As statements go, it was pretty unambiguous: the first menswear model out on Lanvin’s autumn/winter 2017 runway in Paris, in January, sported a black and red scarf (£235) with the word “Nothing” emblazoned on it. According to Lucas Ossendrijver, Lanvin’s menswear designer for the past 12 years, this wasn’t so much haute nihilism as a blunt reiteration of his methodical less-is-more aesthetic. “Everyone was doing collaborations with artists, other brands, whoever,” he says, in his softly spoken, Dutch-accented English when we meet for coffee at London’s Café Royal. “I’ve always thought my role as a designer is not about decoration, it’s simply to design – to concentrate on shape, construction, fabric and colour, and with those elements you try to tell a story, to create desire.” He flashes a trademark quicksilver grin. “To seduce people.”
Ossendrijver has been doing just that throughout his remarkable tenure at Lanvin. His father ran a construction business and Ossendrijver has brought an engineer’s eye along with the curiosity of a self-confessed “menswear nerd” to bear on the cornerstones of the male wardrobe. His three-button suits, reworked overcoats and leather bomber jackets are as timeless as they come, but he’ll also deploy creases and pleats to create a new jacket silhouette, or cut a duffel coat (£2,875) so that it’s shaped like a cocoon. Unruly detailing – reflective strips on jacket sleeves, exposed trouser seams – along with Ossendrijver’s penchant for high/low and formal/informal paradox, in the form of exquisitely slouchy tailored wool track pants, or Lanvin’s legendary satin sneakers (that, not incidentally, ushered in the whole upscale sneaker movement), have played their part in advancing the designer’s avowed mission to “elevate the everyday”. It’s an approach that has earned Ossendrijver both respect and influence within the industry and an ever-growing number of adherents. The sneakers alone, presented at Ossendrijver’s very first Lanvin runway in 2006 (and currently available in leather, suede or velvet, £350), now sell 40,000 pairs per season; and, while Lanvin is a private company and doesn’t release annual figures, the house confirmed to the FT that menswear sales have increased 40 per cent over the course of Ossendrijver’s reign.
“Lucas has been a master in bringing that louche/refined, sportswear/tailoring hybrid way of dressing to the fore,” says Sam Lobban, buying manager for Mr Porter, which has stocked Lanvin for many years. “He’ll do some beautiful wool/cashmere tailoring that looks incredibly smart, but is unstructured enough that you can wear a sweater or T-shirt with it and forget you’re wearing a suit. Or he’ll do a tech-jersey trouser that looks formal, but will have an elasticated waist and raw-edge seam that makes it feel super-relaxed. Guys like to shop on a ‘product solution’ basis; they might need a great pair of black trousers. With Lanvin, they’ll get something really interesting that feels very contemporary and looks different without being too avant-garde. I got married in a Lanvin tuxedo, which looked classic, but the cut was just short enough to be modern, and the silk trim above the pocket placement kind of took it to another level.”
From the start, it seems, Lanvin and Ossendrijver were a good fit. “When they first hired me, they said they wanted a wardrobe for men,” he says, taking a sip of black coffee. “They didn’t speak in terms of collections; this wasn’t about fast fashion. The whole idea when I started was about evolution, slowly modifying and slowly adapting, because that’s how men buy clothes; they don’t change every season, and they don’t want to be frightened off, so you can’t push things too far, too fast. Though I think this has changed a lot in the past few years; when I started, men would never admit to going shopping, or even taking an interest in clothes, but the internet has really helped break this down. And men’s fashion has become fashionable, which wasn’t the case a decade ago. Businesswise, that’s a good thing, but as a designer, I’ve become more aware of the need to position the brand in a very distinct way, for people to understand it, or they lose interest.” He shrugs. “There are a lot of demands on people’s attention these days, so your story has to be strong.”
