Lanvin's Lucas Ossendrijver: the self-confessed sartorial nerd turning menswear inside out

Lucas Ossendrijver
Lucas Ossendrijver, Lanvin's creative director of menswear for the past 11 years  Credit: Johan Sandberg

 Lucas Ossendrijver, the lanky Dutch designer behind Lanvin’s menswear, has an origin myth, but it’s not a very exciting one. Which makes sense when you meet him, and I mean that in a good way. Back when he was an art student in Amsterdam, majoring in fashion design, Ossendrijver was wandering through the open air flea market on the city’s Waterlooplein. He came across an old sports coat, a little on the crummy side and badly out of date. He started examining it more closely. And then he decided to buy it and take it apart, piece by piece.

“I thought, okay, how is this thing made?,” recalls Ossendrijver. “I saw all the hand-stitching under the collar, and I took out the lining, just so I could see everything that was inside. For me, that was the first time that I started working with menswear. I thought to myself, if I’m going to design clothes, I have to know how things are made.”

Lucas Ossendrijver  Credit: Johan Sandberg

See? Not very exciting. But it tells you a lot of what you need to know about Ossendrijver as a designer, and why, after 11 years, he’s still ripping jackets apart and putting them back together in his painstaking way at Lanvin. It is precisely this molecular approach to menswear that has made him among the most influential designers in the business, but even he is a little surprised at the length of his tenure. Eleven years amounts to three lifetimes, he says, if you convert fashion years to human years. “Knowing what the turnover is like at design houses, I never thought I would stay so long.”

One way to explain his longevity is the absence of a singular Ossendrijver vision, and I mean that in a good way, too. He’s impossible to pin down. But whatever idea catches his fancy in a particular season, customers can count on meticulous attention to detail, close contact with the latest technical developments on the frontiers of sartorial science and a deep understanding of how clothing feels on the body. The spirit of the origin myth lives on.

Lucas Ossendrijver  Credit: Johan Sandberg

For Ossendrijver, everything works from the inside out, instead of from the outside in. “I’m not thinking about a person, or about a style, or even about fashion,” he says. “I’m thinking about what clothes are, what they do and how they relate to your body. I’m kind of a nerd that way. Some people work the other way around – they have a theme or they want this or that look. I’m the opposite: it’s all about construction, proportion, fabric. The look on the catwalk at the end – it may be strange to say this – it’s not really that important to me.”

You get some idea what he’s talking about by looking at his SS17 collection on the rack at Lanvin’s Paris headquarters on Rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré. If there’s a common thread here, it’s a kind of casual messiness, executed with a watchmaker’s precision. A classic jacket is creased so it looks like it just emerged from the bottom of a suitcase. This is on purpose, mind you. “It looks like life,” he says. Ossendrijver has added reflective strips on the sleeves, borrowed from the hard hats digging across the street from the office tower where you work. The basting stitches that you normally remove from a new garment have been lovingly woven in: do not take them out; they are meant to stay there.

Short-sleeved twill aviator shirt with top-stitched sections and reflective ribbon detailing and one-pleat technical gabardine trousers Credit: James Bort

Kangaroo-leather jackets have deep folds steamed into them, not out of them. A shirt has been made with an advanced technical fabric from Japan that mixes fibre with metal, all the better to preserve the crinkliness of its wrinkles. For Ossendrijver, these unruly details are precisely what give clothing its clothesiness, and he cherishes them for it. He doesn’t design clothing to look good in a two-dimensional photograph; he wants to engineer something that makes you want to fondle it, to crumple it, to… well, you get the idea.

This is not something a designer just starts out doing, of course. You’ve got to follow the rules before you can break them, and Ossendrijver, studious and diligent by temperament, knows the rules better than anyone. He comes from a family of builders in the little country town of Amersfoort, some 30 miles from Amsterdam. There was a woodworking shed beside the house, and it was here young Lucas developed his taste for tinkering. “I was always working with my hands,” he says. “My brother and I loved to make things - rafts or treehouses, stuff like that. I truly think everything comes from there.”

Lucas Ossendrijver Credit: Johan Sandberg

After art school, Ossendrijver headed straight for Paris. Amsterdam had no fashion business to speak of, apart from some denim manufacturers, and Belgium, for all its force as a cradle of creativity, just didn’t have the industrial heft he was looking for. “If you really want to do something in fashion, if you really want to know how it’s done, you have to move to Paris.”

He started at Kenzo, which schooled him in the hardscrabble world of the business – lessons that young designers, ablaze with creative fervour, too often overlook, says Ossendrijver. “I think a lot of young designers rush off to start their own company and then, after three or four seasons, the company stops,” he says. “You have to learn about pricing, you have to learn about fabrics, you have to learn about manufacturing, you have to learn about the press. Actually, it’s a very complicated business.”

Next, Kostas Murkudis, a former assistant to Helmut Lang, took on Ossendrijver to help with his tiny menswear business, which gave him the chance to try his hand at every aspect of the operation. “You had to do everything yourself, which was the opposite of Kenzo. It was very good experience.”

Straight trousers with ribbon detailing, twill bowling shirt with wide stripes and narrow belt carabiner buckles. Credit: James Bort

This got him to Hedi Slimane, the menswear deity who ruled Dior Homme from 2001 to 2007. “That was my first experience of working with a French couture house,” recalls Ossendrijver. “It was my first taste of real luxury, and it was completely new for me - the way things are done, the kinds of manufacturers you work with, the level of quality. The French call it exigeant, and it means asking for the highest, for the best, with absolutely no compromise. That’s something I hadn’t known about before, and I learnt it there.”

