By  on March 6, 2002

When Alber Elbaz was selected to succeed Yves Saint Laurent as the designer of Rive Gauche ready-to-wear in 1998, he spent about a month rummaging through the archive of the legendary couturier.

What did he discover? One unfathomably beautiful outfit after another for weeks on end. Ultimately, the experience left him feeling as intimidated as he was inspired.

It's a mistake he vowed not to repeat when he was named the creative director of women's wear and accessories at Lanvin last October, succeeding Cristina Ortiz. Although the house's archives are famously complete and rich, Elbaz allowed himself four hours, just enough to understand the "essence" of what Jeanne Lanvin accomplished as one of the preeminent couturiers of the early 20th century.

"She designed hats. She created clothes for women, men and children, and I find that pretty modern," Elbaz said in an exclusive interview. "Lanvin was all about cut, all about detail, all about beauty. Also, there was a sense of fragility. The clothes had something that was very emotional."

Elbaz allowed that what he took from the archive may also reflect his state of mind, post-Sept. 11 -- and after what he described as a difficult period for him personally. In March 2000, he was ousted from YSL in the wake of Gucci Group's takeover of the house. Tom Ford, Gucci Group creative director, ultimately took up the design reins at Rive Gauche.

Elbaz subsequently did one collection for Krizia Top, for spring 2001, but spent most of his time traveling, fending off rumors about where he might land and reflecting on the fashion business and his place in it.

"It was the best and worst year," he recalled. "Everywhere I went, people would say, 'Alber, where are you?' I kind of felt like a widow.+I needed to pause. I needed to ask myself, 'What do I want to do? What do I know how to do?"'

Born in Morocco, Elbaz worked for seven years with Geoffrey Beene in New York before he was recruited to head Guy Laroche here in 1996. His three collections for Laroche were enthusiastically received by the press and retailers, and they ultimately won him the plum YSL job. Losing it, though, was a tough blow. "I never felt that people turned their backs on me," Elbaz emphasized. "That was very encouraging. I'm still Alber, for the good and the bad. They didn't think of me as Alber from Guy Laroche or Alber from Saint Laurent."

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