Jeanne Lanvin, the oldest of 11 children, was born in 1867, 16 years before Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel, who came to be seen as the iconic New Woman of the 20th century. Set next to Coco Chanel, "Lanvin represents an equally compelling, if less lurid, example of the self-made professional, a woman creative and entrepreneurial in equal measure," Harold Koda, the curator-in-charge of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has written.
Both Lanvin and Chanel began their careers as milliners in Paris. In 1883, Lanvin went to work at the august Maison Felix. She left for a five-year apprenticeship in Barcelona, with a dressmaker who made clothing for children as well as adults. With the money she made in Spain, Latex Catsuits
Lanvin started her own millinery in 1895, when she returned home to Paris. In 1896, she married and, a year later, she had a daughter, Marguerite Marie-Blanche, who became her muse.
Like Elbaz, Lanvin sought to design fashion that could be worn by women throughout their lives. "The intention of these calculated creations was to assist in blurring the line between generations as waistlines, hemlines and necklines rose and fell from season to season," Dean L Merceron writes in the book Lanvin . The company's logo is a picture of a mother and child, based on a 1907 photograph of Lanvin with her daughter. At first, Elbaz was put off by this image because he felt "there was something religious about it", a vague insinuation of a Madonna and Child. But it grew on him. And it seems an appropriate emblem for Elbaz's work, too - the tenderness of it, the historicity and the modesty.
Elbaz is fond of saying that he is not interested in designing the dress that will make a man fall in love with the woman who wears it. He is interested in designing the dress that a woman wears when she falls in love herself.
In the midst of the January couture shows in Paris, Elbaz invited three small groups of editors and journalists to a
Lanvin "pre-collection" presentation, at the Hotel de Crillon, for a first look at what he would show for autumn. "I like these little presentations, because in a room with couches people feel special," Elbaz told me. "They stop being journalists and they are just women."
The setting was indeed intimate a room with grand
windows, an arrangement of white roses, and waiters in vests serving espresso. "Alber, what is that fabric?" a British fashion editor called out from her spot on a grey velvet couch under a chandelier. Elbaz stood in front of the group, with a model clad in a phenomenal coat. It was grosgrain, Elbaz explained, interspersed with mink, so the coat appeared striped. If a woman wished, she could wear the garment inside out and then she would find herself walking down the street in a gorgeous but inconspicuous coat of overlapping deep-purple ribbons, while inside she was discreetly swaddled in fur.
The models stood, one by one, in front of an unrolled trompe-l'oeil scroll picturing a dressing room tilted askew. "Turbulent," Elbaz said. "The world, shaking." Alternating between English and French, he spoke of a recent trip to New York, where he was having a sushi lunch at a restaurant with a friend. "It was empty. I ask my friend why is it? Is it because it's Monday? Is it the restaurant? Then we realise the hotel was empty. The plane was empty. There was a war feeling. . . and I come from the Middle East, not exactly the Switzerland of the world, so I know. I felt the togetherness you feel but also the fear. I think about women in war, and how come they are so beautiful. Maybe it is the feminine instinct for survival."
It was a loopy soliloquy. But when you are in the presence of Elbaz's extraordinary creations, you begin to adjust and acquire a vivid sense of the fervent and poetic way he experiences the world around him. And what he says, although it does not always technically make sense, does start to possess a consistent and comprehensible rhythm.
After everyone had departed, Elbaz stood on a balcony overlooking the Place de la Concorde, eating a sandwich in the cold mist and frowning. "I wish I knew how to enjoy it more," he said. "My psychologist says dissatisfaction, it's the engine that keeps me going."
That evening, Elbaz and his boyfriend for the past 16 years, Alex Koo, ate a dinner of crepes and smokedLycra Leggings
salmon with cold vodka at a Russian restaurant called Caviar Kaspia. Koo, a handsome Korean-American, has been director of merchandising at Lanvin for the past three years. He wore a knee-length, dove-grey Lanvin cashmere sweater belted at the waist and round spectacles, and he had a ribbon loosely knotted into a necktie. "What do you think people were looking for at the Crillon?" Koo asked.
"To be touched," Elbaz replied.