In New Orleans

Opera, humour and Fassbinderian dreaming: Bruno Sialelli’s Lanvin world revealed
Photography Harry Eelman

Lanvin’s womenswear has gone through a few tough reboots since the departure of Alber Elbaz in 2015. Such a striking signature is a tall order to follow, and the immense task of defining a new, personal take on the codes of Paris’ oldest fashion house could easily become overwhelming. Enter Bruno Sialelli: at 31, the relatively unknown designer doesn’t seem phased by the pressure. Perhaps it’s because he honed skills at a diverse and highly relevant group of positions, including stints at Balenciaga, Paco Rabanne and Loewe. Or maybe it’s because of the respectful, intuitive and playful way he chooses to work with Jeanne Lanvin’s original research. Either way, his light touch and agile, youthful approach to the brand plants Lanvin back at the heart of a contemporary conversation.

As creative director of both women’s and menswear (the esteemed Lucas Ossendrijver – Lanvin’s menswear artistic director since 2006 – departed the house last year) Sialelli’s Lanvin is poised to redefine the house for a new generation. Here, we talk to Sialelli about his vision for the house alongside a special shoot spotlighting the designer’s debut Lanvin collection in New Orleans – ‘The Big Easy’.


Bruno Sialelli: I grew up in the south of France, in Marseille, in a building designed by Corbusier.
James West: Chic.
BS: My parents bought the apartment before I was born, and I grew up in a very specific building – La Cité Radieuse. It’s huge, you know, those buildings that were built in the 50s after the war to house as many families as they could.

JW: But in a utopian kind of way?
BS: Exactly, the utopia of Le Corbusier. He proposed the redesign of Paris back in the day [Corbusier’s 1925 Plan Voisin was an unrealised concept to redevelop Paris]. The building is also called Unité d’Habitation, and he basically proposed it for the whole of France.

JW: Are there lots of laws about how you can decorate? I guess you can’t change much.
BS: When my parents bought this apartment, it was in the late 80s and, at that time, all the apartments were in their youth – they were the same when they were constructed. The interiors were designed by Charlotte Perrian, Jean Prouvé… there was a band of decorators and architects that worked on all those projects together. So when I was a kid, I remember all the apartments were the same. There is a school [in the complex], a bar, a hotel, a restaurant, a shop, a grocery, a bakery, a cinema… you don’t need to leave.

JW: So did you forget whose apartment you were in if they were all the same?
BS: Yeah a bit! Obviously everybody decorated differently, but you know, it’s a very famous kitchen design. For me, when I was a kid, it was just a normal apartment. When I went to my grandma’s [in a different building], I was like, “Where is the cinema?!” [all laugh]. I loved it obviously, it was a very good childhood. And then in the 90s it became desirable and people started to sell pieces of the apartment, like the kitchen, or the stairs, and so now I think there are only three or four apartments that are really as they were. Back in the day, people said, “I don’t like this kitchen it’s not functional, I will just put an IKEA one in, and put this one in the garbage,” it was really like that. And actually, [Azzedine] Alaïa collected everything from Jean Prouvé because he was obsessed. [The apartments are] a duplex and there are two rooms for children, a room for parents, a mezzanine and a living room, and in every room there were cupboards and a mirror… so all of that you could take off, and now it costs tens of thousands of Euros. I guess this affected my perspective a bit, but it wasn’t chic at the time – not a lot of people in Marseille wanted to live there. It was really ‘left side’, all my friends’ parents were psychologists and architects. Because it’s a community you live in and you’re with your neighbours all the time – the kids go to school together – you have to really decide to live that way. And then when I was fifteen-years-old I became very interested in fashion and I wanted to express myself, so I started to work at the Opéra de Marseille as a costume maker. I learned how to drape and then, when I was eighteen, I went to Paris to fashion school for two years.

Fabien Kruszelnicki: So you were at the Opéra for nearly three years?
BS: Yes I was fifteen-and-a-half, sixteen when I started, so two-and-a-half years.

FK: Were you still at school and just doing it part-time on weekends?
BS: Exactly.

JW: That must have been quite amazing as a first interaction with fashion.
BS: Yes, I started [as an usher] seating people at the opera in the evening to make a bit of money. Then I met the people from the workroom and I proposed to help them. So I switched and I started to work there, on a production by Christian Lacroix. Back in the day he was doing a lot of opera. Then I went to Paris when I was seventeen to do an internship at Christian Lacroix, and I worked on couture for two months. So this was the moment I understood that I wanted to move from Marseille.

