WWD.com/fashion-news/fashion-features/the-brilliantly-uncool-alber-elbaz-3364070/
Alber Elbaz

Alber Elbaz loves to tell a story. Anyone who has attended one of his intimate resort presentations, which he narrates like a master bard, knows this about him. On Friday morning, 12 hours before his Halloween bash at the Lanvin store, Elbaz is tucked into a seat at the renovated The Mark Restaurant at New York’s The Mark Hotel — his back to the breakfast crowd — and is talking about shoes. Specifically, the sensible, strappy flat sandals that dominated his recent spring runway. What appeared to be a major nod to the season’s comfort footwear trend was actually the last-minute outcome of a rather dramatic and anxiety-ridden rehearsal. At least the way Elbaz tells it.

This story first appeared in the November 1, 2010 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“It was a nightmare,” recalls Elbaz, noting that the models were initially shod with towering titanium heels. “We did the rehearsal and all of a sudden I saw the girls couldn’t walk. I saw the agony in their faces. They were shaking; they looked like alcoholic girls.” Luckily, he had the sandals from the commercial collection backstage. “We bring everything [to the show site],” he explains. So off the stilettos went and on came the flats. “Only 10 or 12 [of the models] said they could walk in the heels,” he continues. “But the ones that couldn’t were, like, 37 of them. I got very emotional — not that I got mad at them — but I got very emotional that they didn’t complain. You know what? Damn it with image. You can be stubborn and go after an image, but I’m not an image-maker; I’m a dressmaker. If you don’t feel good in something, you don’t look good with it.”

That is exactly the mind-set that has made Lanvin a white-hot label under Elbaz’s reign. As he’s recounted countless times, he targets real women with real-life concerns. “Editors can hate me; women — no,” says Elbaz. Regarding those disaster heels, they’re still going into production — after a little fiddling. “We are rethinking the whole construction,” he says. “I always say fashion for me is almost like contemporary art. When does the painter know the painting is finished? It’s not a house you built and say, ‘OK, is done.’”

Elbaz, the recipient of tonight’s Designer of the Year award from the Accessories Council, has other accessories on his mind as well: the bejeweled butterfly necklaces and beautiful bee clips, with baroque pearl abdomens, from his stunning spring collection, which featured sleek stretch bodysuits and sweeping flyaway skirts. “There can be nothing more decadent than a butterfly, because it flies,” he says. “I understood that fashion was a dream, it’s about glamour. I have to make women fly.”

When talking about clothes and women and glamour and the fantastical stuff of fashion, Elbaz is animated. He speaks quickly, and his responses spill forth effortlessly, punctuated by the intermittent joke and self-deprecating quip. But dishing about the corporate business? Not so much. Elbaz reveals that the day before, he declined a big press profile because the journalist wanted to discuss “the industry of money and power. I’m not going to do this interview,” he explains. “I’m in an industry of dreams and excitement and love and beauty. I’m not feeling that I’m a part of this megaindustry of billion dollars. At Lanvin, we’re an independent company — we are very far from this.”

The Morocco-born, Israel-raised Elbaz — formerly known as Albert Elbaz before he lopped off the T before coming to New York in the Eighties, where he assisted Geoffrey Beene — arrived at Lanvin in 2001. That’s when Shaw-Lan Wang, a Chinese media magnate, bought a controlling stake in Lanvin from L’Oréal. She brought Elbaz on board to replace Prada alum Cristina Ortiz and charged him with revamping the very dusty house. A year later, Wang consolidated her control and bought out her minority shareholders. Two years after that, amid rumors he was headed for Givenchy, Elbaz signed a long-term contract to remain at Lanvin. “I don’t want to move around every few years to another house,” he said at the time, also citing his devotion to Wang. She and Elbaz make an unusual pair. Today, the Lanvin owner is ensconced a few tables away at The Mark. She will eventually come over to remind Elbaz he’s late for appointments and, eyeing his still-full bowl of berries, will scold him mildly for not eating. Later that night, at the Halloween party, she’ll pose for pictures with Elbaz and playfully mock-nibble his ear.

“The only way this industry can work is if there is a collaboration between management and design; it’s not us and them,” says Elbaz. “It’s us. It’s like a family.” His partner, Alex Koo, is the firm’s director of merchandising.

