Jeanne Lanvin Couture: fashion focused on the woman

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Paris’s Jeanne Lanvin exhibition at the Palais Galliera is a ‘must-see’. I went because I love Lanvin today and also because know I will love any exhibition directed by Olivier Saillard, one of the most creative curators ever to don a pair of white gloves.

Slightly older than Chanel, Jeanne Lanvin (1867-1946) also started out in Paris as a milliner, later becoming a couturier and building a chain of shops in fashionable resorts like Deauville and Biarritz. She built her business and her reputation with a focus on the needs of her client more than on progressive fashion trends. Whilst that may sound unexciting, the clothes confronting you at this exhibition are an explosion of utter beauty and joy.

Two things really strike the viewer. The first is the lush ornamentation distinguished by a lavish and luxurious attention to detail – whether through the cut or through close-up beading techniques. Once the viewer has returned, reeling from that body blow, only then do they notice the simplicity of the shapes of the clothes, cut to follow the body, draping easily like a kimono or a shift. The Manteau Lohengrin is an evening coat in a cocoon shape, rendered exceptional by a beautifully cut shoulder and drape and its shimmering gold fabric. Similarly a navy blue silk evening coat from 1945, one of Lanvin’s last creations, is austere and clerical except for its sleeves that balloon from the closely-cut shoulder. It is best viewed from the back to see the way the sleeves are engineered to emerge from the bodice.

Beading is everywhere and it is exquisite. Lanvin employed around 1,000 women in her studio and their work is used to great effect. There is folkloric embroidery, displayed in the Robe Donatiene embroidered in Russian style on a background of cornflower blue velvet. There is gold and beading recalling religious or medieval styles as in the Jupiter evening coat in plum velvet covered in gold embroidery with the appearance of an ultra-glamorous cope.

The beading is displayed to maximum effect in the flapper dresses, particularly those made in 1925 and exhibited at L’Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes. There were two I would gladly have taken home. The Robe Maharamee is a boat-neck, tunic style dress with a drop waist and gathers in pale pink satin crepe. It has the most beautiful bell sleeves and is drenched in pearl and bead embroidery. The Robe Salambo is a v-neck dress in seafoam silk chiffon covered in black and turquoise beading – a colour combination like twilight.

The bridal gowns also display the full glory of the beading work but are also understated enough in their design to avoid upstaging the wearer, allowing the woman to be enhanced by the clothes not eclipsed by them.

Photography is forbidden but Suzy Menkes wonderful review for Vogue includes some beautiful images of the pieces described above and others. She also covers the fascinating story of how the collection was discovered, like treasure trove, in a forgotten trunk. See this show before it closes on 23 August for a shot of pure, joyful beauty.

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