My way of working is different and my personality is different

In many ways, Slimane is the anti-Ossendrijver, demanding and tempestuous where Ossendrijver is collegial and laid back. Slimane had a look. He had an ideal man - a man who, unlike most guys, could actually button a Dior Homme jacket in his size (I tried this once and failed badly). Slimane imposed his personality on everything that came out of his atelier. When you bought Dior Homme, you knew you were buying into Hediness. (I ended up purchasing the jacket I couldn’t button, with its armholes up around the thorax. It was just so cool and I figured I could eventually get myself down to Slimane proportions. Nope.) “Yes, that’s his way of working,” allows Ossendrijver. “My way of working is different and my personality is different.”

Fishtail parka in technical fabric, jersey short -sleeved shirt with multicoloured embroidered ribbons, Hand and Stars pendant and a carabiner keyring in brass Credit: James Bort

In 2005, Ossendrijver wrote to Alber Elbaz, then the much-loved head of design at Lanvin who had breathed new life into its womenswear label. Elbaz was looking for someone who could do the same for Lanvin’s menswear, which was badly out of breath at the time. Ossendrijver got the job, but coming straight from Slimane’s Dior, he worried that he might not have the right make-up to succeed.

“I always thought I wouldn’t be suitable as a head designer because I don’t have that personality. I thought you have to have a media presence, you have to go to parties and be photographed with whoever. At Lanvin, I discovered that my personality is my strength. The technicity of what I do is very specific. It sets me apart from other brands and designers. I think people come to Lanvin because they appreciate that kind of elaborate workmanship.”

Two button full jacket in English check with crease-effect pleats and reflective ribbon detail, zip-up jacket in wool with suede inlays, and bomber jacket in technical fabric reflect Ossendrijver's focus on fabric and proportion Credit: James Bort

To give me a better idea what he’s talking about, Ossendrijver showed me a sleeve from a suit jacket in the recently finished collection for next winter. Just the sleeve. He comes alive when he starts talking about this stuff. It’s what he loves best. “Here I was interested in making the shoulder as narrow as possible so the shoulder bone sticks out in the sleeve. I started working with the pattern cutter so the whole sleeve is twisted toward the front. We made the sleeve quite large, but then we had to construct a special shoulder pad that went under the sleeve to keep the line very clean and clear. After that we put it on a pressing table to make the sleeve completely flat, like a two-dimensional shape. I always work with opposing volumes, but I also like the idea of starting with something classic - this is basically a double-breasted suit. Then the question becomes, how would I make the suit feel new again? What would I want to wear?”

Ossendrijver's SS17 collection for Lanvin includes this two-button wool jacket with crease-effect pleating Credit: James Bort

No one could be expected to notice much of this as it flashes past you on the runway. Ossendrijver doesn’t design for first impressions. As he likes to say, this is the work of millimetres. Still, we’re talking about menswear, where tradition and long-standing habit die hard. Ossendrijver often has to battle for every millimetre he alters. “I have to go to the factory, I have to talk to the cutter, I have to talk to the guy who does the fabrics. In order to get them to try something new, you have to know how it’s done yourself, otherwise they don’t take you seriously. You have to constantly convince people to do things differently. Everything is so structured.”

This is to say nothing of the guys who buy menswear, who can be every bit as hidebound as the people who make it. He may not have an ideal man in mind as he designs, but he knows men, and he knows they hate change. Ossendrijver adores the rigidly codified vocabulary of menswear – it’s one of the reasons he feels more at ease with it than with womenswear – but he recognises that with those codes come tight limits. “It’s a different way of designing,” he says. “Men are more stubborn in what they wear and what they don’t wear. With women, every season there’s a new look, there’s a new bag. It’s much more decorative. If a guy wears a suit and it fits him, he’ll probably go back to the same suit next season. Once a man finds something that works for him, he sticks to it. I never want to limit myself in the beginning, but then reality kicks in. I have learned over time what I’m not going to be able to sell, what may be too extreme for the brand.”

More signature Ossendrijver style- a three-button English jacket with geometric staple silver and brass lapel pin, and two-button jacket with crease effect pleats and reflective ribbon detailing and Prince of Wales check trousers, with irregular carabiner keyring in copper and turquoise brass Credit: James Bort

That said, Ossendrijver has become bolder over his years at Lanvin. At the beginning, he was feeling his way somewhat blindly. He had very little to guide him in the way of institutional memory. The company’s founder, Jeanne Lanvin, started by making clothes for her young daughter, then for her daughter’s friends, then for her daughter’s friends’ mothers and so on. Thus, in 1889, started one of the world’s first lifestyle brands, which came to encompass menswear, childrenswear, perfume (remember “Promise her anything, but give her Arpège”?) and even home design (Jeanne Lanvin collaborated with the genius furniture-maker Armand-Albert Rateau). But while Lanvin retained copious archives of its womenswear designs, it had none for menswear.

What makes something ugly? What is bad taste? How do you take something and make it different?

Fortunately, Ossendrijver managed to develop a close working relationship with Alber Elbaz. “I learnt a great deal from him,” he says. “He was involved in menswear, and he appreciated it when I sat in during his womenswear fittings as a second opinion. It’s very rare in fashion to have someone you can exchange ideas with in an open, honest way.” Elbaz got pushed out of Lanvin in 2015 by Shaw-Lan Wang, Lanvin’s owner, but he and Ossendrijver remain close. He won’t get specific about where he might be headed with his next collection, but even his vague hints sound pretty ballsy. He’s noodling with the idea of ugliness, he says. “What makes something ugly? What is bad taste? How do you take something and make it different?”

To pull that off, a designer needs a thick hide. Ossendrijver says he’s managed to grow one. “In the beginning, I was crushed by bad reviews,” he says. “Now I read everything. Sometimes I even think, Yes, they’re right. The worst is to hold back and try to please everyone. I’ve learnt the confidence to go for things. Mistakes are good, you know? I like mistakes.”

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