Behind Alber Elbaz’s remarkable success at Lanvin is a question of basic logic he returns to season after season: What do women want? For some, he said, it’s a dress with two sleeves. Others ask for color, but Elbaz knows they actually wear black. And this season, he thought beyond Western, city-dwelling women: In Africa, the female population is desperate for vocational skills, something Elbaz learned after a meeting with United Nations officials about a potential project and used as a partial premise for the collection he showed Friday, one of his most daring yet.


On the surface, it translated to tribal effects — pounding drums on the soundtrack; short, stiff feathers that traced the edges of shifts, and heavy, geometric jewelry — but the clothes were really about empowerment. Before he unleashed the lavish decoration, which culminated in wild combinations of feathered and beaded embroideries on lamé “sweatshirts,” Elbaz focused on cleaner, meaner versions of the silhouettes that have anchored his aesthetic — still chic, but more serious than before. Plain silk jersey, in black, navy, eggplant and green, was cut into lean sheaths with sculpted, often asymmetrical sleeves. If anyone was wondering about the spiral staircase at the end of the runway, it was a large-scale replica of a gift Elbaz received, and it represented the single piece of fabric — a circle or square, bias cut and secured by a single seam — from which most garments were fashioned. Such simplicity belies the extraordinary know-how required to achieve such a pure, impressive result.


Some styles had sharp pleats that fanned across the skirt and torso, but, for the most part, the statement was in the shoulders. Their lines were precise and controlled, even when shapes were deliberately exaggerated — perhaps outside the realm of what most women will want — on a few coats.


Those wayward shoulders notwithstanding, Elbaz got what he wanted, too, which was not to be “cool” or “awesome,” two words he detests, but relevant.

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