Ossendrijver’s story for autumn/winter 2017 is a kind of culmination of the innovations of shape, drape and pattern that are his stock-in-trade. Woollen suits (from £1,750) are worn with graphic plaid shirts (from £525) and short wool/alpaca sweaters (from £455), while bonded cotton trenchcoats (£2,735) and suede jackets (from £5,270) have generous sleeves or contrast piping to give them a contemporary edge. “The whole collection was based on taking everyday items – the chino, the suit, the check shirt, items that guys wear all the time and can relate to – and making them special or extraordinary,” he says. This involved the kind of laboratory-style experimentation that Ossendrijver thrives on: a black suit (jacket, £2,395; trousers, £665), for instance, was constructed with a narrower shoulder and chest and then placed in a table-press, “which creates a fold on the sleeve, back and front, and you get a kind of imprint of the sleeve on the body, and a sharp pleat on the back at the shoulder blade, so that it stands up a little bit more, while still being beautifully fitted.” Likewise, a check shirt (£715) – one of Ossendrijver’s own wardrobe staples, though he’s wearing a simple white T-shirt and black zip top today – was made in a very thin poplin that was asymmetrically pleated, so that the check appears to move and change direction.
“In the show these pieces came and went, and people probably didn’t notice the detailing,” he says, “but that’s why I resist the idea of the instant hit or the instant review based on some on-screen image. I have to see things in real life, try them on, get tactile with them, and I think customers also need time to digest, adjust, see things in the magazines, look at them up close, inhabit them, really get a feel for them.” If you’re wearing Lanvin in the street, don’t be surprised if you catch sight of a lanky, shaven-headed figure out of the corner of your eye, looking you up and down – at a discreet distance, of course. “I always recognise my stuff and I love to see the way it moves and behaves, out in the real world,” confesses Ossendrijver, only slightly sheepishly. “I guess I’m a little bit of a freak.”
Ossendrijver describes his process as “making things, even building things”, perhaps because his father ran a construction company in the country town of Amersfoort, some 30 miles from Amsterdam. “I was always in the sawmill, or building treehouses or rafts with my brother,” he recalls. He was torn between studying architecture and fashion at art school in Arnhem; fashion won, “because it’s more immediate and I’m not good at mathematics”, but he didn’t focus on menswear until his final project, following an epiphany at a flea market in Waterlooplein: “I found a jacket and decided to take it apart. You pull up a collar and study a sleeve and you find all this horsehair, tape, binding, so many stitches, things that you don’t see on the outside. That really started my obsession with craftsmanship and working on a garment from the inside out.”
After college, Ossendrijver headed straight for Paris: “If you really want to do something in fashion, if you really want to know how it’s done, there is no other place to go.” He started at Kenzo, where he learnt about the business of fashion as much as design: useful now, he says, because, “I always have one eye on the bottom line, the customers, the sales, what will work and what won’t”. He went on to help run the menswear business of Kostas Murkudis, a former assistant to Helmut Lang (the latter’s deconstructed take on the classics had been one of Ossendrijver’s chief inspirations), before a stint at Dior Homme, then being run by Hedi Slimane at the height of his skinny-suit phase. “That’s where I learnt about quality,” he says. “You were able to ask for the best, with no level of compromise. It really opened my eyes.”
It was Alber Elbaz, then Lanvin’s artistic director, who invited Ossendrijver to join Paris’s oldest couture house. Ossendrijver’s studio, a modest affair by high fashion standards with just a small team of assistants, is above the flagship store on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. “When I started, our clientele was mainly businessmen and politicians, elegant Parisian gentlemen who came for suits and shirts,” he says. “But Alber gave me complete freedom, and after a few seasons, we had younger guys coming in too for the sneakers and the knitwear, stuff that was a little more fashion-y.”
