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Loving Lanvin

There’s something about Lanvin that tugs at the heart and won’t let you go.

There’s something about Lanvin that tugs at the heart and won’t let you go.

BY Robin Sayers

EVERYWHERE I WENT LAST SEASON, I carried a gray flannel bowling bag with grosgrain ribbon handles. The front of it is decorated with floppy red and blue bows the color of the French flag; still more black ribbon spells out the word “Lanvin” in loopy script. If that isn’t enough, two appliqued blue eyes peer out from under the signature.

I first looked into those eyes at Collette in Paris, and sooner than you could say “I swear I’ll use it everyday!” those orbs, and the bag they rode in on, were looped over my elbow. They joined an evergrowing Lanvin collection in my closet, a sacred corner populated by bejeweled coats and frothy frocks.

What is it about Lanvin’s washed silk and crinkly linens, those jaunty ruffles and easy draped shapes, that has me, and legions of other Lanvin fanatics, at hello? This is a question I have pondered with increasing gravity over the past few seasons (mostly while the clerk rings up my latest purchases).

As it turns out, Lanvin’s designer, Alber Elbaz, who last December opened a glorious new boutique in Bal Harbour, the company’s first stand-alone shop in the US, has also given the subject a lot of thought. “You make people dream,” he has said, in an attempt to explain the seductive quality of his creations. “You make people think. You have to give them stories. You have to introduce fantasy. Fashion is how we bring them into the world today. That is my job.”

It is a job he executes with such skill and wit, such vitality and sympathy, that you can’t help but wonder how this 48-year-old, born in Morocco and raised in Israel, manages to know exactly what that elusive creature, the 21st century woman, wants.

Maybe it’s because Elbaz himself is a pretty regular-looking guy—chic, but in his own way, with his quirky bow ties and big glasses. Or the fact that you don’t have to be particularly thin to wear his clothes (I can personally vouch for this), perhaps because he isn’t so thin himself. “I like pizza. I like McDonald’s. That’s me,” he has cheerfully admitted. “I think the fact that I never feel perfect and I never feel beautiful and I never feel skinny makes me search for lightness and beauty, because these are what I feel I am missing. I always go for whatever I think I don’t have.”

I do too! And here’s what I don’t have yet for spring—Elbaz’s chartreuse chiffon-and-pearl necklace, and his Pierrot-collared spring coat, and that little black dress with the gathered neckline and the ruffly sleeves. But even if I purchase all of the above (and wouldn’t I love too) I will have to go some to match jewelry designer Monique Pean, who conservatively estimates that she has least 27 Lanvin items in her wardrobe. Pean, who received a CFDA/Fashion Fund award for her designs last spring—in a wonderful turn of events, Elbaz himself presented her with her prize—says that she is so devoted to his work because “there is something magical, a sense of sophistication that transforms you. You can wear it to work or a dinner party and you never feel inappropriate or flashy or showy. You feel so elegant. No matter how disappointing your day, you put these on and it’s like wearing a work of art. And Lanvin is collectible—it’s like buying a like Warhol!’

When I tell her I think this a brilliant rationalization for spending a lot of money on clothes, she insists that she does not mean this ironically. “Loving art is like loving fashion. Collecting Lanvin is like buying a photograph or a painting.” It’s a photo you can go out to dinner in; a painting fit for gardening! Pean owns a pair of those iconic Lanvin sneakers that Michelle Obama wore when she was planting the White House victory garden. (Michelle’s were suede with pink toe-caps; Monique’s have black patent toes).

Pean takes another stab at persuading me that Lanvin is, if looked at in a certain way, almost, well — a bargain! “In Paris, I found an incredible sweater of gold silk — a one-of-a-kind cardigan with bijoux buttons. It has a gold wash — it’s literally painted. It was really expensive but I splurged on it. I wore it so many times that it’s down to $200 per wear.” (This makes me very happy, since, by this token, my Lanvin bowling bag is probably down to, like, a nickel a day).

Still, there is something extremely touching about a designer who can offer a gold cardigan with a four-figure price tag and remain disarmingly humble. Pean fondly recounts the speech Elbaz made the night he gave her award. “He talked about his mother and that she told him that in life one must be both big and small—you should be big in your dreams and small in your knowledge that fashion is fleeting”.

Well maybe not always so fleeting. Dr. Lisa Airan, an eminent Manhattan dermatologist (and renowned fashion-plate) says she still wears almost all the Lanvin she’s ever bought, and some of it is close to a decade old. “I wear all the fashion that I buy,” she says. “And my Lanvins are some of the best things ever I bought. If there wasn’t a date inside the garment, I wouldn’t know when it was from”.

Oh yes, the date—that big satin label decorating the inside of the clothes. I love that square of cloth, which, like the finest couture, bears the season the piece hails from (my guaze-and-gazar coat, a real keeper, says “Ete 2006”) and makes you conscious of just exactly how long you’ve cherished a particular item.

Airan rarely wears a lab coat when she’s on duty, unless she is doing something “really splattery.” Instead, she greets her patients all dolled up in high heels and high fashion ensembles, which more often than not hail from the house of Lanvin. Lately she has become especially fond of a dress from this season, “a huge amazing shape that I wear unbelted to see patients. In the evening I roll up the sleeves, and put a belt on it.” So successful is this transformation that “it took my assistant a second to realize that it was the same dress.”

Airan thinks that the key to Elbaz’s magic is that he is hyper-conscious of the long history of the 100-year-old house of Lanvin. “He is always interpreting the archives in a way that’s modern,” she observes. But oddly enough, I think another clue may lie in the revelation that Elbaz actually covets Airan’s own métier.

“If I wasn’t a designer I would love to be a doctor,” he has said, which may go a long way in explaining why a washed silk raincoat, a champagne satin ruffled camisole, or a pair of raffia-trimmed summer sandals can make you feel like you’ve just had a dose of the most miraculous medicine. “A doctor will give you a tablet if you have a headache, and I will give you a dress,” Elbaz says. “We both make you feel good”.

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