Lunch With Shaw-Lan Wang
A rare interview with the newspaper magnate and Lanvin baroness.
Two plates of grilled beef arrive. “Chinese style,” she announces. I abandon my internet inquiries – she isn’t sure whether her newspaper charges for its online version – and move to her more recent passion, Lanvin. How did she come to buy the struggling fashion house and how, in particular, did she come to hire Alber Elbaz, the designer whose appointment has transformed its fortunes? The purchase of Lanvin is easy. “I have a friend in Hong Kong and he has dressed in Lanvin for more than 30 years. I thought, ‘He would be very proud if I was the owner.’”
As for Elbaz, the Moroccan-born designer had been pushed out of Yves Saint Laurent after it was bought by Gucci. Embarking on a spiritual world odyssey, Elbaz contemplated giving up design altogether to become a doctor. Instead, he called Wang out of the blue, imploring her to bring him to Lanvin. “Please wake up the Sleeping Beauty,” he said. “I was in Cannes with a friend on a big boat,” Wang recalls. “Alber called, ‘Can I meet you?’ I say, ‘Of course. I will come to Paris.’” She had never heard of Elbaz, but has been quoted as saying she “smelt something meaty and fragrant” about him. To me she says: “He showed me his press book. The first fashion show, he called ‘Homage to Yves Saint Laurent’. Good, I thought. He knows respect. I was introduced to a lot of people. But with them I didn’t have that feeling.”
Whether or not it was the meaty smell, Wang’s instinct has served Lanvin splendidly. Under Elbaz, its reputation and sales have flourished. He makes clothes with a classic cut, to be worn year after year, not just for one season. “Alber’s dresses make women feel beautiful and easy. The first show he did was for winter. The fabric is quite thick. But all the dresses could swing. It’s because of the cut. Normally, thick fabric is very stiff. But he makes you dance with your dress.”
A steamed fish appears, evidently too early. Wang sends it away. Elbaz’s dresses are not overly revealing, she says, miming flesh spilling out of a low-cut dress. “They don’t show everything.” I had read that Elbaz didn’t like his clothes to be thought of as sexy, certainly not in the full-on way associated with Gucci’s Tom Ford, the man who deposed him at Yves Saint Laurent. “I don’t think so,” she says. “Sexy is good. It’s a compliment. But you have to have class. Not ... ” She leaves the sentence unfinished but treats me to another mime of a bosom bulging out of a dress.
The fish reappears. This time it has been cut in two, the part with the head for her, the tail for me. “Everybody loves Alber’s dresses,” she is saying. “Before I [used to] say Alber’s dress is for anyone from 18 to 81.” But she recently met an 85-year-old Chinese artist wearing a Lanvin dress. “So pretty.” Wang’s granddaughter, who is just 11 and evidently being groomed for greatness, also wears Lanvin. “The dresses are very elegant and simple, so the range of our customer is very big.”
I ask if she enjoys the fashion shows, the parties and the glamour. “Alber and my director go the parties. Not me,” she says, spitting out some fish bones into her hand. “I don’t like those kind of people or those kind of parties. I am not a jet-set person.” She has lots of famous friends but she meets them in private, she says, reeling off names of actors, actresses and kung fu stars. She’s off on a tangent, telling a story about when Jackie Chan annoyed the Taiwanese by suggesting that Chinese people needed to be controlled and that democracy in Taiwan was chaotic. “Jackie, he’s very honest and straight. I called him and said, ‘You are great. You have a very big market. If people here are stupid, don’t come.’”
We talk about the recent thaw in relations between Taiwan and mainland China. Although she is an anti-communist and counts among her friends several Tiananmen Square dissidents, she says the government in Beijing has changed. “Now, I agree with what they are doing. They are disciplined. Before you have the law, don’t give too much freedom,” she says, wagging her finger. “You have to teach people to respect the law, even if the law is bad.”
The waitress brings in some lusciously green and crisp snow peas with scallops. There’s barely room on the table. She continues on the China-Taiwan theme, saying it has been more than 60 years since the two separated. But unification is not so easy, she says, referring to the strong sense of Taiwanese independence. “We Chinese all have patience. Next generation, let’s see what that brings. I think in China one day, if they have freedom of the press and liberty of election, we can negotiate to become one big China.
“We have no reason to hate each other. The Japanese killed many, many Chinese and Asian people. Why don’t the people hate the Japanese?” she asks, referring to the relatively warm relations between the Taiwanese and their former Japanese colonists. “War kills, but not the way the Japanese kill. They use ... ” here she mimes the stabbing action of a bayonet. “They kill women and babies with their cruel methods. People say forgive, but I say, ‘I cannot.’”
David Pilling is the FT’s Asia editor.