If you haven't heard of the Three-Year Curse, let us break it down for you: Fashion's creative directors are consistently tasked with the impossible — a dozen collections a year, an entire social media presence to create and uphold, and a never-ending buzz about who they're dressing, what trends they're starting, and where they'll take the brand next. We've seen it happen with Raf Simons, Alexander Wang, Hedi Slimane, and more. Though only a few people (see: Tom Ford, Riccardo Tisci, and Nicolas Ghesquière) have managed to break the spell, for the rest of the industry, the most difficult task isn't listed above: It's actually keeping their job long enough to make an impact.
Mere weeks after the exit of Bouchra Jarrar — and just a couple days shy of the anniversary of founder Jeanne Lanvin's death — Lanvin announced French designer Olivier Lapidus as its newest leader. His appointment came as a shock to the fashion crowd, and not just because most had never heard his name before July 10. Since Alber Elbaz's departure in October 2015 (the reported result of a difference in opinion with Lanvin's shareholders), the company has struggled to find an artistic director who could continue the legacy that was so uniquely his own. After 14 years at the helm — and perhaps Lanvin's most famous, successful tenure — Jarrar would go on to (unsuccessfully) replace Elbaz. After a 16-month stint, she was out. And now, Lapidus is in. But, even fashion veterans are asking: Who is he?
The Little-Known Legacy
Non, Lapidus isn't a household name. Nor does he have the social and celebrity appeal of someone like Riccardo Tisci, or a lengthy in-house legacy like Alessandro Michele. But, perhaps that's not what the 59-year-old needs to conquer the task of a lifetime: reviving the DNA of France's oldest operating fashion house, and creating a collection in just about a month. In his own words, he is quite literally "fighting against time" — and in more ways than one.
Though Lapidus comes from a semi-famous lineage, his familial legacy isn't one that would necessarily create mass awareness or hype. Olivier Lapidus is the son of Ted Lapidus, who has been heralded for decades as the pioneer of unisex fashion, and dressed the likes of Françoise Hardy, Brigitte Bardot, and John Lennon. "I was born in this business," he tells Refinery29. "When I was four or five years old, I was already at the atelier with my father. I remember the happiness between 1968 and 1972, people laughing…what we call insouciance in French." Lapidus is referring, of course, to the period of harmony that followed the historical Paris riots of May 1968.
Lapidus would follow in his father's footsteps, attending the École de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, where he learned the art of couture. In 1985, he was hired to lead the menswear department at Balmain, where he designed just one collection before being sent to develop the brand's boutiques in Japan; his résumé also includes taking over his father's eponymous label, opening his own company in China, and collaborating on several design projects, including the interiors of the Hotel Félicien in Paris.
Now, after decades of minding his own business (literally), and a more strategic meeting with Chinese magnate Shaw-Lan Wang — a friend of Lapidus' for over 30 years, who also happens to be Lanvin's majority owner — the fate of the almost 130-year-old house is in his hands.
The Business Plans
"A few weeks ago, [Wang] contacted me and explained the complex situation at Lanvin, and if I wanted to do it. I knew it was a big challenge, but of course, I accepted," Lapidus says. That challenge comes with the task of not only rediscovering the essence of the French heritage brand, but also making Lanvin profitable again. For the first time in decades, the company saw a 23% decline in sales in 2016, with its profits falling approximately $128 million in just four years. The slump can be credited to many things: an unwillingness to invest in the company's future, the weariness of customers and the press of Jarrar’s short-lived vision, or even leftover sadness from Elbaz's exit. So, Lapidus’ goal is to boost the business wherever he can.
His short-term plans start with a dive into the brand's archive and bringing a carefully curated, capsule-style collection to life. "When Jeanne Lanvin passed away, they kept her office exactly as it was," he explains. "I spent some time there, and I saw many things from the past. But in the meantime, we have to make things very modern. It’s not a reproduction." Certain motifs that stood out to the designer include geometric figures and embroidery, with plans to continue Lanvin's reputable aesthetic of cocktail dresses and sophisticated daywear. "I think it’s very important — when you have such a house with [nearly] 130 years of history — to find some points, like the DNA, that you want to keep...unless you want to make your own collection and put a Lanvin label on it. It’s very important to be able to twist and transform these pages of Lanvin. That's what we're trying to do."
In other words, Lapidus plans to turn Lanvin into a "universe," a brand that is larger than fashion itself. In what he refers to as "stage two" of his takeover, he mentions plans of eventually returning to something Jeanne Lanvin set out to do after founding the house: transforming Lanvin into a booming business of accessories and wardrobe staples, and possibly even home décor.
