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Alber Elbaz: Lanvin Winter 2007
Photo courtesy of Lanvin, Paris



By Shine Anthony-Dharan

NEW YORK, 5 JANUARY 2008 — Many of us will receive a wonderfully wrapped, achingly heavy coffee table tome this Christmas season. The smug looking gift-giver can come in and enjoy her nutmeg latte safe in the knowledge that everyone loves books. And what could be less offensive than one of the recent spate of designer monographs? Even people with no interest in fashion are happy to display these costly monuments artfully around their home. I, for one, recently spent at least five afternoons in Barnes & Noble picking out great odes to art, interior design, and fashion that I will probably never read. Am I interested in these books? Sure. But more importantly, I want people to know that I am interested in these books.

Like most people, I usually pick out coffee table tomes simply because they look good. Abbeville’s The Art of Florence is so splendidly smart on top of the Steinway. The sparkling gold cover of Neue Galerie’s Gustav Klimt compliments the Asian screen in the bedroom perfectly. And Rizzoli’s Murakami is just so now. More than anything, I would love for people to walk into my home and think me an art buff. Whenever anyone comments on a book, I have to stop myself from making such self-damaging remarks such as, "Oh, War and Peace ? I try to read a little every day from Knopf’s new translation."

Thankfully, a few of my acquisitions have turned out to be as interesting as they are decorative. The first, Poiret by Yale University Press, celebrates the varied accomplishments of one of the twentieth century's most influential designers. The second, Lanvin by Rizzoli, chronicles the life of a sadly forgotten couturier whose house has recently undergone a major revival to become one of the hottest labels of the moment.


More than any other couturier of the decade, Paul Poiret (1879 - 1944) divined and defined the aesthetic of the early 1900’s. Known simply as the "King of Fashion," he was influenced by the major artistic trends of the early twentieth century, especially orientalism and neoclassicism. At fashion school we all sat about eagle-eyed at seminars illustrating his many creations, the ‘hobble skirt’, ‘harem pants’ and the ‘lampshade tunic’. Were the women of the 1910s really so experimental we wondered? This cloth bound tome would certainly lead us to believe so. Page after page of gloriously theatrical and avant-garde couture explain why contemporary designers such as John Galliano of Dior and Nicolas Ghesquière of Balenciaga continually cite Poiret as an inspiration.

John Galliano: Christian Dior Spring 2007
Photo courtesy of Christian Dio

The book opens with a series of illustrations of Poiret fashions by famed artists such as Georges Lepape. These colorful images personify Poiret’s vision of the ideal woman: youthful, free-spirited, and bohemian. The house’s clients included mavericks such as Sarah Bernhardt, Peggy Guggenheim, and Gertrude Whitney. Although best remembered for liberating women from the corset, Poiret revolutionized dressmaking by moving it away from tailoring and towards draping.

Inspired by both antique and regional dress, Poiret cut his garments in straight lines and constructed pieces around rectangular shapes. Fifty years later, Issey Miyake founded his career using the same silhouettes. Poiret’s modernism has long been overshadowed by his passion for print and embellishment. Many of the oriental and Mughal inspired ensembles illustrated in the tome could have walked straight off Belgian designer Dries Van Noten’s Spring 2008 runway. Ethnic referencing may be de rigueur in fashion today, but in 1910 it was considered pretty outlandish.

Poiret was the first couturier to pioneer the sale of couture alongside accessories such as perfume and objects for the home. Many of his products were out-sourced: Paul Dumas manufactured the wallpaper, Adolphe Chanaux the furniture, and Murano the glassware. This ‘lifestyle’ approach to fashion brings to mind contemporary designers such as Giorgio Armani who through his Casa Armani arm produces high-end furniture and house wares to compliment his fashions. Hopefully Armani will meet a happier end than  Poiret whose famously spendthrift ways led to his ruin in 1929.


Whilst Poiret was catering to the artistic elite, another couturier was producing couture for a more conservative crowd. Rizzoli’s meticulously researched new monograph Lanvin is the most beautifully arranged monograph of the year. Like Poiret, Jeanne Lanvin (1867 - 1946) embraced the historicism that aligned her with the artistic and decorative arts movement. Inspired by the French royal courts of the 18th century and the period of the Second Empire, Lanvin’s clothes were romantic and beautiful, and she dressed many of her clients from infancy to debut to motherhood.

Jeanne Lanvin
Photo courtesy of Rizzoli New York

Rizzoli’s tome is a genuine eye opener. Whereas Poiret is arranged as a museum catalogue, Lanvin cleverly intercepts surviving garments, original sketches, and the artistic inspirations behind them. An angelic blue gown with gold embroidery is shown next to the frescos of Fra Angelico that inspired it. Velazquez portraits of Spanish infants (Lanvin’s inspiration) surround photographs of her charming children’s ensembles. As always with fashion, an understanding of a designer's thought process is vital to fully appreciating her work.

Lanvin’s experiments in interior design surpassed those of Poiret’s in terms of aesthetics and longevity. She collaborated with Armand Rateau on a line of highly intricate, art deco inspired decorative objects for the home. Her exceptional bedroom, boudoir, and bathroom, commissioned from Rateau between 19921 and 1925, are now installed at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. In 2006, a bronze Rateau chair commanded $2,006,600 at a Christie’s auction. Unfortunately the book only touches on this aspect of Lanvin’s career, and it certainly would have benefited from illustrating some of these beautiful objects that she helped create.

Photo courtesy of Rizzoli New York

Many of Jeanne Lanvin’s signature touches, the delicate appliqué work, the jeweled necklines, and the virtuoso embroideries, are reflected in the house’s collections today. After Lanvin’s death in 1946, the house limped along surviving on the sales of perfume until 2001 when former Yves Saint Laurent designer Alber Elbaz took over the design reins. Elbaz’s ultra-feminine aesthetic immediately turned the house into one of the most desirable and influential labels in contemporary fashion.

Photo courtesy of Rizzoli New York

Revealingly, the book makes no mention of Lanvin collections between Jeanne Lanvin’s death in 1946 and Alber Elbaz’s appointment in 2001. Although designers such as Cristina Ortiz had maintained the house's ready-to-wear collection, the label had in fact sunk into fashion oblivion. The last chapter of the tome illustrates Elbaz’s work for the house, and this time one can trace how the house archives have inspired his critically acclaimed collections.

Jeanne Lanvin’s work is so neglected that even as someone who works in fashion, I was amazed at just how influential she really was. Christian Dior may today produce a Poiret inspired couture ensemble for the press, but mass market interpretations of Elbaz’s Lanvin collections have affected how millions of women dress today.

Alber Elbaz: Lanvin Winter 2007
Photo courtesy of Lanvin, Paris 

Poiret and Lanvin are two very different tomes about two very different couturiers who worked at the same time. Of all the designer monographs I have seen this year, these two are without doubt the most fascinating. Not only do they hold their own as fashion texts, each is tastefully bound and presented. Ideal gifts for almost anyone, both are now happily retired on my coffee table.

By Dean L. Merceron
With contributions by Alber Elbaz and Harold Koda

Hardcover: 370 pages
Rizzoli New York (October 2007)
ISBN-10: 0847829537
ISBN-13: 978-0847829538

By Harold Koda, Andrew Bolton and Nancy J. Troy

Hardcover: 224 pages
Yale University Press / Metropolitan Museum of Art (June 2007)
ISBN-10: 030012029X
ISBN-13: 978-0300120295

Shine Anthony-Dharan is a British fashion writer and designer based in New York. He covers fashion, beauty and interior design for Mr. Anthony-Dharan last wrote on Ralph Lauren: Fashion for Most People. 

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