Interview Filep Motwary

It was already more than a year ago when Bruno Sialelli stepped into the Parisian fashion scene as the new creative director of Lanvin. At the moment he was practically unknown. Being the fourth designer in less than four years to enter the famous Parisian fashion house, this commitment is definitely raising the bar for Sialelli whose vision is much more youthful than his predecessors – Jarrar, Lapidus, and Ossendrijver– all who appeared to have failed to fill Lanvin’sshoes. Sialelli, who has past experience at Balenciaga, Acne, Paco Rabanne, and LOEWE under his belt, is taking both womenswear and menswear in an ambitious direction outside the pattern of the French bourgeoisie. In the midst of the second lockdown, both in Paris and Athens and only a few days after the presentation of Lanvin’sSS2021 in Shanghai we are on a zoom meeting that was arranged by his team.

Filep Motwary: Hi, Bruno? Good morning!

Bruno Sialelli: I am sorry, I am a bit late. It is very nice to meet you.

Yes, you too! Congratulations on your work! I hope it’s ok to start with how Covid-19compels the fashion industry to a restart. How did you and Lanvin react to this emergency, and what is the lesson this emergency has taught you?

We had to deal with the rules that have come since the spring, like everyone else, and find our way to work and to creatively exchange with my studio team and particularly with the owner of the house. This was really the basis of our first processes. I haven’t actually seen my boss since it must be a year now, because they are in China and so there is a lot of new adjustments with this emergency to apply in order to keep track of everything. Was your question being more maybe on the creativity and the creative process?

That too, yes, but also I mean since we are all in lockdown and you need to work because you work in fashion so you need to produce these collections, you need to design and think of a beautiful next season or a sellable next season, correct? How pragmatic is this for you?

It is not easy! Yet, like all the other creative people, creative directors, designers, and every creative person out there are probably more used to challenging themselves. We compose in front of a situation and reinvent it, so obviously there have been a lot of difficulties, mostly technical, caused mainly by the isolation et Cetera. This new process is fun because spending the lockdown from home in addition to the government mobility rules that stop us from having a substantial social life, a complete social life actually pushes us to escape through our work – there is definitely a strong and creative urge to it. You are obliged to feed yourself with only what’s around you, in your apartment, in your place. There are no exhibitions, no concerts, no parties and you don’t meet any extra people. It’s a chance to invent stories with what you have around you. I see it as an exercise. With the lockdown, you discover that you have a specific time frame where you can do your research, process your collection, gather iconography et Cetera. I would say the first lockdown last spring worked nicely for me. It had a different kind of rush.

How so?

Well the rush for the design process, the definition of the designs that take time to improve and to… yes, so there is that side too (laughs). And, as well I think the main expectation with it is how designer and a fashion house can anticipate the close future? This question was raised from early on.I think certain brands and creative directors or designers are addressing what has happened from a political perspective and perhaps they are heading into expressing a certain heaviness or a certain alarm towards society.

With Lanvin, it has been quite natural to propose a solution that is more about escaping, about finding optimism in the ways the future will arrive you look at patterns from the past, from human clothing history, you can easily see how crises or any wars that took place, have been true opportunities for creativity but also for the economy to thrive. It’s a moment where we can really learn from the past by looking at past fashions.

You know what impresses me about you – we have been talking now for almost ten minutes and you haven’t mentioned anything too personal. You only speak about your work, and how Covid is affecting it. Of course, this was my question but I am wondering how – this is the second lockdown in Paris, correct? How did you react to it on a personal level?

I don’t live in the grandest apartment in Paris, I live quite humbly at a place that is filled with books and movie dvds. I have a dog and I live with my boyfriend and we work together as well. Even by just looking at what our neighbors are doing, it’s a sign of life, no? We actually felt quite lucky to have this chance to live and do things together that we never had the time for. You know, I rarely get bored, since I was a kid, I am happy with boredom actually. Boredom enables my creativity. Back then, my generation didn’t have any digital screens to play with. On the contrary, my summers were endless, accompanied by my parents or by just being by myself. I found it easy to stay entertained, I’ve made full use of the lockdown actually since the beginning. I’ve consumed so much culture, choosing the books I would read, or the films I would watch, while also working on the current collection.

Bruno your name is Italian but you sound French – naturally, I am a bit confused.

(Laughs) I was talking about this yesterday with Thierry, our communications director – about the fact that people think I am an Italian designer, that I am actually from Italy, and that my native language is Italian! I even receive texts in Italian! The trust is I don’t speak a word of Italian! My name is Corsican while my father is from Corsica. It’s a very French name in fact.

