The Heir to the House of Lanvin Married a Model Who's Now a Designing Wife

updated 05/17/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/17/1982 01:00AM

They look like minor European royalty, and in a way they are. Bernard Lanvin is heir to the name and fortune of one of France's most venerable fashion and perfume (Arpege, My Sin) companies. Since his father, Yves, retired in 1980, the 46-year-old Bernard has increasingly taken responsibility for running an empire that last year grossed more than $90 million. Meanwhile his wife, Maryll—in her early 40s—is just as eager as her husband to modernize the staid 96-year-old House of Lanvin. In an effort to attract a younger audience, she may have startled Lanvin's older customers recently with her first collection of ready-to-wear clothes. "Revolution in a family business never works out," explains Bernard, "so I am aiming for evolution, and Maryll's a leading part of it. We'll be a good team."

It wasn't always so, especially for the rebellious Maryll, a former model who had to adjust to the traditional ways of France's fashion aristocracy. "My creativity might have come earlier if I hadn't found myself married into such a conventional family," she says.

As a young girl in Paris, Maryll drew constantly and sewed her own dresses. Her father, Jean Orsini, an engineer, invented instrument-landing equipment for the airline industry. "I was raised to work and take care of myself," she says. "I was taught not to count on anyone but myself. It has helped me get ahead, but I can never relax." After graduating from high school, she studied art at the Ecole Nationale d'Art Décoratif in Nice. She was overweight but decided she wanted to become a model. She slimmed down after a three-week crash diet and moved to New York, where she quickly landed on the covers of Glamour and Mademoiselle. She also changed her name from Françoise—très ordinaire in France—to Maryll.

Bernard, on the other hand, was groomed since childhood for his present role, even if he did happen to arrive precipitately on the dining room table of his family home in the posh Neuillysur-Seine suburb of Paris. After graduating from a private boys' school in Paris, he studied economics and history at Williams College in Massachusetts. In 1961 he started working for the firm, learning the ropes in the New York offices by "visiting factories and messing up the computers."

The Lanvins disagree about how they met. Maryll insists it was at a party in Paris in 1960. "He never said a word," she remembers. "I thought he was very cold and distant." Bernard thinks it was two years later, when he asked her for a date in New York. No matter, that second encounter was more successful, and they were married in 1964.

From the start Maryll was reminded by her mother-in-law, Lucie, who is still president of Lanvin's couture division, that she could no longer pursue a modeling career and must dress only in Lanvins. "But," explains Maryll, "the clothes were too bourgeois."

Since her marriage Maryll has honed her designing skills working alongside Jules-François Crahay, whose first design for Lanvin was her wedding gown. Last year Crahay amicably handed over the ready-to-wear line to his eager pupil. (The house designer for 19 years, Crahay will continue with Lanvin's haute couture line.)

No longer under Crahay's protective wing, Maryll was edgy and high-strung last March when she showed her collection of short sarong skirts, plaid bloomers and bat-winged tunic sweaters to critics and jet-set friends gathered under a tent in a courtyard at the Louvre. Afterward, exhausted by the months of nerve-racking preparation, she suffered a brief bout of depression. Of her debut one insider said, "Maryll is definitely bringing a young look to Lanvin. But she is still feeling her way. She hasn't developed a real style yet." Maybe not, but orders for her less stodgy but definitely high-priced line have poured in from stores across the United States, including Saks, Bonwit's, Sakowitz in Houston and Elizabeth Arden in Palm Beach.

Meanwhile Bernard has been promoting the firm's fragrances in the U.S. He just returned from a swift six-city tour. "I feel the need to do what I'm doing," says Bernard. "Sitting in an ivory tower is not my idea of management."

To get away from the pressures of running a family business, the Lanvins spend weekends with sons Jean-Yves, 16, and Hubert, 13, at their 17th-century Chateau de Bouglainval, an hour west of Paris. But even in this fairy-tale setting, Maryll and Bernard end up talking shop. "Before, I was a woman who was never satisfied," says Maryll. "Now Bernard helps and encourages me." Nods Bernard: "I'm Maryll's prince consort. I want her to be the star of fashion."

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