Lanvin may be the oldest fashion house in Paris, but it has also managed to remain one of the most relevant. Through many years and many designers, it has stayed true to the vision of its founder, Madame Jeanne Lanvin, always valuing fine craftsmanship and impeccable ornamentation above all else.
As the unusually domestic logo of the brand—a mother and child, holding hands—underscores so poetically, Lanvin has always been a family affair. Jeanne Lanvin was born into a household of modest means, one of eleven children, in 1867. She took her first job in fashion at thirteen, making and delivering hats for the milliner Suzanne Talbot. A decade later, she opened her own first hat boutique, in Paris, in 1889. She branched into clothing design when she began creating beautifully adorned dresses for her young daughter, Marie-Blanche. Grown women were charmed by little Marie-Blanche’s outfits and requested the designs for themselves. With no financial backing, a sure vision, and much hard work, Lanvin became one of the most sought after couturiers of her day.
- Jeanne Lanvin opens a millinery studio in Paris in a two-room apartment at 22 rue de Faubourg-St. Honoré.
- Marguerite “Marie-Blanche,” Jeanne’s daughter, born.
- Lanvin begins making dresses for her young daughter and launches a children’s apparel department.
- Lanvin makes its first appearance in a November Vogue issue with an accessories set that includes a neckpiece of “puffed ‘coffee’ velvet and skunk”; the magazine pronounces it “stunning.” The company starts making dresses for women and joins the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, marking the designer’s formal status as a couturier.
- Vogue features play-frocks that Lanvin has designed for daughter Marie-Blanche, calling one “so very nice that it is a temptation to steal off to a secluded nook and meditate on its charm.”
- The brand expands into home design, opening Lanvin Décoration, run by designer Armand-Albert Rateau.
- Lanvin Sport, offering swim and leisurewear, opens.
- Parfums Lanvin opens. Working with mysterious Russian known as “Mme Zed,” creates a dozen fragrances; none will be commercially successful.
- The company builds a modern factory in the Paris suburb of Nanterre and launches its first blockbuster scent, My Sin. Marie-Blanche weds the penniless Comte Jean de Polinac, in effect buying herself the title of Comtesse. Edward Steichen photographs actress Ilka Chase (and daughter of Vogue’s editor in chief, Edna Woolman Chase) in a sailor-collared Lanvin polka-dot dress for one of the May issues.
- Men’s clothing line launched; Jeanne Lanvin hires nephew Yves to design the menswear, which becomes in-demand among ambassadors, members of the Academie Francaise, and aristocrats. Fur and lingerie lines are created. Branches soon open in Biarritz, Nice, and Cannes. The now-famous couturier is named Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.
- Following the success of My Sin, the designer builds her own scent laboratory near the Nanterre factory and puts perfumer André Fraysse in charge. In celebration of Marie-Blanche’s 30th birthday, she introduces the perfume Arpège; it will become the company’s biggest fragrance hit. The design house’s logo is featured on the bottle: maman herself in a flowing evening dress holding her daughter’s hand.
- The designer commissions post-Impressionist painter Edouard Vuillard to paint a portrait of her with her daughter; Vuillard will go on to do a total of eighteen portraits of Marie-Blanche.
- Illustrator Eduardo Garcia Benitez captures the essence of Lanvin simplicity in his sketch of a Modigliani-thin woman posing in a ruby-red column for Vogue.
- Scandal perfume debuts.
- Jeanne Lanvin named Officier de la Légion d’Honneur.
- Vogue captures a woman modeling the house’s sporty trousers and houndstooth jacket—an early borrowed-from-the-boys look—at the Swiss Bar in St. Moritz.
- Jeanne Lanvin creates a backless evening dress called the “Liberty”; her pale-pink day dress is “Free France.”
- Jeanne Lanvin dies. Mme de Polignac (a.k.a. Marie-Blanche) takes over as head designer and owner.
- Spanish designer Antonio del Castillo takes over from Marie-Blanche as Lanvin’s chief designer. She maintains control of the business end.
- Vogue features del Castillo’s first collection for Lanvin. The model is none other than the head of the company herself, Marie-Blanche, in a portfolio photographed by Horst P. Horst. She tells the magazine, “[I’ve] given [del Castillo] complete freedom of non-traditional design.” Particularly noteworthy is his loose-fitting A-line jacket “with the new look of sleeves melted into the body line.”
- A Vogue October cover features William Klein’s photograph of model Mary McLaughlin posing next to a traffic light in the middle of the Champs-Élysées, wearing a dress and fur jacket designed by Lanvin-Castillo, as the label has come to be known.
- Marie-Blanche dies. The ownership of the house goes to her cousin, Yves Lanvin.
- Del Castillo’s Spanish influences are revealed when, on assignment for Vogue, famed French photographer Robert Doisneau visits him at home in Valdemoro, outside of Madrid.
- A Belgian, Jules-François Crahay, takes over as head designer of the couture collections, and the name of the house reverts back to Lanvin. His first assignment is the wedding dress of Maryll, the bride of Jeanne’s nephew Bernard Lanvin, who is now running the company. Maryll later will become Crahay’s design assistant.
- In Vogue, Color Me Barbra chanteuse Barbra Streisand models Lanvin’s ethereal, gauzy, floor-length flower-print dress for photographer Richard Avedon.
- Crahay retires, and Maryll, who had been appointed designer of ready-to-wear two years earlier, becomes designer of the couture and boutique collections. “I didn’t realize how creative Jeanne Lanvin was until the day I saw her houses, the famous bath, and all the things she chose to surround herself with,” she says. “I was struck by her modernity, by her daring and her nonconformity. I understood the meaning of her success. It was a discovery that, far from inhibiting me, actually served as encouragement.”
- Maryll Lanvin departs. Clarins enters discussions to acquire a majority stake in the company, but pulls out. The company hires designer Claude Montana to design couture and Robert Nelissen to design the ready-to-wear and boutique lines. The family sells a stake to Britain’s Midland Bank.
- For October Vogue, Irving Penn photographs supermodel Linda Evangelista in a Lanvin couture mink bubble from Claude Montana’s debut collection for the house. The magazine praises Montana’s “dramatic comeback” for the fabled house as being “very modern,” but cautions it’s “sometimes sharp-edged.” Nelissen leaves and Eric Bergère becomes womenswear designer. Midland sells its stake to Orcofi, a French company owned by the Vuitton family.
- Dominique Morlotti, a design alumnus of Christian Dior, hired to do both men’s and women’s ready-to-wear. With Montana’s last collection for Lanvin, couture is discontinued.
- Cosmetics giant L’Oréal buys 50 percent—and, over the next two years, the entirety—of the house from Orcofi. The company will be handled by several different CEOs over the next several years.