PARIS — Celebrating his 10th anniversary at the creative helm of Lanvin, you might think Alber Elbaz would allow himself a little self-congratulation.
This story first appeared in the March 1, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
After all, he catapulted the French brand into a beacon for soigné dressing. A ticket to a Lanvin show is among the most coveted of Paris Fashion Week. What’s more, the Lanvin business is buoyant — sales last year bounded 24 percent — and the house seems comfortably in place among fashion’s big leagues.
Indeed, few would argue that Elbaz has left a mark on fashion in the last decade, a ringleader in the revival of dresses, and part of the vanguard in Paris that launched an enduring trend of couturelike French elegance.
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Yet asking him to enumerate some highlights of the past decade proves a fruitless line of questioning.
“No proudest achievements. Nothing is ever enough for me. I’m always thinking what is wrong, what needs to be fixed,” he says over a drink at the Crillon bar on a recent evening, after which he would return to the Lanvin studio for fittings. “I feel 10 years older, but no more relaxed.”
That albatross of self-doubt, which is no stage act, is one of the designer’s endearing qualities, and it’s the engine that drives him and the Lanvin house to greater heights.
On Friday night, Elbaz will mark the 10-year milestone with a party directly after his fashion show at Halle Freyssinet. A second celebration is to come April 26 in Beijing, where Lanvin will stage a big fashion show featuring the most recent women’s and men’s collections.
There’s also a book published by Steidl, with creative direction by Pascal Dangin and photos by But-Sou Lai, due out in April. Rather than a retrospective, it documents the passionate, labor-intensive and caffeine-fueled process that goes into a single collection.
Told that he’s typically hidden in the shadows in the few photos where he is visible, Elbaz slips into self-deprecating mode.
“Because I’m not important,” he demurs. “You know, we went to see that new movie about Margaret Thatcher [“The Iron Lady”], and she said something about how in the past, people tried to do something, whereas today they just try to be something. This is my motto in life: Doing things.”
Born in Morocco, the Israeli designer worked in obscurity for years with Geoffrey Beene in New York before he was recruited to head Guy Laroche in Paris in 1996. He showed three young and fetching collections for that house, which won raves, media attention — and ultimately the job offer of a lifetime: to succeed couture legend Yves Saint Laurent at the helm of Rive Gauche ready-to-wear.
After three seasons, Elbaz was fired in the wake of Gucci Group’s takeover of the house, with Tom Ford picking up the YSL design reins. Elbaz subsequently did one season with Krizia in Milan before enduring a difficult year outside the business, contemplating whether he would ever again have a place in it. He joined Lanvin quietly in late 2001, having struck a bond with its new owner, Taiwan-based publishing magnate Shaw-Lan Wang, who offered him complete creative license and the coziness of a small, privately held company.
And so does Elbaz, after a decade in his role at Lanvin, at least feel comfortable at the house? He flashed a big smile, and replied: “Every morning at 9 o’clock I go home.”
Here, the 50-year-old designer reflects on his career, fashion, celebrities and that funny YouTube video.
WWD: I know you called Madame Wang directly about coming to work for the house. How did you convince her you were the right man for the job?
Alber Elbaz: I didn’t have to convince her. I honestly didn’t. I called her and she returned my call half an hour later. I told her I was surprised she called me back and she said, ‘Listen, if your lawyer calls my lawyer, my lawyer will answer yours.’ A very direct answer. That is the essence of our relationship. We are very direct with each other.
WWD: When you arrived at Lanvin, did you approach the job as another brand rejuvenation, or more of a start-up, building the brand from scratch?
A.E.: When you enter a house like that, you make a decision whether you want to destroy everything and start from scratch or you want to be a little bit more positive and that takes a little bit more time: Looking into the past and analyzing what it is that made that house exist for all those years. So I start with the positive approach, because I am not here to hurt the business.
WWD: So how did you unlock Lanvin’s secret codes?
A.E.: When I looked at the archives; the one word that came to me back and forth was “desire.” So I worked around that and I said, “You know we are going to make collections for women, we are going to actually emphasize the desire, the desire in fashion, the desire in design.” I was very much into design because I came from the house of Geoffrey Beene, which was all about design, and then we pushed it also to desire, to women, to reality, to be relevant. I think to be relevant is the story of my life.
WWD: You’re known for dresses. Is that because you like designing them the most?
A.E.: I think that I was very alert to women, and I am seeing more and more that women are changing. Their lifestyle is becoming more and more complex and more and more difficult on a daily basis. So I was trying always to simplify their life. For instance, dresses in the first collection, a lot of people said they were very romantic, I didn’t see the romantic side of the dresses; I saw the easiness, the simplicity. I saw waking up in the morning and having your kids, and your husband and your mother on the phone, and your work calling you, that was before the SMS, like 10 years ago, now they do that as well. Women need something a little bit more easy in their wardrobe, instead of thinking every morning what goes with what, they just zip it in and at night zip it out. That is how I kind of evolve. I am thinking of something and, boom, I start to work around it.
