By  on October 29, 2007

Alber Elbaz has discretely reinvented the fabled house of Lanvin, and it’s all about 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. 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.”

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