’s “youthful offerings”, all cute and sweet, and hard to tell apart. Carven dreamed up Ma Griffe for a young woman, but she also wanted it to dazzle and to project confidence. The perfumer up for the task was none other than Jean Carles, already famous in the 40s for his sophisticated compositions and impeccable craftsmanship.

Carles and Carven pinned gardenias on a velvety backdrop of moss and somber woods. They gave Ma Griffe a bold character, but the fragrance is put together as intricately as a Byzantine mosaic– notes like ylang-ylang, iris, jasmine, rose, sandalwood, and benzoin are set into a delicate arrangement and polished till they fade into each other. You notice the details only if you pay close attention and smell like a sleuth. I recommend just to douse yourself in Ma Griffe, shiver as the shimmer of aldehydes and green leaves brightens up the richness of white flowers and reflect on the life of a designer who brought it to life. Goodbye, Madame Carven.

by Jean Amr