By  on March 3, 2005

PARIS — Alber Elbaz has expensive taste in office furniture.

Last summer, when the time came to buy new tables for Lanvin’s showrooms on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, the designer chose a model way beyond the house’s meager budget.

So Elbaz, who whips up some of the most ingenious window displays in Paris on a shoestring, took a similar DIY tack. He enlisted the artist husband of one of his staffers to paint 18 large boards with scenes of Uzbekistan based on Polaroids that Elbaz had taken on a recent trip there.

“Everyone said, ‘How creative!’” Elbaz said in an interview, relating the reaction of buyers. “It’s not easy when [business conditions] are not perfect, but it gives you the drive. When you lack things, you have to think and find solutions. This is designing.”

Elbaz was alluding to Lanvin’s ongoing financial woes and tight cost controls. Last year, the house let go 65 employees and exited the perfume and watch businesses in an effort to stem heavy losses, which had mounted to 22 million euros on sales of 79.3 million euros in 2003, or losses of $29 million on sales of $104.7 million at current exchange.

The firm has not finished tallying its accounts for 2004, but a spokeswoman said operating losses were reduced “slightly.”

Also, a worldwide fragrance license signed last June with Inter Parfums SA included a $19.4 million upfront fee, which gave Lanvin some means to develop its business, she added.

Plans for 2005 include the opening of five Lanvin corners, including two at Galeries Lafayette here, and six franchised boutiques in cities such as Istanbul, Dubai, Moscow and Hong Kong.

Majority owner Shaw-Lan Wang, a Taiwanese publishing magnate, and her son, Sing-Ming Chu, who run the business, declined to be interviewed, even as speculation continues to whirl about the possibility of them selling all or part of the business.

But Elbaz — whom sources describe as playing a key role in major decisions while Russell Reynolds Assoc. hunts for a new chief executive officer for the house — said he is content with Wang’s take-it-slow approach.“Everyone works on a different time schedule. You have to ask, ‘Do you want to have stores all over the world?’ I’m not sure I want that,” Elbaz mused over lunch at the Crillon bar here. “Lanvin is a special house. The beauty of this brand is that it’s not everywhere; not everyone wears it. Moving gradually is better for me.”

And Lanvin is making undeniable headway.

Since Elbaz showed his first collection for Lanvin in 2002, the buzz around his dreamy and feminine confections has reached a crescendo, making it one of the hottest tickets during Paris Fashion Week. And as the house prepares for its fall show in Paris Sunday, it got a major boost 6,000 miles away last weekend when Natalie Portman shone on the Academy Awards red carpet in a Lanvin creation.

Business is clearly following suit. Sales of women’s clothes and accessories have quadrupled since Elbaz’s arrival. The house estimates 45 percent of Lanvin’s turnover this year will come from its women’s department, a big leap from the 15 percent  back in 2002.

Wholesale clients number 230. In the U.S., retailers such as Nordstrom, Barneys New York, Jeffrey and Susan of Burlingame carry Lanvin. Worldwide, there are 54 Lanvin boutiques, corners and franchises, the lion’s share of them in Asia and more than half of them for men’s wear.

An earnest but nervous sort, Elbaz acknowledges he has blossomed at Lanvin after several tumultuous years that saw him ousted from Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche and then sidelined for a year after one bumpy season at Krizia Top in Milan. Trained by the late Geoffrey Beene for seven years, Israeli-born Elbaz was thrust into the limelight in 1996 when he was recruited to head Guy Laroche.

Reflecting on the difficult three seasons spent at YSL, Elbaz mused that working for the house was “too intimidating,” not only because he succeeded a living legend, but because Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole swooped in and tried to orchestrate a revival à la Gucci.

“Not everything in life is like coffee; not everything is instant,” said Elbaz, who is partial to talking in such similes. “Time is a very important factor.”To be sure, Elbaz’s ability to stage winning fashion shows and create collections with editorial appeal has grown exponentially since his YSL days. Asked to account for the change, he said: “More than anything [my time at YSL] helped me to focus — what I know, what I want to do. I’m more true to myself now and more honest with my work and I’m enjoying the moment. I feel more mature.”

And happier at Lanvin, which he praises for its “human scale” and for the freedom to “make mistakes, be less corporate and less formulaic....When you work with joy, it’s reflected in the colors, the fabrics and the feeling of the clothes.”

Elbaz, who last fall squelched widespread speculation he was headed to Givenchy by renewing a “long-term” contract with Lanvin, said he stayed because of a strong rapport with Wang — even if she is not in Paris that regularly.

“I get along with her very well. She’s an extremely intelligent woman,” he said. “She doesn’t interfere with my work. She let go. I proved it could be done. I proved we could grow the business. She has me more involved in more decisions and I feel very welcomed.”

Looking ahead, Elbaz said he wouldn’t rule out getting involved in Lanvin’s core men’s business, which has taken a backseat in recent years. “I hope and I believe it will be better and good,” he said. “It’s a matter of time.”

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