My mum is a Tunisian who speaks her language, and I was born in Marseille, raised in the south of France, and I have these mixed origins. I am a bit blond with light-colored eyes, but actually. I remember that my grandmother did speak better Arabic than French. There it is, the story!

Thanks for clarifying! I am wondering Bruno about your perspective of fashion before you got involved in it?

I think fashion is everywhere, and every human being can be an inspiration to fashion! If you have somehow the … how do you say, a creative eye you can build a story around everyone, on everybody, if you take the time to listen to their life story, sometimes it can be it is, the story, sometimes it can be dark, it can be light, it can be anything but uninteresting!
There is no hierarchy for me in the way one can be inspired by a neighbor, a cleaning lady or a fabulous woman at a party, or a young man or whomever. I was a very curious child – over curious actually – to the point it was annoying. I would always ask a lot of questions and I was very much into understanding adult life. A building by Le Corbusier in Marseille was the place I grew up in, as my parents bought an apartment there just a year before I was born. So my upbringing was connected to a very interesting architectural monument and I went to École Nationale Supérieure Maritime looking at the world from the 8th

How did this matter for you later?

Back in the day, that was a very specific place – I mean the families that decided to live and to raise their kids there, they were of a very specific kind and many of them were psychologists or architects. Of course, there were more left-wing families and it seemed like a kind of community. I think those years shaped somehow my mind because I was indeed surrounded by very special people, all of them well-cultured. It was thanks to them that I started to embrace the world of fashion and cinema.
My mom liked to dress and it was quite fun to observe her tastes in that sense. During my teenage years, I met someone that offered me to do an internship at the Marseille Opera, in the costume workshop. So, I tried and I loved it.
Up until that moment, I had never before sewed a button and suddenly I was at a place where I could learn and understand the beauty of fabrics, the beauty of draping.
At the age of 15-16, I decided to do an apprenticeship there and I stayed for almost three more years working on very different productions, more contemporary productions I would say, as well more like classic opera and more historical costumes, ballet etc. It was like working in haute couture. An internship at Christian Lacroix followed next.

Ah Lacroix, the Opera master. He is a good friend!

So yes, as a boy from the south of France, Christian Lacroix was a revelation, he was actually one of the designers that were talking about the whole of France, not just Paris. I don’t know how to say it – his style was of a wider range, much richer than others. It was a very interesting period for me, working in his atelier with the ‘petites mains, working on a hemline for three days – as it was haute couture of course – might sound endless but that’s how you do things in such context! Perhaps I could have become an embroiderer, who knows, only because I like giving time in what I do.
At 18 I enrolled at a fashion school in Paris and moved to the big city with the desire to discover everything, the world, my sexuality, my universe!

Bruno, you have extensive experience in designing clothes for brands that are not yours. So, I am wondering how easy it is for you to change your skin with every new contract? And, how challenging is each new transition for you?

It has been easier in some brands than others. As a student I was obsessed with Balenciaga and the work of Nicolas Ghesquière and wanted to be there,
to understand how it works and finally I got the chance. When you are a young student, it is important to focus and to follow that something that you are obsessed with. In my schoolwork, it was clear that I loved the work of Prada and Comme Des Garcons and that’s the way it could have been for other students at the time, I guess. You need to live it as you are really part of it and this will enable you to find yourself, who you really are!

As an intern at Balenciaga I had to constantly prove myself and I did by adding layers to what was the brand’s creative platform, where all the rest of the team also had to place their own layers. These layers had to have something personal too and that’s how I was offered a job there. I was the designer that was really about a three-dimensional approach and Natasha Ramsay’s assistant. She was the head of the studio and in charge of the design. She was feeding me with seasoned vocabulary, give me a few references and I had to develop one idea after the other, mock-ups and stuff…
It was 2010, at the turn of Balenciaga becoming very popular to the intelligentsia and as well for the wider community. I arrived at the intersection when the studio became enormously big and there was an army of designers working there.

I think just before I arrived, the season before, the team was still quite small, like a small family. Balenciaga was a fantastic experience!
Then, I moved to Acne, I worked there for two years, a totally different frame and platform. Actually, I was excited to work for a house and a brand that sells a lot! As I was a ready-to-wear designer, it was truly interesting for me to understand how in a brand, merchandising is ahead of the design studio team and what happens in between.
Obviously, at Acne I had the chance to design things that were very exciting, but it was totally another client, let’s put it this way. I feel lucky because I always end up in houses where I have been picked and been allowed to propose personal things.
I have never been a fluid designer, I have never been a tailoring designer, I have never been an outwards designer. I have always got the chance to propose different stuff and develop them, and sometimes it was really a lot of this, sometimes it was a lot of something totally different than my taste. At Acne it was the case too – I had a very good relationship with the creative director – and owner, which was also something different as well for me to understand. I was quite young then, and it was all new for me. The challenge was different from the goals. Living in Sweden as well, for me to end up in Stockholm in the winter and having that life was also…

Different! You are already entering a whole new perspective!

