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The Professor of Desire

Just before the latest Lanvin show in Paris, Alber Elbaz was, as is his custom, a nervous wreck, unsure his audience would appreciate a collection he based on flyaway clothes and birds of paradise.

Just before the latest Lanvin show in Paris, Alber Elbaz was, as is his custom, a nervous wreck, unsure his audience would appreciate a collection he based on flyaway clothes and birds of paradise. Backstage, holding up a crinkled polyester gown with a ruffled edge, he lapsed into one of his freewheeling fashion diatribes. He talked about how the collection explored contradictions between simple and complicated, languid and structured, neutral and colorful. He talked about wanting the dresses to “disappear” on the models so you see only their faces. Then, he paused, looked at the floor, and concluded that his overriding wish, in fact, was to create “emotional clothes.”

Talk about worrying needlessly. By the time his last gown had billowed down the wood-plank runway and Elbaz trundled out for his bow, many in the audience were on their feet and roaring, displaying all sorts of emotions: jubilation, awe, affection and—certainly among a great majority of women present—full-throttle desire for the clothes, the shoes, the bags, the jewelry.

Sarah Rutson, fashion director at Hong Kong–based Lane Crawford, says she was seduced from the minute she heard her heels tapping on the venue’s wooden floor, “as if I were walking on a old-time dance floor or an old-fashioned seaside promenade. Alber brings out the dreams in me. When the show started, my heart soared to want to wear the washed-silk Grecian dresses with trenchcoats in hues of navy, gray and taupe. Then the whoosh of strong red, orange, yellow, jade. Colors started to float through the air like streamers. By the time the white ostrich-feather dress came out, I was sighing and cooing like a woman who had been deprived of clothes all her life!”

And that was not the end of the affair. Rutson says the collection was even better in the showroom: “It took my breath away again.”

Linda Fargo, senior vice president and fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, confesses Lanvin could “single-handedly put me in the poorhouse. Alber is a designer with a soul, a mind and a heart. He’s able to live with his head in the heavens and one foot on the soft earth, perfectly balancing the romance of dressing with the reality of our lives and our bodies.” Try telling him that.

“I had no idea this collection would be good,” Elbaz confides three days after the show over coffee at the hotel Crillon. “I was sure people would hate it.”

If insecurity is the root of great fashion, Elbaz should never give up his fretting and hand-wringing. For after six years at the helm of Lanvin, he has succeeded in rejuvenating a storied brand, creating an identifiable new look and transforming himself into a major fashion star along the way.

Today, the Lanvin show is one of the hottest tickets of the international season, and the rails of its flagship on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré were practically picked clean during fashion week, never mind the strong euro. But Elbaz physically cringes at the mention of the word “momentum” in connection with Lanvin, preferring the quicksand territory of self-doubt that compels him to drive himself and the house to ever-greater heights.

“I’m not sure fashion is just about the here and now. For me, it’s about design and about desire and dreams,” he says, getting into his this-and-that declarations. “Fashion is about creating a need; it’s not about momentum. I hate that word. It’s the most scary thing.”

To be sure, Elbaz has had his share of career ups and downs. Born in Morocco, he worked in obscurity for years with Geoffrey Beene in New York before he was recruited to head Guy Laroche in Paris in 1996. He showed three young and fetching collections for that house, which won raves, media attention—and ultimately the job offer of a lifetime: to succeed couture legend Yves Saint Laurent at the helm of Rive Gauche ready-to-wear.

After three seasons, however, Elbaz was unceremoniously fired in the wake of Gucci Group’s takeover of the house, with Tom Ford picking up the YSL design reins. Elbaz subsequently logged a single, tumultuous season with Krizia in Milan before enduring a difficult year outside the business, contemplating whether he would ever again have a place in it. He joined Lanvin quietly in late 2001, having struck a bond with its new owner, Taiwanese publishing magnate Shaw-Lan Wang, who offered him complete creative license and the coziness of a small, privately held company. His first collections for the house were under-the-radar affairs, but not for long. Style icon Kate Moss was among the early adopters of his dreamy frocks, bedecked with ribbons, bows and inset jewels.

The slow-build approach suits Elbaz. “Our clothes don’t scream; they whisper, so it takes more time,” he says, hugging a little brocade pillow as he leans back on a plush velvet sofa. “Not everyone hears it for the first time, but when you hear it, it goes deeper.”

As nimble as he is with Seventh Avenue fashion-speak, Elbaz is clearly a thinking-man’s designer, or rather, one who thinks about women incessantly: their lifestyles, wardrobe needs, emotions. “I’m not here to make one look,” he explains. “You have to follow their needs. That’s the whole idea of design.”

Which is not to say that he’s out to rob fashion of fantasy for the sake of wearability. Au contraire. “Yes, [women] need a raincoat, but they also want a canary yellow flyaway gown,” he says. “For these women, I thought: Give them practicality and give them dreams. I design for women that I know and love. I see these women and they are all so pragmatic and practical. They fly from one country to another, from one role to another, from one job to another, to their children. They’re always working, always moving. They’re flying women.”