While Elbaz has been riding high at Lanvin lately, with one spectacular season after another, things weren’t always so smooth. He went from Beene, where he spent seven years, to Guy Laroche, where he first attracted press attention, in 1997. Then, after two years there, came the big move: Elbaz was tapped by Pierre Bergé to helm Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche. “I got an amazing welcome from Mr. Saint Laurent and Mr. Bergé, but I didn’t feel like a designer,” Elbaz says. “I felt like a son-in-law going into a house and taking something from them. I was very sensitive to that. It was very hard for me. For a couple of months, I had lunch almost every day with another person at Saint Laurent and, every lunch, someone else was crying in front of me. You see, Clara [Saint], Loulou [de la Falaise], they were emotional because it was their baby. They made it happen, and here I am coming and taking it from them.”

Just two seasons in, Gucci Group acquired the house of Saint Laurent. Elbaz was only able to present his third — and last — collection by invoking certain contract stipulations before leaving the house. The experience proved traumatic. “You feel unwanted,” he remarks. “I left and thought not only that I wanted to leave Saint Laurent, but I wanted to leave fashion in total. I didn’t want to do fashion anymore.” So he traveled the world — the Himalayas, India, Turkey — and even entertained going to medical school, if perhaps not for the soundest of reasons. “I’m a hypochondriac — big time,” says Elbaz. “I’m fascinated by doctors. If you had a stethoscope now, I’d be fainting here.”

The catalyst that pushed him back into fashion? An article he read about a mother whose son was hurt in a terror attack. “At first I thought to myself, who needs fashion?” he recalls. “Look what life is about.” Yet the next morning, he woke up with the thought that fashion makes women feel good. “A doctor will give you a Tylenol,” he says. “I will give you a beautiful red coat, and you will feel as good with Tylenol as with the red coat.”

Though the designer calls the whole YSL incident a “scar in my heart,” he harbors no ill feelings toward then-Saint Laurent chief executive officer Mark Lee, now ceo of Barneys New York (a major business for Lanvin), or Tom Ford, who assumed the design helm at Saint Laurent upon Elbaz’s departure. “I know Tom is doing well, and I wish him all the best,” says Elbaz. Apparently Ford feels the same way; last year, the designer-turned-director-turned-designer invited Elbaz to the opening of his directorial debut, “A Single Man.” Elbaz wasn’t able to attend, but says he was heartened by Ford’s gesture.

Elbaz is doing some gesturing of his own these days towards a more egalitarian audience. At the end of the month, his collaboration with H&M rolls out to stores; a film teaser, directed by Mike Figgis, will make its debut on the H&M Web site tomorrow. It’s a lower-priced step Elbaz once noted he would never take. So why now?

“All of a sudden, you see your designs everywhere in the world,” he explains. “Coco Chanel thought [being copied] was a compliment, and sometimes I think, ‘OK, she was right.’ But sometimes it’s painful.” So when the H&M brass approached him about a possible partnership, he eventually agreed. “It was an exercise for me to understand what is the relationship between high fashion and fast fashion.” Ultimately, he concluded that offering the latter does not cheapen the former. “Ninety-five percent of women cannot afford [Lanvin], so let them have a taste. It’s like if I was living in a palace and opened some doors and said, ‘Have tea with me, taste the food.’ It’s not about giving away something that belonged to someone else; it’s about sharing.”

The collection, named Lanvin [Hearts] H&M, will include women’s fashion, accessories, shoes, jewelry and even lipstick, as well as men’s wear. Elbaz had a hand in every possible detail from design to packaging, store window concept, and even “what is next to what” in the corporate showroom. Yet he insists this is not a test before launching a diffusion collection of his own. “No, the beauty of our business is that we can do things and then move on,” he replies. “This project with H&M was about being relevant to a moment. I have always said that we are not a cool brand. It’s not about being cool or not. We try to be relevant. I’m not going into the cool club. It’s not my address.”

Legions of women would disagree on that assessment of his own and Lanvin’s cool factor. So, too, will many more after the Nov. 18 New York opening of the H&M line at a fashion show at The Pierre Hotel. “I was looking for a story again,” Elbaz says. “I thought we could do something like a couture show and bring [the clothes] from High Street to high fashion.” Postshow, editors will be able to enjoy a private shopping party at a Manhattan H&M. “Guests will go from the surreal to the real,” notes Elbaz. “That, for me, is what fashion is all about.”