Yes! It was interesting to observe how people and how their lives are really linked to the seasons. The seasons are so strong. When you live in Paris or in a fashion capital like Paris, Milan, etc, you are in places where the seasons are marked but they are not so strong. And, I think that is why there are fashion capitals because you have a proper winter, you have a proper summer, and this is how I think the business for centuries has blossomed in Paris or London or Milan – it’s simply due to the fact that we have the seasons.
A city where there is only summer or only winter, can’t really become a fashion capital. Stockholm has this feeling engraved and it was very interesting to live it for me or how Swedish people live their lives in a place wherein winter everyone is depressed, people get fat, they get in a couple, they stay at home and do nothing. Or then, in the summer couples break up, people work out, party all the time (laughs) It was somehow schizophrenic! But it was also a place I learned to be myself, so I am thankful.

Then, I worked a little bit for Paco Rabanne – only one season. It was a small job that I accepted only to return back to Paris. Then I met Jonathan Anderson! Loewe was an experience that had it all! Until then I had never done menswear before when I got to see him, I think what excited him about my work profile was the plurality in my portfolio and the fact that I could do many things. That I didn’t frame myself in a certain typology.
He wanted to define a new type of masculinity because the new masculinity of J.W Anderson is something that is very editorial and very statemented, and he wanted to translate something of that and allow a more universal feel, a more luxurious feel. So, there were subtle approaches to find and to explore there. As mentioned, I never really got to translate my creativity into a man’s body and wardrobe. Until then I couldn’t understand how it was linked to my professional life and this allowed me to fly through open windows, it opened new doors for a new gender.
The DNA that Jonathan wanted to convey and to build felt to fit my own story too. It was really a project that felt in harmony with my professional taste.

…you understood the language. I am wondering Bruno when you were asked to take over at Lanvin, what were your first thoughts?

Very instinctively, there are houses I didn’t feel and that I don’t feel I could be relevant with. Sometimes it is about making a list of your
capacities, of what you would like or rather not Lanvin felt like the natural next step to me, when I received the offer, I had very little time to think about it, to be honest. The idea I had about the house as a whole actually was much smaller compared to what I discovered while in-house
later! Creative direction was not on the table at the time and there were a few interesting offers for designer/director roles coming from different directions. This is the first time I received a proposal as such and I got it through a headhunter whom I met on many occasions in the past and she felt I fit the role. Arriving at Lanvin was an epiphany! I discovered the depth of the Maison, the capability. This type of patrimonial house with more than 100 years of history, the more you think you know the more you get surprised.

Yes. I want to ask you about this – your take at Lanvin is less Fatale than it was with Alber Elbaz or dramatic with Montana and so on. How easy it is for a house to move in a new direction each time, with a new creative director? And, at the same time how feasible it is to maintain the clientele of Lanvin that already exists?

Nothing is easy! It’s not easy or difficult. You talked about Alber and Claude Montana – but there has been as well Castillo – each of them marked an era in the life of the house. Back in the 70s, Lanvin was really bohemian and free. The woman was very sensual and erotic but not at all in the Alber or in the Claude Montana way. Claude Montana has been very empowering. I think what I noticed at Lanvin was the fact that it’s about a house that has managed to find context at the moment. It is not a house that has been anxiously anticipating the future if you see what I mean. When I was at Balenciaga, the core value of Nicolas was the aesthetic of the future, just the future. You always have to find modernity and new fabric and new cuts, and it was really about that and the work they do now is still about that.

Lanvin has always been since the founding about ‘the now’, about informing ‘the now’, and informed by ‘the now’…

Indeed, there has always been an exchange of the current time and it works well because there is not so much pressure in this attitude. It is more of a universe, a feeling, an emotion. I think every creative director at Lanvin, apart from their own story, all had to find how they could mirror their own obsessions, their own aesthetics, and desires within that platform and timeframe. Each of them explored – at Lanvin – what is Lanvin, what can actually be referenceable but also personal. It is the only way one can find yourself and be genuine and be grounded by the things one stands for. I feel that I did read that very early on, looking at the founder, Ms. Jeanne Lanvin she was really prominent in the fashion landscape, in the art deco, for example, this was the era of the house where it has become a foundational house of the Parisian haute-couture landscape. And again, it was about the moment, it was re-addressing the lifestyle of an audience that was in the inter-wars and she addressed that, and this is what I am trying to do.