The Rise Of E-Couture
Lapidus enters this new role with a lot of work to do: He'll have to dust off the bodices, fire up the sewing machines, and trade the client dossiers for computers, programmers, and a really strong wi-fi connection. The designer is known for his openness to the tech world, and cultivating the idea of "e-couture." Currently, couture garments from his eponymous label are made-to-order within 12 weeks. On whether or not Lanvin will adopt a similar model, Lapidus says the digital side of the house is “an open field” — for now. "I think I am the first one to do this, but I will not be the last," he says. "I think it’s a natural evolution to integrate exactly what we have in the real world [into a brand], so, today it’s new, but I’m sure in five years, you will have a lot of luxury brands of the internet. This vision can be very useful to Lanvin."
Though this idea — which is, essentially, an exercise in Lanvin catching up to other luxury retailers that have already adopted direct-to-consumer sales models — may not be new to Lapidus, it is for the label's customers. In fact, so much buzz has surrounded his appointment and the changes to come, that several news outlets have referred to his plans as turning Lanvin into a "French Michael Kors." But for Lapidus, this is simply not the case.
"I never said that [Lanvin would be the French Michael Kors]! It’s an absolute lie," he explains. "Somebody who wanted to hurt me said that, I guess. I don’t know why that newspaper tried to shoot me with that. [Editor's note: The "newspaper" he's referring to includes outlets such as the Times and Business of Fashion.] They have no reason to; I don’t know them. I didn’t say that, I would never." Lapidus was also quick to dispel the rumor that he's moving the label's headquarters to Levallois, a suburb of Paris, calling it "fake news."
But after years of instability, what would be so wrong about adopting a model that clearly works? In an industry where no one is really set up for success — much less given the chance to reinvent a brand — it's even harder for outsiders of his ilk to wedge their way in.
The Focus On Global Expansion
Of course, the zeniths of Lanvin and Kors couldn't be more different, but Lapidus is aware of how a more mass (read: global) approach can benefit a brand. "Today, the customer is worldwide," he notes. "When we make a collection, of course, we make it for New York. But as you know, the women of Shanghai are watching the women of New York. You have this huge Asian market, and even the Middle East market, but I think France may not be the priority today. America is a key point today in the market, definitely. I would love to show in New York one day. I think it’s very important to reestablish a lot of contact and confidence with the American side. Our responsibility is to create more of a link with America."
Asked whether he still considers Paris a fashion capital, seeing as several American designers have recently defected there, the couturier holds a rather radical perspective. "The capital of fashion was exported," he says. "Paris is a place to create, but the economical boom of today is more in America or Asia. We know this because it’s bigger; it’s different."
When looking at Lanvin’s legacy — that was arguably most recognisable during its Golden Era under Elbaz — it’s worth asking where the French woman falls in Lanvin’s future. But after speaking with Lapidus on which trends work on and off the runway (and really, which signature Lanvin aesthetics will survive the house's umpteenth artistic direction), it seems she’s not gone...yet. “I cannot fight with American sportswear,” he admits, while noting that, despite the surge in athleisure, there’s still a space for luxury and glamour. But, Lanvin will have to change, and he knows that. “Just like other brands, Lanvin is an evolution. So, you’re obliged to change the collection. It’s normal that Lanvin changes. I’m not afraid of that, nor was Jeanne Lanvin.”
The Uncertainty Of The Future
The pressure is on. To be fair, there are several ways this move could fail and result in a rather embarrassing attempt to revive a house that most people feel will never be the same. The idea of appointing a relative nobody to revamp a notoriously traditional business seems provocative, but anyone who's been both charmed and burned by the industry knows it takes more than hype to save a legacy. And, not for nothing, it's going to take more than one fashion show to win back the trust of investors and die-hard Elbaz customers.
But given the right tools — that is, the willingness of Lanvin’s financial backers to participate in its future, a carte blanche from the industry (issued gratis), and maybe a shot of espresso or two — Lapidus could have what it takes to repair the foundation of a house that has fought so hard to survive the demands of the industry today, and mend Lanvin's broken heart. And, no matter how cynical the industry may be, there are people out there who want to see that.
“In front of the white paper, you are alone. But the people I’ve met here want to help me, and they are willing to fight for this beautiful company,” Lapidus says, smiling. “I’m so happy. Believe me: This is a company with soul.”