As for Lanvin’s biggest hit, he says: “I never thought that the sneaker thing would take off like it did. It was simply a question of, OK, I wear sneakers myself, how can we make them more Lanvin? So I experimented with the glossy fabrics and a sleeker shape, and suddenly they became a kind of cult item.” Likewise, he elaborates, he’s taken the recognisable workhorses of the male wardrobe – the windbreaker, the bomber jacket – and given them the haute-burnished Lanvin treatment. In his subversion of traditional male dress codes – whether dialling down the formality on a suit or sprucing up the humble anorak – Ossendrijver has hit our current smart-casual menswear moment right on the button. “It’s a problem for a lot of men,” he says. “We’re all looking for how to present ourselves, to still look smart without being over- or underdressed. Clothes have to be versatile now, because they need to work in a number of contexts, from the office to a restaurant to a wedding. I try to push people to buy less, but to buy something of quality – something that doesn’t become old after one season.”
In this, as in much else, Ossendrijver finds himself slightly out of step with the prevailing fast-fashion mood, where head designers are thrown out the other side of the revolving door before they’ve barely had a chance to get their Instagram up and running (Lanvin is by no means immune: following Elbaz’s ousting in 2015, the womenswear division has gone through two artistic directors, with Olivier Lapidus recently brought in to replace Bouchra Jarrar). Ossendrijver does not have Instagram or Twitter. “It never even crossed my mind,” he says. “I know that people are hired now because they have a brilliant social media profile, but for me, it’s not about who I am; it’s about the things I make.” He takes another sip of coffee. “I always used to think that I had the wrong kind of personality to be a fashion designer,” he says, with a grin. “I hated the idea of the spotlight. I’m not dictatorial. I’m actually very shy. I don’t enjoy going to fashion parties. But I’ve learnt that my weakness is my strength. The public part of the job is not what it’s about. The real work goes on in the atelier and the studio. And,” he says, indicating the crown of his head, “in here.”
Ossendrijver estimates that Lanvin takes up “about 90 per cent” of his life, which, for this particular menswear nerd at least, is just fine: “I’d be lost without it – I love my job, the craft, the house I work for, the people I work with.” He’s ostensibly in London to take a short time-out after presenting his latest collection, but it soon becomes clear that he’s using it for research purposes. Ossendrijver has never been one to make grand claims about the inspirations for particular collections – you know the kind of thing: “this season, I was thinking about the exile of the Romanovs in Siberia and the late films of Luis Buñuel” – saying, instead, that he works intuitively. While in town, he says, he’ll be visiting Portobello and other flea markets and vintage stores, and he shows me some photos on his phone of paintings that he admired while on an impromptu turn round the National Gallery – Moroni’s The Tailor, Zurbaran’s Saint Francis in Meditation – while assuring me that doesn’t necessarily mean that future collections will boast cream doublets or spartan Franciscan robes tied with rope. “You never know when an idea will spark or what it will lead to,” he says. “I love to cook, but I don’t follow recipes; I’m very instinctive, throwing things in, trying ingredients that shouldn’t go together but just might work. Assembling dishes and collections is not really that different a process for me.”
Ossendrijver also loves to cycle, heading to northeast Paris on the weekend, around Canal Saint-Martin and out to Parc de la Villette. It’s fitting that his wanderings take him out to the Périphérique: despite all his years in Paris, he says, he still feels like an outsider. “And not only there – I don’t feel quite at home when I go back to Amersfoort either. But in-between is a position that I really like. It gives you a certain distance from which to observe. In many ways, working for a consummate French brand like I do, it’s kind of a fantasy. But I can come at it from a sideways angle.” He beams. “Sideways is the best.”
Ossendrijver’s lateral approach to menswear has proved a potent – and enduring – seduction tool for Lanvin. “He’s changed the menswear landscape,” says Mr Porter’s Lobban. “He’s made it cool to experiment – to wear sneakers with a suit, or cotton biker trousers with brogues.” Ossendrijver, in his self-effacing way, agrees. “Some years ago, men would ask ‘Why?’” he says. “Now, I think they are more likely to ask ‘Why not?’” And Ossendrijver has the perfect answer: a whole lot of “Nothing” that’s really quite something.