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."During a year off visiting such exotic locales as Indonesia, India, Turkey and Budapest, Elbaz had numerous epiphanies about his career. He realized he preferred to work at a small company, "a family house," he said. Although Lanvin had been owned by the beauty giant L'Oreal, it was acquired last year by a group of investors led by Taiwan-based publishing magnate Shaw-Lan Wang. Elbaz also realized that he had never fallen out of love with fashion. Indeed, he continued to sketch furiously and without restraint during his hiatus, producing more than 2,000 illustrations. And he came back with a new determination to be true to himself, faithful to the retailers who have supported him and respectful of women who seek to enrich their lives with beautiful clothes.

"We need fashion more than ever before," he said. "But instead of cool, trendy or sexy fashion, I think we need timelessness, beauty and desirability. It goes back to the essence of our metier, of making clothes, not only the front of the dress and the back of the dress, but what's in between."

Known for draping on the body and for using fabrics to their best advantage, Elbaz is putting the emphasis on silhouette for his first season at Lanvin. He's been turning taffeta, cashmere and satin into clothes that have few seams, but are innovative in their shapes and volumes and thoughtful in their details. The fall collection features such shapes as the caftan and the kimono, with an emphasis on the waist and a sense of movement.

Elbaz opened a trim black mohair coat with raw edges to reveal grosgrain trim anchoring the buttons and buttonholes, then showed how a square of extra fabric at the back of a fishtail skirt accentuated its drape. "I love the word 'design,"' he said. "Almost everything I learned at Geoffrey Beene is coming back to me only now, everything I learned about construction, techniques, the process. Three-quarters of my days are only about fitting: fitting the line, fitting the shoulders."

Fortunately, his new house seems to be a good fit for the designer. "I'm very happy at Lanvin and I hope the collection is successful," he said. "I hope that it will be different."

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