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The eldest of a family of eleven children, at the age of thirteen Jeanne Lanvin went to work for a milliner as a delivery girl. In 1885, after an apprenticeship as a milliner and trimmer, she started her own business in two attic rooms in rue du Marché-Saint-Honoré. In 1889 she opened her first shop at 16 rue Boissy-d’Anglas. Her hats already showed the complete mastery of materials and forms and acute sense of silhouette that established the faithful clientele that enabled her business to grow. In 1893, Maison Lanvin was inaugurated at 22 rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré.
She married Emile di Pietro in 1896 (the couple divorced seven years later) and in 1897 gave birth to her only daughter, Marguerite Marie Blanche, with whom she remained passionately close - the Lanvin logo was inspired by a photograph of Jeanne and Marguerite at a fancy-dress ball in 1907. Encouraged by the commercial success of the clothes she designed for Marguerite, Jeanne Lanvin, registered in the fashion directory since 1901, decided to create a children’s department in 1908. The following year she opened the Woman, Girl, Bride and Fur departments and registered with the Syndicat de la Couture as a couturière. In 1918, she owned the entire building at 22 rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré, where she installed her dressmaking, suit, embroidery, lingerie, hat and design workrooms. She also opened branches in Deauville, Biarritz, Barcelona and Buenos Aires.
In 1921, Jeanne Lanvin went into partnership with the interior designer Armand-Albert Rateau, whom she had met in the mid-1910s, probably via the intermediary of Paul Poiret. Together they created Lanvin Décoration, whose first project was the Théâtre Daunou in Paris, inaugurated in December 1921 and owned by the actress Jane Renouardt, Jeanne Lanvin’s friend and client. The refurbishment of the Lanvin buildings at 15 and 22 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré followed in 1922 and 1923. Rateau was also entrusted with the decoration and furnishing of her residences between 1921 and 1925. At 16 rue Barbet-de-Jouy, in the mansion she acquired in 1920, he created a dining room and decorated the mansion’s newly-built wing. Rateau also decorated and furnished her houses at Le Vésinet, La Chêneraie and La Buisserie. This association of fashion and the decorative arts manifested itself brilliantly at the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in 1925. Jeanne Lanvin, now at the height of her fame (the couture house now had 23 workshops and a staff of 800, not counting the sales personnel) was vice-chairwoman of the exhibition’s organisation committee and chairwoman of the Classe 20 (Clothing) section. She commissioned Rateau to design the Classe 20 exhibition space, where she showed with other couturiers and ready-to-wear designers. Rateau also designed the “Allée de la Parure” and the “Actress’s Dressing Room” in the Grand Palais, and the Pavillon de l’Elégance on the Cours-la-Reine.
Maison Lanvin’s diversification, revolutionary at the time, continued. In 1924, Lanvin Parfums opened at 4 Rond-point des Champs-Elysées. The first great Lanvin perfume, My Sin, launched in 1925, was an international success. Lanvin’s most emblematic perfume, Arpège, was created in 1927 for her daughter’s thirtieth birthday - Marguerite, a pianist and now Comtesse Marie-Blanche de Polignac, had married Comte Jean de Polignac in 1924. Armand-Albert Rateau designed the spherical black bottle with the famous Lanvin logo, adopted in 1924, in gold. New departments followed in succession, responding to evolutions in lifestyles and new techniques: Lanvin Sport opened in 1925, and Lanvin Homme in 1926 at 15 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré - Lanvin was then the only couture house to dress both women and men.
As an ambassadress of French elegance, Jeanne Lanvin continued to play a pre-eminent role in a series of exhibitions in the 1930s. She chaired the Couture group at the International Colonial Exhibition in Paris in 1931, and the Pavillon de l’Elégance at the International Exhibition of Arts and Techniques in Modern Life in Paris in 1937. In 1935 she showed creations in the haute couture show on the maiden transatlantic voyage of the liner Normandie. In 1938, she was made an officer of the Légion d’honneur. The tribute paid to her by her friend Sacha Guitry emphasised her success and visionary talent. Her last participation in a major international event was at the Théâtre de la mode exhibition, organised in 1945 to relaunch the French fashion industry after the Second World War. She died a year later, on 6 July 1946, in her mansion in rue Barbet-de-Jouy.
Lanvin, which celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2014, is the oldest French couture house still in activity.