Alber Elbaz: An Emotional Pitch

Alber Elbaz discusses the creative process and fashion in the modern world.

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WWD/DNR CEO Summit issue 11/11/2008

Emotion — It’s a key word for Alber Elbaz, and one to which the designer refers when describing his aesthetic and the secret of his success at Lanvin, where he is the creative director. The notion also comes up frequently in his career, from his roller-coaster creative process before each collection to the kinds of dresses he designs.

This story first appeared in the November 11, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

At Lanvin, Elbaz did not just resurrect a sleeping beauty and transform it into one of the most desirable fashion brands in Paris today, but with his designs, he has helped up the allure of French fashion overall.

During his keynote address, Elbaz showed many facets, both personally and professionally. He offered his view of fashion, its global nature and the importance of team collaboration, and at times became fi ercely critical of the industry.

Setting the tone for the evening, Elbaz recalled attending a luxury conference in Asia several years ago. With most of his speech written, he was still struggling to find the perfect introduction.

“I remember sitting in that little restaurant in the hotel trying to think about an opening, and I remember asking for some dim sum, and I asked for red spicy sauce,” Elbaz said. “The waitress told me, ‘We have ketchup now.’”

The notion scared him, even if he loves ketchup. “It was about globalization,” he said. “It was about losing identity. It was about going forward and forgetting, maybe, the past. How much of our identity do we have to lose when we have to go forward? I understand we are in a world of business and it’s all about globalization, but for me, the world is also universal. Men and women, black and white, blonde and brunette, are all alike.

“Since I worked here and am now living in Paris, I was asked many times, ‘Is there any difference between French and American women?’ he added. “I said, ‘Yes, lipstick.’ [In France] it’s Chanel, [in the U.S.] it may be Estée Lauder, but its always red. Every woman loves lipstick.”

Elbaz knows the global marketplace. Born in Morocco and raised and educated in Israel, the designer moved to New York in the mid-Eighties, and, after a stint at a bridal firm, landed at Geoffrey Beene, working as his senior assistant for seven years. In 1996, Elbaz moved to Paris to become head designer for Guy Laroche, where he quickly caught the attention of the fashion press and of Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent, who tapped him to take over the design for Rive Gauche. Though hailed by the fashion community, he was ousted after Gucci Group acquired the brand and installed Tom Ford in the top job.

In 2001, after a stint at Krizia, he returned to Paris and Lanvin, which L’Oréal had just sold to a new holding company known as Harmonie SA, led by majority shareholder Shaw-Lan Wang. Lanvin came with a fabled history — milliner Jeanne Lanvin founded the house in Paris in 1890 — but over the years, it had become a sleeping beauty, with limited distribution in the U.S. beyond fragrance, eyewear and neckties, and main markets in Europe, the Far East and the Mideast.

Elbaz quickly managed to turn around Lanvin’s fortunes with beautiful, romantic collections that updated the notion of French chic, and, with a few other Paris contemporaries, gave the City of Light a renewed allure after years of Italians dominating fashion palates.

The designer likened his work at Lanvin to a French recipe. “It’s like wonderful food, but with too much butter,” he said. “I cut the butter from the recipe, and what I am trying to do with the clothes is taking all the know-how, the tradition, the secret of French couture but trying to update it.

“The biggest question is, what is modernity to us?” he added. “I have only one definition of modern — emotional. Today I want to have an emotional dinner. I don’t want to speak about the weather. I know what it’s going to be like for the next 10 days. We have the Internet. I don’t want to go to a movie and see people jumping. For that I have the Olympics. I want to cry and I want to laugh, but I don’t just want to see people jumping. With clothes, it’s the same thing. I think it’s all about emotion.”

Sculpting his summit speech, Elbaz also received a different kind of advice. “My boyfriend told me, ‘Alber, don’t be very nervous, because you are not a ceo, so you don’t have to sound smart,’” he said. “I thought that this may be the biggest problem of our industry, that we don’t have to sound smart. Times like today, when every other night we are listening to CNN and Fox News and see the market is crashing and another bank is out of business and mortgages are diffi cult to get and people are losing their jobs, the biggest question I ask myself is, what does it make us designers do or think or go for, and what does it mean for the luxury business, and is fashion important for a time like today?”