I want to focus now on the spring/summer ’21 collection that you showed a few days ago. It opened with dresses that kind of … these dresses took us back to the Lanvin heritage. This was your fourth womenswear show – and it appeared as a fusion between Chinese and French culture, it was like a dialogue. There was a softness and perhaps girliness, as opposed to the winter collection that was much rougher. What was really the mood board for this collection?

After the last February’s show, I understood that it was important to express somehow the conversation I had with the founder of Lanvin and to give it space to apply in our work more in an official way. In my first collection, there were many references that were around the DNA of the house, and I realized the general lack of knowledge of the audience for the house. I thought people would know, people would understand that this or that is Lanvin. For example, in the first show, we worked on the idea of the medieval and the middle age et cetera, which was something very strong in the iconography of Jeanne Lanvin. In last season’s show, I really wanted to address the fact that now I know the place I am in while giving somehow a personal lecture of what the house stands for, and what built Maison Lanvin. The SS21 show serves as an answer in that sense, for me. And, when we decided to have the show in Shanghai, it was actually last April, during the lockdown.

It was a lengthy process to define what will give the context and I had no answer possible at that time, and that is where I said to the owner ‘Why don’t we have the show in Shanghai since you have no covid-cases almost anymore and the social life is coming back to life?’ I wanted to do a collection that was really about dresses for a certain occasion.
Obviously now there are not many places to go dressed up in a gown – so I pushed the show to happen in Shanghai and this way to address the collection towards an audience that actually has the capacity to relate to it as we all did before. The inspiration came from the inter-war era that has been mainly about the art deco movement in the culturizing of Paris where Jeanne Lanvin has been really part of, and where her house that bears her name became strong.
I like to reinterpret that even 100 years later as we are hopefully soon at the end of a crisis! For now, it seems that everything went flat again, everything is reshuffled, and I really wanted to address that, to say, OK guys, there is aftermath someplace, we should stay optimistic! Around that frame, I put art deco into it and realized how it was mainly inspired by the Eastern countries, their craft, and artisanship! I dived into the work of Georges Lepape, who was a prominent artist of the art deco movement, half Swiss – half French. Most of his work was inspired by Asia.

I wanted to address that association, in a way that is more about creativity and not political. I didn’t want it at all to be political, and actually, you can’t do political shows in Shanghai, you simply can’t.

So, after four seasons how – if I ask you to define the Lanvin woman, what would you say?

I think she is cinematic, she is informed, cultivated, and well cultured. That’s the way to see her in order to understand what she wears and the reason why this has been done this way or not. I think she … she is not French, she is not Parisian. Lanvin conveys a global message, a global view of the world, as it is, how we live today. There is a notion of elegance, both for the women and men of Lanvin. Those I want to address are people that would like to buy Lanvin by looking at Lanvin.
The Lanvin wearer wants to almost be the character of his/her aspirations, the character of her/his dream. It is a bit linked to my childhood when I was trying to understand how I should dress, and reflect messages. I think it is very character orientated, we talk a lot about actors, but not actors themselves – more about the roles they have played, I think it is really about that, it is about getting into an aspirational skin, getting into a skin that is about an elevated version of yourself or almost a phantasm of yourself, but that obviously links with reality.

On this, I want to ask my last question for today – it is a bit philosophical. As we desperately explore the silhouette and re-explore it constantly, why do we have this certain need, you think to change, exaggerate, since anyway, clothing will be
taken off at some point?

You know, for me it is as if you ask me why do you like to dress people? I don’t know if there is an answer, I think there is a connection obviously to social reason and inter-political reason. Every designer is doing it in a personal way. When I look at the Comme des Garcons show, and the woman becomes art-like, it is almost a destruction of the body. And, I don’t know if I would have a very relevant answer to that, but it depends what you aim for – do you want to flatter someone, do you want to elevate someone, make the person more desirable, powerful, softer?
Search for that power around the softness, and in that sense, little by little, these emotions become a silhouette that can answer your questions. This could be your color palette. Your silhouette is part of your color palette when you tell the story. You can compare it to a painting, you have different layers, you have different textures and it allows you to convey your emotion. And, that silhouette is part of it. I don’t want to answer something in a prehistoric way like where to position the strength of the silhouette!

When you look at the work of somebody like ALAIA, the body is present! I have seen exhibitions at Palais Galliera, and it was very interesting because they put all the neat dresses on dummies made of metal and the clothes looked like snakeskin without the snake in them. And, you understand how Alaia was about second skin and about flattering the body. You understand how unimportant it is when the body is not in it. It is just a two-dimensional dress that without the body it is nothing …