A Conversation With… Alber Elbaz

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Alber Elbaz headshot

Last year, following the final sequence of his 10th anniversary collection for Lanvin – all jewel-colored, frilled, embroidered, and over-embroidered – the curtains at the end of the runway parted to reveal Alber Elbaz, flanked by a band and with microphone in hand.

“This is a song to all these people from fashion who I adore and who helped me to realize my dream,” he said. And then this diminutive figure, normally backwards in coming forwards and far from famed for posturing either on the catwalk or off it, sang “Que Sera, Sera” to a surprised and amused audience.

There are not many surprises left in fashion – you name it, someone, somewhere has done it – which perhaps accounts for the ovation that followed being more heartfelt than most. Let’s face it; this is a world that boasts its fair share of these too. But then Mr. Elbaz is a highly individual designer and easier to love than many for that. Over the past decade he has not only turned around the fortunes of Lanvin, which was languishing in obscurity when he took the helm in 2002, but has also come to represent a respect for craft, technique, and talent over and above the usual obsession with marketing, merchandising, and styling. This has earned him many followers, both within the industry and outside it. Add to this the fact that Elbaz is open almost to the point of foolhardiness, warm to the point of brotherly, and, at the same time, clearly as strong as an ox, and the effect is as refreshing as it is potent. Make no mistake, behind this infinitely approachable exterior lurks a will of iron.

Lanvin: Runway - Paris Fashion Week Womenswear Fall/Winter 2012

"There were times when I wondered whether I would ever be able to work in this business again."

“There have been a lot of changes in fashion,” he says when we meet in a quiet corner of the bar of the Hotel Crillon in Paris, “and the question is how do you fit into it? Should you fit into it? [“Que Sera, Sera”] was a song, I thought, for the whole industry. You know how it is; one day people love you, you’re in, and the next day you’re out. One day you’re fired, and one day you’re hired. So it was a song for my colleagues.”

Elbaz refuses to name names. He doesn’t need to. The past year has been filled with changes and rumors on who will – and won’t – be presiding over some of fashion’s most prestigious houses. The question of who is “in” or “out”, as Elbaz puts it, has never seemed so pertinent.

“I’ve been there,” says Elbaz. And indeed he has. “All of a sudden, this divorce is being published everywhere and everybody knows who said what and how difficult it is.” It is, by now, the stuff of fashion history that, in 1998, Elbaz was handpicked by Yves Saint Laurent to design his women’s ready-to-wear. Elbaz was designing Guy Laroche at the time. “I was fascinated by the idea of working for a man [Saint Laurent] who was more of a legend, and more the name of a company, than a real person.”

Despite the fact that the critics applauded Elbaz’s two-season tenure at Yves Saint Laurent, in 1999 the Gucci Group bought the name and self-proclaimed control freak and creative director, Tom Ford, was unable to resist the challenge of taking over himself. Elbaz was duly dismissed.

“It was hard,” Elbaz has since said of that split. “Of course it was hard. There were times when I wondered whether I would ever be able to work in this business again. I was embarrassed to go out to fashion places, embarrassed to call people because I thought they would never call back.”

He promptly disappeared, leaving Paris to travel around the world. Thankfully for fashion, 12 months later, he returned and accepted the position at Lanvin, a French couture house founded in 1909 by Jeanne Lanvin and bought by Chinese-born entrepreneur Shaw-Lan Wang in 2001. His first show for the label – a gentle mix of subtly deconstructed tweeds shot through with barely visible threads of gold and all worn with paper-thin ballerina pumps long before they were ubiquitous – immediately identified him as having something new, something lovely, and something refreshingly woman-friendly to offer the world.

Lanvin: Runway - Paris Fashion Week Fall/Winter 2012

"I wanted to show how many threads you have to put together to make one rose; how much thought goes into a button."

That was then. Alber Elbaz celebrated ten years at the creative helm of Lanvin last summer with the release of a fantastical capsule collection and a hefty fashion book. Elbaz describes, “The book is small and fat. It’s me.” It is filled with personal, even intimate, imagery, all shot by photographer But-Sou Lai, who has been working behind the scenes for some time, and includes close-ups of pincushions and loose threads, Elbaz’s cute drawings, photos of models on the catwalk and in fittings, of seamstresses, secretaries, and PRs at work. There are pictures of show running orders, seating plans, great dustbins full of Nespresso capsules, and half-eaten food. This is about Lanvin as a team, and Elbaz is often present but, significantly, rarely centre stage.