Throughout his career, he has asked the question several times, especially after he was ousted at Saint Laurent. At the time, he contemplated leaving fashion and becoming a doctor, because, he admitted, he loved hospitals, loved the food there and loved nurses. Then, one night, Elbaz came across an Israeli article about a mother whose son had lost both his legs in a terror attack, and who left her husband and four other children to move into a little room next to the hospital to devote her life to her recovering son.

“When I was reading the article I thought again, is fashion important?” he said. “My conclusion today is that fashion is very important, today maybe more than ever, because we fashion designers maybe have a role. We have the duty to bring beauty to the world, to make women feel better, to make women feel good, to uplift them. Today, I was at Barneys for a couple of hours — we had a trunk show. There was this woman I was helping, and she told me at the end of this little rendezvous we had, ‘I am going to be broke, but I am happy.’ I think this is the whole idea of what fashion is going to do today, and I am saying that, when everything is crashing, maybe it’s not a bad idea to invest in a good dress.”

His idea of fashion is far more democratic than one would assume — and he sometimes even thinks about “Wheel of Fortune” contestants.

“People who know me know how much I love television,” he said. “I used to absolutely love ‘Wheel of Fortune’ when I was here in America. I used to run home at 7:30 and used to tell everybody that I had a class. Watching ‘Wheel of Fortune,’ I discovered America.
Most of the time, we fashion people live in a bubble and think this is what life is all about. And all of a sudden, you meet a teacher from Omaha and a policeman from Idaho and a mother from Brooklyn. You realize there is another part to America that we sometimes lose, because we are not introduced to it and also because we don’t have the time to be part of it. But these are the people that we fashion designers are working for and these are the women we are dressing.”

Elbaz also noted his disdain for other parts of the fashion industry. These days, in Paris, he tends to rush home to watch “Project Runway.”

“Heidi Klum has a line, ‘In fashion, one day you’re in and then the next day you are out,’” he said. “Every time I hear that, I am dying. I am asking myself, how indecisive is our industry? How unloyal can we be? How come today someone is being loved by everyone and the day after is not? What is it that we do wrong in between?

“People will tell me, ‘You are a genius… now,’ and ‘I really like what you do…now,’” he continued. “I always say to everybody, ‘I am not Miss America. I am not the girl of the moment. I worked from a very young age. I was an assistant and thought I would be an assistant forever. I thought I would die an assistant because it took forever for me to get a job.’ We have this fear and anxiety from the future. But this is the story of our life because every collection ends and then we have a new future, that we have to think and to bring birth to. That fear is the one thing that actually makes me not want to stay in fashion for many years because I know I cannot take it, because it is very heavy to carry.”

He likened the pressure to running a marathon, except, he pointed out, one where you don’t lose calories. “It’s those runners that run and run and run, and everybody around gets tired and goes on vacation, but you have to keep going,” Elbaz said.

Despite all the stress, Lanvin owner Wong’s explanation of his role continuously inspires him not to give up. “She said, ‘You kind of look and maybe work mostly like someone that is working in agriculture. You plant a seed, you take care of them, you water them, you protect them until those seeds become trees.’ And I thought this was one of the most beautiful things she told me. Because most of the time, she tells me, ‘I love you,’ she brings me peanuts from China and here, she kind of framed, a little bit, my work, as being someone who plants a seed and makes sure that the trees will be green and healthy and big.”

During his presentation, Elbaz also gave the audience a glimpse into his life as a designer. During the early stages of creating a collection, he often only sleeps an hour a night.

“Your body works on pure adrenaline, because you have to start a collection and you have to come up with ideas,” Elbaz said. “And you don’t know what it is that you’re going to do, and you don’t know what it is that you’re going to tell. And it’s very scary, those nights. Then I wake up, it’s three in the morning, I go to my kitchen, I make a triple espresso and I go to my workroom and I start working. There is nothing more scary than just a blank page.”

Once he has done his research and refined his ideas, Elbaz checks into the Hôtel de Crillon for several nights, which he doesn’t leave until the collection is done. “When I do sketch, I try to sketch with music,” he added. “When I put on classic music, it always goes into pink and fl owers, and when I go with metal, it ends up being leather and black. I decided to just shut off the music and I put on CNN or Fox News and I hear all these disasters around the world in 30 minutes, and it feels so wonderful being in Paris, and that’s when everything starts.”

