NEW YORK — Alber Elbaz was by turns funny, self-deprecating and empathetic on Tuesday night at The Atelier with Alina Cho at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In an interview, the Lanvin artistic director spoke about his tough early years in the fashion industry, his current collection and his mother. The hour-long interview, which at times felt like a confessional, had the overarching theme of acceptance.
“People think that in fashion you wake up at mid-day with a glass of Champagne,” Elbaz said. “They don’t want to share moments of vulnerability. I’m wary of perfection.”
The designer cut a round figure in prints, a break from his traditional all-black uniform. “I work in a small studio, around the body, with the model and my team,” he said. “In order to look at all the objects I create, I had to disappear, so I wore black.”
Recently, he decided that “it’s OK to disappear and wear black and it’s OK to reappear and say, ‘Honey, I’m home!’ I decided to do prints. I looked in the mirror and said, ‘Oh my God, I look like Hugh Hefner.’”
Elbaz recalled arriving in New York in 1986 with $800 — a gift from his mother — and two suitcases, “a small one with my belongings and a big one with my dreams.” He got a job in the Garment District designing “bad mother of the bride dresses,” and embarked on a three-year campaign to meet Geoffrey Beene, the one person in New York he wanted to work for. Elbaz in 1989 was introduced to Dawn Mello, executive vice president and creative director of Gucci, who made a phone call to Beene, but not before telling Elbaz, “I was thinking that you should take the job at Gucci. But I don’t think you’ll be right for Gucci.’ She introduced me to Geoffrey Beene and hired Tom Ford.”
Elbaz in 1996 moved to Paris to work at Guy Laroche. Pierre Bergé, cofounder of Yves Saint Laurent, in 1998 chose Elbaz to design the Rive Gauche collection just as the legendary designer’s day-to-day involvement at the house was winding down. “After spending one month with the archives, I said, ‘What can I do,’ because [Saint Laurent] had done it all. I told my psychologist, ‘I’m depressed. Saint Laurent was depressed.’ She asked if I was a jealous person. I’m not. I’m a little jealous when people eat and don’t gain weight.”
Elbaz decided to avert his eyes from Saint Laurent’s trove. “I understand why he created what he did and I understood his customers. Three years later when I was fired, I felt like a widow,” he said, referring to Gucci’s acquisition of YSL and Tom Ford’s publicly stated desire to design the Rive Gauche collection. “I thought I didn’t want to do fashion. I considered becoming a doctor, but I’m a hypochondriac.”
So he spent 18 months traveling. When he returned to Paris, he received a phone call from Shaw-Lin Wang, the owner of Lanvin, who is called Madame Wang. “At the time, I said I’m only going to work with people I love and design for women I like,” he said. “I like women who take charge of their lives. It’s much more difficult to be a woman.”
Elbaz approached designing at Lanvin, the oldest operating fashion house in the world, which recently marked its 125th anniversary, “as waking up the sleeping beauty.”
His birthplace of Casablanca influenced his fall 2015 collection. “Morocco is a country that I love,” he said. “People don’t have water in their houses, but they have satellites so they can watch ‘The Kardashians.'” It’s a guilty pleasure he shares. “After work, I’m watching the Kardashians and ordering pizza.”
Cho credited Elbaz with starting the trend toward pre-collections 11 years ago. Elbaz’s idea was simply to hold small shows, but “before I knew it, it became a season and I’m paying for it,” he said. “Every designer I know hates doing pre-collections. It’s like being a little bit pregnant.”
Conflicted about technology, Elbaz doesn’t e-mail and lamented that people don’t talk anymore. Rather, they post and tape and film. “We want to document the moment,” he said. “It’s not just going on a vacation, it’s documenting it with photogenic friends.” For his recent resort collection, Elbaz opted for camera-ready vibrant hues and patterns and populated his set with artist Cyril Hatt’s giant car and giraffe made from paper. “In the digital age, I like that people are using paper.”
Instagram also gets Elbaz down. “Even with a simple dinner, the mozzarella looks sexy,” he said. “I go to work and make sure everybody else has a glamorous life. Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a [parallel universe].”
The designer said he spoke to his mother every day until her death in 2008. “She wasn’t perfect, but she was mine,” Elbaz said. “After I signed with YSL and had a great job and a great salary, she said, ‘There’s only one thing that would make me happy. If you got married’. I married in my own way. We’ve been together for 22 years,” he said, referring to boyfriend Alex Koo.
While his designs are worn by Hollywood A-listers, Elbaz admitted that the red carpet makes him nervous. The mixed signals from actresses and their stylists give him a headache. “The stylist says, ‘She loves to show this part of her body, but she needs it to be covered,’ or ‘she likes pastels but looks better in bright colors,’” he said.
“You’re friends with Kim Kardashian, aren’t you,? Cho asked. “I think she’s a true, nice person. She wore Lanvin for her first Vogue cover. She’s a role model. She’s a smart girl,” Elbaz said.
What about Caitlyn Jenner, Cho coaxed. “I’m happy that someone who has a dream made it come true,” the designer said.