JW: Did that internship meet your expectations of what a fashion company would be like?
BS: It was more than I expected. When I arrived – I remember the first day – Bertrand Guyon was the design director there, and he invited me to the archive to see everything. It was just a shock to see such an opulent way of doing things, I think Lacroix Couture was… I was speechless, it was astonishing, spectacular… that was really when I thought, “I want to do this in my life.” So when I was eighteen, boom, I moved from Marseille. I did two years at school and then I interned at Balenciaga, I started in 2010 and I stayed for around four-and-a-half years. I started as an intern, then became an assistant, it was really step-by-step. Then I moved to Acne for two years, after that I moved to Paco Rabanne, then to Loewe.

JW: So with that range of experience, I imagine you saw lots of different ways of working?
BS: Yes. Lacroix was close to what I learned at the opera, because working with costume is like a very old, couture approach. It’s really handmade, very artisanal. It’s obviously less opulent, but it’s still quite close, in a way. Then Balenciaga, I was obsessed by this brand when I was studying, I really wanted to get in and I was lucky to get an internship. When Nicolas [Ghesquière] left [he announced his departure in 2012] I did one or two seasons with Alexander Wang, then I was approached by Acne. At this time Acne opened their studio in Paris, they wanted to elevate their product. They had 100 percent Swedish designers and wanted to start hiring people from other backgrounds, so it was an interesting project for me as I wanted to understand the business strategy for a company that sells a lot of clothes. I spent two years there, back and forth between Stockholm and Paris.

JW: What were the eye-opening moments in terms of designing clothes with a more sales-driven outlook?
BS: A better reflection on functionality, and of the ideal collection plan for a specific brand. At Acne, I was a very good match with Jonny Johansson, the owner and creative director. He proposed a very cool position, they really wanted me to have fun there and work my own way. That was for two years, but it felt longer because I was spending half my time in Paris and half in Stockholm. Sometimes I had to stay there for three weeks, and three weeks in January in Stockholm is kind of depressing I have to say, especially when you come from the South of France. I was grey, I put on 10kg. It was a weird thing honestly, Scandinavian people are very connected to the seasons, so in the winter people close themselves in a bubble, they get fat, they stay home and they have sex for a long time. Then suddenly the summer comes, there is no night and people work out, break- up and party like crazy. So the gap is big in-between the mind-set of people in winter and summer. It’s quite funny how someone you found boring in the winter suddenly goes crazy in summer and parties all the time.

JW: Interesting couple of years.
BS: Yes. And then Paco Rabanne. I went there because it’s a kind of design that I knew how to do because of Balenciaga. I knew I wanted to go back to Paris 100 percent and I thought it was interesting to come back in a smaller-sized company, where you really handle things. You have this autonomy when it’s a very small studio, but I only did that for one season, because I got approached by Jonathan [Anderson] for Loewe, and voilà! I did Loewe because it was a good challenge – I ’d only done womenswear, but when he saw my portfolio Jonathan proposed me as design director, but for menswear. I was like, “OK maybe I can do this type of menswear since it’s not so formal and quite playful,” I guess I had that in me, it was a great experience.

FK: What influences do you think you kept from each place you worked?
BS: I guess from the opera, how to make something look extreme from afar. How you can express something, make everything bigger, as obvious as you can. Also the level of craftsmanship, the colours, the embroidery – all those vocabularies that are quite difficult to handle when you start trying to be creative, because colours are actually not so easy. Christian Lacroix was the king of that, his pieces are very engaging in that sense. And it was couture, so obviously you had to look at everything from the inside, from the outside… it’s super challenging, that kind of level. At Balenciaga I guess it was how to take an idea as far as you can, whatever the input – you can work for months on the same piece to make it perfect, it’s a kind of perseverance through design, and through your proposition. From Acne, I think it was the idea of democratic fashion.

“[Jeanne Lanvin] was really open-minded and I have access to some of her archives, she bought a lot of oriental fabrics and embroideries, so I think that [research] is a process that has been there since the beginning. 