By the end of his stay, he typically has some 300 sketches, each representing a different type of woman. “It’s taking those 300 women in a bag to the office and starting the work,” he said. “Those nights that I am at the hotel, most of the time I am feeling sick,” he added. “I am having temperatures, my nose runs and it’s almost like I am fainting.”

Elbaz stressed that his work is about evolution, not revolution.

“Revolution scares me, because revolution is all about destroying the past in order to go forward,” he said. “I don’t believe in destroying, I believe in building. I don’t believe in monologue. I believe in dialogue.”

How does a bona fide designer like Elbaz source his ideas? Happenstance.

“One night I was having dinner with a friend of mine in a restaurant in Paris,” he recalled. “He was talking to me about the Bolsheviks in Russia. He told me, ‘You know, Alber, when the Bolsheviks went to the palaces in Russia, they were trying to kill all the royal family — the men collapsed immediately, but the women survived.’ I was really surprised. They said they took all their jewelry, all their diamonds and their pearls and they had sewn them into their corsets. I thought, how beautiful. So jewelry didn’t really serve as a decoration, but in a way as protection. I did a jewelry collection when I took jewelry and stitched fabrics, and I created jewelry and fabrics as one piece.”

Teamwork is key to the creative process, particularly when it comes to the collaboration with the so-called suits in a fashion house.

“I know the worst enemy of many designers is the ceo,” Elbaz said. “I think that, in a way, the most frustrating ceo will tell me that we cannot control the designer. I didn’t think it’s about controlling the designers, and it’s not about enemies, because we are not in a war. It’s peace. I believe it’s all about collaboration. It’s all about dialogue. And this is what this industry is looking for.

“I am in many business meetings, and by the color of the ties, I know if the people have good news or bad news,” he added. “Light blue and light green are always amazing news. If it’s red, be careful. If they come with a black tie, you’re out. These are exactly those kinds of formulas that I think it’s time to change.

“Every time I meet today with business people, I see them looking down. I am always afraid that they are sad or maybe stressed with everything that is happening with the economy. I realize it’s not that. I realize that there is a BlackBerry and instead of looking straight they are looking down. And I am telling all you ceo’s: Look up. Look into my eyes. Let’s work together.”

Asked what parts of the fashion system he deemed particularly broken, Elbaz pointed to the vast number of collections resulting in lengthy buying cycles.

“Some of the buyers I know start to buy at the end of March, and in July they didn’t see all the pre-collections,” he said. “I think there is a problem right there. Those buyers don’t have the time to go down to the floor. They don’t have the time to digest. They don’t have
the time to see, and to actually go and speak to the sales people.”

Like many of his contemporaries, Elbaz is also puzzled by the delivery cycle and the rush to get merchandise into stores earlier.

“Why is it we sell a fur coat in June and a bathing suit in January?” he said. “I don’t understand that. This is something that is part of the system, I know, but I would like to go and buy a fur coat in January, when it’s really cold, and then I will not buy it on sale. I am  looking for a bathing suit in May, in June and in July. Why is it so difficult to find by that time, and why is it on sale? There is some disability in my brain to understand it.”

Asked if he thought there was a different paradigm for luxury shoppers, he shrugged, but said business has to be done differently, and fashion, he added, should take more cues from other fields of innovation.

“In computers, in cars, everybody talks about smart design,” he said. “It’s kind of user friendly, and it’s kind of wonderful and very high tech. When it comes to fashion, we are still stuck in two words: sexy and glamour. And I ask whether sexy can be smart. Can we introduce smart design to fashion? I know there is nothing intellectual about a red dress, just like there is nothing intellectual about roasted chicken, but can we make it differently?  Can we make it so women can wear it more than one time? Can we do maybe clothes that you can wear both ways? Can we maybe make clothes that crease less? Can we make clothes that you can wear in winter and summer?”

One of his most recent solutions was to create an off-the-rack bridal collection retailing from about $800 to $3,000, “so you don’t have to order them and by the time you receive them you are divorced.” And whether it’s bridal or not, he always tries to instill that sense of emotion into his clothes.

“I was working here with Geoffrey Beene when I came to America,” he recalled. “I didn’t speak English very well. I remember one day I told Mr. Beene in a fitting, ‘Mr. Beene, that dress is so commercial.’ Mr. Beene turned orange, and told me, ‘Alber, don’t ever use the word commercial. Say desirable.’ This is the time that I knew I was introduced to the world of desire.”

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