“I thought that at a time like now, when the whole industry is about the six minutes of the show and a review that is being written in a taxi because then there is the next show, I thought: I’m going to show everyone how much effort goes into making a single dress,” he says. “I wanted to show how many threads you have to put together to make one rose; how much thought goes into a button. I wanted to show a shoe in the factory in Italy being held like a baby by an old man and then attached to a machine as if it was going to the dentist. And I wanted to show the people. All the people. We had 3,000 pictures in total and we picked the ones we liked, of course, and then went back to make sure that every single person involved is in the book, that nobody had been missed out.”

Alber Elbaz was born in Casablanca on June 12, 1961 and grew up in the suburbs of Tel Aviv. His father was a hairdresser and died when he was 15, at which point his mother went to work as a waitress to support her four children. Elbaz studied fashion at Shenkar College in the city. His teacher was Shelly Verthine, who co-edited the new book and remains Elbaz’s close friend and creative collaborator.

Following graduation, Elbaz moved to New York at the age of 24 and designed “mother-of-the-bride dresses for $150 – and that was expensive” before moving to Geoffrey Beene. It wasn’t long before he was that elusive and revered designer’s right-hand man. He remained there from 1989 to 1996, a lifetime in terms of fashion. Elbaz then moved to Paris.

The designer’s quieter way is surely an inspiration for a new generation less likely to rely on the notion of the superstar designer, and to concentrate on the clothes themselves. It is a position he continues to uphold without compromise to the point of being evangelical.

“I never met Sarah Burton in the past, for example,” Elbaz says of the Alexander McQueen designer, “but I saw a picture of her at the [royal] wedding and, while everybody was there with their pretty hats, she was the only one who didn’t have a hat on and was on the floor fixing the dress. I thought it was so beautiful I wrote her a note. And to see Phoebe [Philo], who is doing such an amazing job, decide to do a smaller show because she’s having a baby… I mean that is amazing. And, you know what, it will do her business no harm whatsoever. Quite the opposite. These are the moments that are important to me.” It goes without saying that such kind words directed towards other designers – those who might be seen as competitors in an over-crowded market to boot – is unprecedented.

Lanvin: Paris Fashion Week Menswear F/W 2011

"They are very good to me at Lanvin. They give me my liberty.

Elbaz seems to ignore fame, even push it away, and concentrate on dressing women. And dress them he does, in traditional couture silks and satins alongside more technologically advanced materials and always, for the sake of modernity, with a vaguely industrial edge – a visible metal zip here, a neckline edged with brass there. Last season, Elbaz thought nothing of designing jewelry so oversized that the only way to make it a practical reality was to use plastic in place of real stones.

It is testimony to the very personal nature of his work that Elbaz has, in the past, adorned his collections with his own sketches. For instance, a rounded, bespectacled caricature of his own face has been known to appear. A light-hearted quality in no way detracts from his status as a serious technician, however. Elbaz’s understanding of volume, drape, and proportion, and his respect for workmanship, are second to none. In 2007 he was named Chevalier of the French Légion d’Honneur for his work.

“They are very good to me at Lanvin,” he explains. “They give me my liberty. If we were part of a group it might be easier for me in some ways. We live on what we sell. We don’t have anyone who says: ‘Don’t worry, we’ll inject another 100 million and do a big publicity campaign’. So I always say that we’re like a small yacht, not the Titanic, and that means we make our own decisions. Sometimes, when you work for big organizations, there are so many committees that you have to go through.”

To say that Elbaz adopts a hands-on approach would be an understatement. “That’s how I spend my life,” he says. “I start with drawings but I don’t give the sketches to the atelier and then say, ‘OK, I’ll see you, I’ll be in the Caribbean on the 17th and on the 18th I leave for Santa Fé’. No, I’m always in fittings; I’m always perfecting things.”

Alber Elbaz works tirelessly making others more beautiful. “I’m hiding in my studio somehow,” he says. “And in my studio I feel loved and I love.”

Photos: Courtesy of GETTY IMAGES and TRUNK ARCHIVE

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