JW: It ’s been an interesting couple of years for Lanvin ’s womenswear. How do you begin to think about starting something new? You have to think about designing that first collection, but also about what you want in a year, two years, three years. How do you put all that together at the start?
BS: I guess I will be able to rationalise that best in a few years! You have it in you a bit instinctively. For Lanvin I guess I have those past experiences with me, and it informs how I want to work with my team, my work method, and how I use references. This first show is almost like a library of languages and vocabularies that I want to continue to push forward. There are more pragmatic plans, in terms of business, in terms of vision and imagery and communication, and there are obviously more abstract elements that are linked to people, to me, to my team, to the propositions that will be put on the table from everyone and how we are going to mix that together.

“The collection is like different chapters of a book, where you have Fassbinderian characters, like sailors going on boats for months…”

FK: Would you say it’s quite a personal thing at the moment?
BS: For sure. Also, Lanvin is 130-years-old and has evoked many things throughout that time, so I am also learning what Lanvin was in the 20s, the 30s, the 70s. All those periods provided emotions that consciously or unconsciously people are able to receive, sometimes through little details – you get a bit of Montana [Claude Montana designed Lanvin ’s couture from 1990-82] or a bit of something else, and I think we are in a time where that reflects how people work. I don’t really like this word, but it’s very curatorial in a way. You won’t invent design, you will not necessarily invent a silhouette, it’s more about how you combine things that is interesting and relevant and maybe modern and new. I think this is more where I ’m playing my role. Even for Jeanne Lanvin it was a type of elegance, but it wasn’t over-designed. It’s not like [Cristóbal] Balenciaga, for example, who really created fabric and shape, which you then have as codes that are important to represent the house in any period. Lanvin is not about that, it’s about subtle reference and using the folkloric, colour and contrast – those are part of the legacy.

FK: How do you decide where the boundaries are, what you want to keep from Lanvin and where you want to push it?
BS: I think Lanvin is a house that is not so rigid in terms of what it provides, it’s very plural. So in a way I found it possible to be personal while getting attached to some references that are maybe… how to say… understandable. So it’s not very pragmatic, it’s a wide universe and a never-ending story to discover things within. Sometimes you want to investigate something specific, like the medieval for example. When I realised that was a reference for her, I thought, “OK let’s see what her research was, what the pieces are that reflect that,” and then trying to stop at the right moment so you can just be yourself, but still using an inspiration that has been important for the house. Finding this kind of edge. I think Jeanne Lanvin is more the period I’m trying to understand, because it has been so different after her, in the 60s and 70s. It’s kind of the solid base for me, so it’s where I search the most. From there, I understood that she was a woman who had an obscure side; it ’s not so clear which type of woman she was. Although her lifestyle has accessible, documented information, a big part is not understandable. It’s not like Coco Chanel, where you know that she was very sexual, you know her private life and it allows you to build everything on the idea of her. That’s what Chanel did actually, the perfume… everything is built on her, Karl [Lagerfeld] talked a lot about her, and with Lanvin it’s not possible because you just have what she produced, you don’t have her personal life. I guess everyone can interpret that in their own way, but for me I don’t try to understand it too much, so what I have is her research, her books of fabrics, and I understand that she was really sourcing a lot. She was really open-minded and I have access to some of her archives, she bought a lot of oriental fabrics and embroideries, so I think that [research] is a process that has been there since the beginning.

JW: So what is your working process like? Are you driven by research? Do you sketch?
BS: It’s made out of many angles. It’s quite plural because I can sketch but I’m not the type of designer who will sketch a line-up and say, “OK, that ’s it!” Sometimes it starts from iconography, from a movie, from art, from everyone around me. But what is important for me at the beginning of the season is to think of a character, then through design and casting, I build on these characters. From there, usually I do a lot of styling, I take someone that inspires me – for example, you put a straw hat on a pair of models and the character is somewhere. Then I inject references with my team.