WWD: Is that how the bridal collection happened?
A.E.: You know, one day I hear some friend of mine is getting married and she was not like 31, but like 51, and they got married in a little house in the south of France. She didn’t want to look like Cinderella, and I said, “Oh wow, I am going to start working on that.”
So everything is not actually discussed in a marketing meeting every Wednesday night, where we talk about what’s next, about what’s the future. But I think it’s being a part of the moment, exactly, probably like a problem solver.
WWD: Same for the children’s line?
A.E.: After I had 14 out of 20 people in the whole studio going to have a baby, I thought maybe it is time. It seemed like everyone around me became a mother; I thought that it is time to dress the daughters.
WWD: You seem partial to cocktail dresses. Is that true?
A.E.: I don’t like that terminology. I like dresses for night, I like after party more than party. I like the mystery; I like the dream, like fantasy dresses. I think also that you make women dream. Women can dream at 9 in the morning and at 10 o’clock at night, it doesn’t matter. I think it is also important for me to make it pragmatic and practical and wearable. I always say, “If you can’t eat it, it’s not food, and if you can’t wear it, it’s not fashion, it is something else.
WWD: What makes fashion modern?
A.E.: Every time I think about modern, I always think about something awful and ugly, and all I am trying to do is think that modern can be beautiful. Modernity is not black leather, and modernity is not 17 zippers and modernity is not rock ’n’ roll or heavy metal. Modernity for me is beautiful and emotional and comfortable and timeless. I mean, to see a woman sitting on 50 meters of tulle, I am not sure it’s modern.
WWD: When Kate Moss wore one of your dresses from the summer 2003 collection to a Manolo Blahnik party, it seemed to ignite celebrity interest in Lanvin. Was that decided in a marketing meeting?
A.E.: We didn’t hire [Kate] to wear the dress. She came and she took it and she returned the dress as well. I’m against running after celebrities. If they want us, they will know where to find us. You know, we are not a small house anymore, but we are not a big house, either. I always say that we are kind of like a human size. We try to work with them personally. But I let them have the choice to come or not come, to be or not to be.
WWD: You have a lot of famous friends who wear Lanvin: Charlize Theron, Demi Moore and Julianne Moore, to name a few. What are they like?
A.E.: I meet them not during red carpet, not when they are doing a movie. I meet them when they finish shooting or before they start. They always think they will never work again and they are so fragile and so vulnerable and so beautiful and so sensitive and smart and l love them because I meet them in moments of truth.
WWD: Your advertising campaigns get lots of attention. Can you tell me about your collaboration with art director Ronnie Cooke Newhouse?
A.E.: We laugh a lot and we cry a lot and we think a lot and that is the essence of this work. It’s like putting a story together. We don’t just say, “Take a beautiful girl and a great makeup artist, and keep it clean.” We don’t start like a lot of other brands do with it clean. I don’t like it clean; I like it dirty! I like something beyond just a beautiful girl wearing the best dress and the best makeup. I want something else. I think in luxury a lot of times, the consensus is that you have to be very glossy, and I think that a lot of time, people think it has to be very cold in order to be respected. I think that you can be you in order to be respected.
WWD: The video in which you dance with models was a hit on YouTube. How did that come about?
A.E.: The whole story of the dancing girls started with YouTube, I mean all people talk about is YouTube. So we went to YouTube and saw the beauty of imperfection. The girls in YouTube and the guys always look very human and that is what makes it funny. It will make you cry and laugh, because humanity makes you cry and laugh because you can relate to it. And that is my whole philosophy, that they need to relate to it and that when they come to the store, I don’t want them to feel like in a pharmacy, that everything is there and please don’t touch it. I want them to touch it.
WWD: Why is having a human scale in fashion so important to you?
A.E.: I think that when everything becomes bigger and more powerful and everything is about the size and it’s about money and it’s about power, I think in order to survive, you have to go back to being you. You have to be authentic. It’s because either you play that game, but we cannot play that game so we have to play no game and to be what we are. I don’t need to be flashy and bright. I need to be right, not bright.
WWD: Your shows are always a treat, and often evoke emotions. How do you do it?
A.E.: I am always trying to put myself inside: Every dress I do, I think, “If I were a woman, would I wear it?” I always think if I were an editor and I was invited to a show and I would have to wait for 45 minutes in the dark or in the cold or in the heat, maybe I would like to have a fresh drink or a piece of chocolate. Maybe I would love to enjoy a sandwich. I think it is something very easy, very personal, something I would like to enjoy and I want to make other people feel comfortable. That’s all!