Hence the conceptual springboard for the collection, which was built on light-as-air layers and colors and decorations inspired by exotic birds. (“The fact that I’m overweight—I have a fantasy for lightness,” he adds.) His creative process typically begins with one word—it was “flying” this season. “Then, after I have the name, I really see the collection. I see the show space: I hear the music, see the girls. I see the end, and by visualizing the end, I start the process.”

And it’s some process. After extensive research in libraries, bookstores and fabric houses, Elbaz starts sketching, then draping, then fitting. He designs about 250 references each season, and each look involves three to six fittings. It’s just a piece of cloth, but you have to bring some dream to it,” he explains. “Give me 100 meters of tulle and I’ll make you a fantasy. But how do you make fantasy with two meters of fabric?”

Pragmatism inhabits Elbaz’s work in unheralded ways. For example, why include tuxedo jackets in his spring collection, even putting them over evening or cocktail dresses? Elbaz relates that he attended a Paris event in June, and unseasonably cold weather left some women freezing. Instead of a styling statement, the jackets were a practical gesture, like an arm around the shoulder of his chilly clients.

During the middle of the Lanvin show, one American editor, gasping at the beauty and grace on parade, leaned over and remarked: “This is what Saint Laurent should be.”

Does Elbaz ever wish he could take another crack at the storied label? The designer waves off the question, stressing, “I’m married,” but accepts the compliment nonetheless. “I have that desire to make women beautiful. That’s what I have in common with some other designers in the world.”

Elbaz is part of a new vanguard of Paris-based designers—a group that includes Nicolas Ghesquière and Olivier Theyskens—who, over the past five years, have put couture-like elegance at the top of the modern fashion agenda and given the French capital new buzz. “I saw them all at the Met party [for the Costume Institute] in New York,” Elbaz relates. “We all felt like a group of friends. I have a lot of appreciation and respect for designers. This generation of hating each other is over.”

Elbaz has a penchant for raw-edged seams, and often washes precious fabrics to make them softer, more lived-in. “I like this idea of clothes that have the feeling your mother wore them,” he says. “Women tell me, ‘When we come to the boutique, we feel like the clothes are waiting for us.’”

Known to work from 9 a.m. until midnight daily, and only slightly less on weekends, Elbaz is hands-on with everything from the window displays to licensed products to daily sales reports. He attributes that to his formative days at Beene, which were all about working and doing, not talking. The night before his Paris show, for example, Elbaz visited his show venue around midnight after final fittings, headed back to the studio to choose bags for the runway and returned to the venue until 5 a.m. to finalize lighting and other details.

To be sure, Elbaz has become more of a showman in recent years, a fact he attributes to experience rather than some hotshot stylist, producer or consultant whispering in his ear. For his spring show, coming near the tail end of a grueling international fashion circuit, Elbaz offered up some sugar: the sweet charm of a small-town fair ambience, complete with bow tie–wearing ushers offering trays of ice cream treats. Says Bergdorf’s Fargo: “Who else would think to serve push-up ice cream to melt your heart and make you feel young and content and in the moment after weeks on the fashion treadmill?”

His charm aside, Elbaz also is giving the Lanvin business serious traction. Sales of women’s rtw have grown 16 times since his arrival, and the company is on track to enter the black in 2007 for the first time in years, according to president Paul Deneve. “Every part of the business is growing, so that’s quite unique,” says Deneve, also citing strong growth of men’s wear, handbags and shoes, particularly the hot ballerina style.

Driven by the blockbuster spring runway show, Deneve says Lanvin should close the season with a 70 percent year-on-year increase. While Elbaz’s heralded collections get all the attention, Deneve has been working behind the scenes overhauling the company’s supply chain, allowing Lanvin to deliver its collections six weeks earlier this year. He says he hopes to shave two weeks more off the production cycle next year.

As for Elbaz, when he isn’t working or traveling for personal appearances, the designer loves to visit galleries (as opposed to museums, where he gets lost) and to watch movies, preferably in a theater. He says he prefers “strong” movies that make you think—Babel being a good recent example. But he’s just as happy to sit in a cafe or a hotel lobby and watch people, or have tête-à-tête dinners. “I love people, that’s my hobby,” he says.

So it should be no surprise that his fashion work is very personal, based on emotions and human contact. “At the end of the day, I’m only a storyteller. I tell stories,” he reasons. “In order to do the job I do, you have to be extremely sensitive.”

And Elbaz fondly credits founder Jeanne Lanvin for setting him on the right track. When arriving at the house, he visited the archive and discovered such timeless treasures as a chiffon dress in a tobacco shade and the thread of his compelling fashion story. “I stayed for four hours and I left,” he says. “I understood right away—the word was desire.”