JW: Your work and personality seem quite playful which I love, there ’s a looseness, room to breathe. I remember quite clearly at this FW19 show, the audience almost collectively inhaled at the end – a sense of elation. Is that something that has always been part of you, that playfulness?
BS: Yes, it has [laughs] I’ve always been a kooky person. I like playful things, I like to put humour in things. You might not know this person but my mother had a young brother who was a famous humourist in France called Élie Kakou. When I was a kid I really admired what he did, he was the first humourist in France who created a one-man show with dancers, he was doing parodies of fashion, Jean-Paul Gaultier was a close friend of his in the 80s and 90s. So I think it’s part of my personality. But it’s important to keep the elegance through Lanvin and the elevation of the fabrics and the products. The kookiness let’s say, is a bit of my personality that I can’t really go against, but I try to balance it with an idea of elegance and chicness. I think Lanvin can be a bit childish, you know? There is the logo with Jeanne Lanvin and her daughter [Lanvin designed clothes for her daughter] and there is a very soft feeling about the old construction of the house. Babar [the Elephant, Sialelli used drawings from book in his debut collection] was something else that came instinctively. Babar was created by Jean de Brunhoff, he made a comic book for his son when he was sick, it ’s that same story, that same softness. James: When you get to the end of the process are you quite calm and in control? Or are you one of those people who’s frantically finishing things? Bruno: I ’m quite calm. I work with Carlos Nazario [stylist] on the prep, the styling and the location of the look [in the running order]. So at the end it’s less about design – the products are done – it’s more about allocating the right look to the right character.

“The kookiness let’s say, is a bit of my personality that I can’t really go against, but I try to balance it with an idea of elegance and chicness. I think Lanvin can be a bit childish, you know?”

FK: When does the collection feel like it’s finished to you?
BS: The day before.

FK: And when do you start thinking about the next one?
BS: Our collections overlap. When I finish one, I kick off the next directly, so the team has time to get it ready.

FK: What’s your studio environment like? Is it quite calm as well or do you have lots of music?
BS: Yes, it’s more like the latter. I think I kept a bit of that from Acne. Obviously I’m young and even just because of that I’m quite accessible to everyone. It’s democratic and I’m available for everyone. I have a space where I can really be alone when I want too.

FK: Are you better working throughout the day or the evening?
BS: It depends. I can be a night person but I’m not a morning person. If the team and I finish at 7pm, I’m really happy. I don’t want people to come to the office on the weekend, it’s important for me that I connect with fresh people who have a personal life and are having fun.

FK: It’s too much otherwise.
BS: I think it can easily end up in a torturous situation. In previous places sometimes I would finish super-late. I don’t really want that, it’s not efficient or modern. You can be efficient in an eight- hour day of work with a good lunch break, and when you’re done you leave and have fun with your friends. That’s the perfect day for me. Some people are good at 11pm after a long day, but in general you lose time actually, you exhaust yourself. I have meetings back-to-back all day so sometimes I finish very late but that ’s another thing, I have to input a lot to many different departments, but in terms of design and studio, when you’re on that specific part of the job, there is no point staying so late.

JW: I know this might be a bit of a big question… the industry is going through radical change. What are the big challenges that designers need to be thinking about over the next five years?
BS: I think there is a misunderstanding about this whole digital world and the game of VIP and celebrity. It ’s also really important to be agile and go with the flow a bit. Lanvin is not a big company, it’s an established house: old, but tiny. So, in a way, it allows us to be a bit more like a start-up – to be agile. We are a bit slow because it has been difficult in the past, but now we can be light in our process and I think the big, big brands now are a bit rigid, in the times that are in front of us it’s not going to be easy for some houses to flip and shift. For example, a new law is being worked on in France where it will be forbidden to destroy unsold products. That will change the business strategy for a lot of houses. At the moment they burn everything to keep the value. In auctions, bags from some brands can reach €25k. [Scarcity] keeps the value of the house, a bit like the art system – just that one law will affect everything.

FK: You talked about characters and story, do you have archetypal characters that you like to return to in your work? Or ideas, like the idea of the gothic? Or the idea of a voyage?
BS: Yes. My works are quite connected to my childhood and things that I’ve been obsessed with. Obviously there are references to contemporary art and other things as well… I think it’s difficult for me – in fashion – to talk about the real world. I enjoy this idea of exploring unreal characters. For the first show, even if the clothes can be worn in daily life – in an office, for example – the structure of the character is really about leisure. The collection is like different chapters of a book, where you have Fassbinderian characters, like sailors going on boats for months, and that’s a real idea, but through Fassbinder there are larger-than-life characters, and then there is a section in the show that ’s medieval. So it’s about the mystery of these characters.

JW: Like a dream of a person.
BS: Yes – a dream of a person. Then there is this character we called ‘The Gardener,’ who leads a lavish lifestyle gathering fruits, and that’s the image. It provides me so much peace actually, thinking about the life of these women. I really need to tell myself a story that becomes real.

All clothing Lavin FW19.

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