PERCEPTION IS EVERYTHING in fashion. No matter how fast-changing and forward-looking the industry is, certain brands will always be associated with their strongest signature, whether it’s a best-selling piece that made their fortune or a singular aesthetic that has come to embody their image. Lanvin, the oldest still-operating couture house in France, was until recently the go-to label for impeccably chic and flattering women’s frocks that the startlingly talented creative director Alber Elbaz concocted almost out of thin air.
Menswear, a category that Jeanne Lanvin herself started at the house in her heyday, had long been on the back burner, relegated to a made-to-measure service in the men’s boutique in Paris and some beautifully made off-the-rack suits. It wasn’t until the arrival of a menswear designer that the Lanvin homme started to take shape.
Lucas Ossendrijver, the soft-spoken and unassuming Dutchman appointed by Elbaz to head of the men’s studio in 2006, has gradually created a business that, in terms of clout and critical mass, now rivals the women’s line. Although his collections have become darker and more urban in the last few years, Ossendrijver began with a vision of men’s fashion that was in stark contrast to the then-popular look of thin-as-rails models in skinny suits championed by Hedi Slimane at Dior Homme.
The irony is that Ossendrijver trained under Slimane, working alongside him at Dior Homme before making the big move to Lanvin. Hearing through the grapevine that Elbaz was looking to boost Lanvin’s menswear department with a designer and a separate studio devoted to it, Ossendrijver didn’t wait to receive that fateful call but wrote Elbaz a note. After meeting him and Lanvin owner Shaw-Lan Wang, he “joined the family” – as he put it during a conversation on a visit to Hong Kong in April for the opening of a Lanvin boutique.
Questioned about the departure from the strict and forbidding silhouettes of Dior Homme to the more suave and forgiving ensembles he conjures up at Lanvin, he replies, “When I think of what I would like to wear, lightness is something that always comes to mind. You don’t want to feel constricted in your clothes. You don’t want to feel like you’re wearing something that’s limiting you.”
Of the years spent under Slimane, Ossendrijver says, “When I was at Dior, it was a very good school. It was the very first time I worked at a French luxury brand. It was really a couture maison in the whole structure. I learned a lot about precision, about cut, about going all the way in the way you see things. It was very demanding. Lanvin’s a very different brand. It’s not at all the same heritage. It’s not at all the same identity. And in that sense, the freedom I felt arriving at Lanvin was also very special. At Lanvin, we have a lot of freedom to create. Nobody’s telling us what to do. There’s no big marketing department.”
Whether or not marketing heads guide Ossendrijver’s output, it’s clear that they’re putting their money where his mouth is: in only half a decade, the designer has built a successful menswear business with cult items such as those highly coveted patented cap-toe sneakers worn by Usher and Robert Downey Jr, men who seem to have little in common when it comes to their style.
This speaks to Ossendrijver’s focus on the relative accessibility of his clothes, which he defines as “democratic”. “I took the heritage and all the know-how and opened it up a little more to different kinds of customers,” he says. “So we still have the classic one, who buys the suit and the shirts. But we also have customers who come for more fashionoriented pieces, younger ones who buy trainers or T-shirts. “I don’t see Lanvin as a fashion brand. We’re not trying to be fashion. I think it was important that we kept that notion so our classic customers can still buy items with us. It’s not just about becoming fashion, but it’s about keeping the heritage and trying to just open it up a little bit. Make it feel a bit larger.”
In rebuilding the men’s line, Ossendrijver clearly adhered to Elbaz’s view of letting women be and not stifling them in pretty cages, which he’s tried to adapt for his male clients. He emphasises how instead of just offering a new collection each season, he tries to create a man’s wardrobe for different times of the day, a proposition inherited from Jeanne Lanvin herself.
“When she started to do menswear, it was all by measure,” he says. “But there would be something suitable for every moment of the day – so you have the suit, the pyjama, the shirt, the underwear, the eveningwear – a complete wardrobe. Our collection is still the idea of proposing a complete wardrobe and not just suits and shirts – every time of the day for every type of man. Everybody has a different body. Everybody has a different height. Every personality is different. It’s all about celebrating individuality instead of trying to impose one single look.”
For the designer, the essence of this approach is the concept of evolution: “One season goes into the other and a collection often is a reaction to what you did before. Menswear is not a revolution. It’s an evolution. Every season, you sort of grow into something different, but it’s changing the balance. We don’t throw everything away and start again. I think for clients it would be very difficult. I love the consistency and I love changing, but changing without losing identity.”
Ossendrijver reveals that he’s his own worst customer for his tendency to wear a daily uniform of jacket, shirt and jeans. “Twenty-four hours a day, I’m thinking about fabric, colour, proportion, so for myself, I don’t want to think about that as well.” He’s lived in Paris for the better part of his adult life, but when you look at the way he views design, his Dutch background – which informs a pragmatic approach that’s functional as well as pleasing to the eye – obviously plays a role.
What he loves most about his job, he says, is the process, the intricacies of creating a piece of clothing, physically putting it together. At the end of the interview, he shares an anecdote about his discovery of
fashion, the moment he realised that it was what he wanted to do. As you might expect from someone like Ossendrijver, his tale doesn’t involve glamorous images of models strutting down the runway or the theatrics of the Parisian designers who fascinated many of his contemporaries.
“I remember going to a flea market in Amsterdam and finding a handmade tailored jacket,” he says. “I started to look inside, I took out the lining and I discovered everything that was inside. I remember everything was stitched by hand, with all these weird layers. I bought it and I took it apart. Seeing that really made me think, ‘Wow, what is this? Why is all this inside? What is the function of everything and how is it done?’
He clearly found the answers to those questions a while ago – and men around the world couldn’t be more grateful.