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Alber Elbaz Speaks at UNESCO

Lanvin's Alber Elbaz charmed international delegates at the UNESCO's World Forum on Culture and Cultural Industries.

Alber Elbaz at UNESCO.

MONZA, Italy — A 45-minute drive away from Milan Fashion Week, in another traffic-clogged Italian city, fashion was also a hot topic as Alber Elbaz addressed a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization conference in his inimitable, candid style.

This story first appeared in the September 25, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“I’m here to tell the story of fashion,” he told a packed room at the 18th-century Villa Reale on the opening day of UNESCO’s World Forum on Culture and Cultural Industries, which runs through Saturday. “In front of us, we designers have a blank page, and we have to fill it up with dreams and stories.”

Riffing on everything from the pitfalls of globalization to the punishing pace of fashion, the Lanvin designer also had about 200 international delegates and dignitaries in stitches with self-jabs, mostly about his weight problem. Fashion, he said, is a marathon and designers “work very hard, but we lose no calories, unfortunately.” Later likening fashion to cooking, he said: “If we cut the butter, we can make it better.”

But the crux of his message was serious: Fashion’s craft skills are in peril, and the superficial culture the Internet engenders isn’t helping.

“Do you know anyone who wants to be a seamstress? Do you know anyone who wants to be a tailor?” he asked the audience incredulously. “I don’t, either. But I do know many people who want to be models, and not only models, but supermodels. This is the game today: Be famous, and do it really, really fast.”

A low-tech sort, Elbaz confessed he doesn’t drive or use e-mail, yet he was once advised to consider how his collection looks on a computer screen. His conclusion after several tries? “Whatever looks good in the picture doesn’t always look good in real life,” he said, dressed in a black suit and his signature bow tie.

A hands-on sort, Elbaz ran for a plane right after his speech to get back to the Lanvin studio in Paris to prepare his next collection, to be shown Oct. 2. “I feel like a mother of 10 kids who are staying in Paris and crying for food,” he said, to a round of chuckles. “Even here in a time of Internet and machines, not everything can be done by remote control.”

Elbaz allowed that tradition can stand in the way of the fashion industry’s progress. He related how he once worked a very reputable factory in Lyon, France, but found its fabrics, while beautiful, too heavy and unsuited for modern life. When he related this to the owners, he was “accused of destroying their tradition. I said, ‘I’m not. I’m just trying to go forward,’” Elbaz said. The factory capitulated, and won an order for thousands of meters of lightened-up fabrics.

Eager to convince his audience that fashion designers are not divas who show up for work at 6 p.m. and quaff Champagne, Elbaz described his routine as up at six in the morning with strong black coffee to coax out the stories, innovations and newness that feed consumer desire and keep business humming.

He lamented that, with fashion’s current breakneck pace of pre-collections, cruise and capsules, a designer working over a 30-year career would have to create 180 collections or stories. “In the music industry, you can have a lifetime career with one great album,” he said. “We’re only as good as our next collection — in other words, no credibility at all.”

Elbaz, who had succeeded Yves Saint Laurent for three seasons when the design legend retired from ready-to-wear, related that he once met Saint Laurent, who died last year, the night before one of his last couture collections, and was surprised to learn that he was stressed. “I said, ‘Even after all these years?’ And he said, ‘Because of all these years, I’m still stressed,’” Elbaz said.

Still, for a man who left Israel with $800 and a dream to become a fashion designer in New York City, Elbaz said he’s enchanted to work in fashion.

“Anyone who knows me knows I’m a real complainer,” Elbaz said, “but in the moment of truth, I will say I’m lucky.”