LONDON — In a move that signals a luxury comeback for Alber Elbaz and nods to Richemont’s commitment to fashion, the two have formed a joint venture known as AZfashion, a from-scratch project aimed at wardrobe “solutions” for women.
Compagnie Financière Richemont has been on an M&A tear this year, most recently buying Italian jeweler Buccellati from its Chinese owners, while roughly 12 months ago it inked a joint venture with Alibaba to push Net-a-porter and Mr Porter further into China.
Those deals followed Richemont’s purchase of 100 percent of Yoox Net-a-porter and Watchfinder in 2018. Since then, the group has been putting a strong focus on digital retail and broadening the reach of its watch and jewelry collections, selling them alongside luxury fashion at Net and Mr Porter.
Richemont described AZfashion as “an innovative and dynamic start-up, meant to turn dreams into reality.” The luxury giant, parent of brands including Cartier, Chloé, IWC, Van Cleef & Arpels and Dunhill, is clearly seeking to learn from Elbaz, in addition to helping build the new venture.
Johann Rupert, Richemont’s chairman, said Friday that Elbaz’s ideas wowed him.
“Upon hearing Alber Elbaz describe his vision for fashion and the projects it inspires in him, I was again struck by his creativity and insight,” Rupert said. “His talent and inventiveness, with his sensitivity toward women and their wellbeing, will be of great value to our group and its maisons. We warmly welcome Alber to Richemont, and look forward to an exciting partnership,” he said.
Elbaz said the JV with Richemont would help him to establish “my ‘dream factory,’ which will focus on developing solutions for women of our times. I am extremely excited to collaborate with good people, talented and smart individuals, and look forward to also having a lot of fun with this new adventure.”
Richemont declined to reveal more details about the new business. The company is in a blackout period, with interim results set to be released on Nov. 8.
It is understood that Richemont has a majority stake in the JV, although the new deal will not have a material impact on the luxury giant’s bottom line. The decision to form a joint venture was because the business is a start-up, rather than an established brand.
While Rupert and Elbaz had only met a few times before sealing the partnership, an industry source said Elbaz impressed the company with his “creativity, inventiveness, culture and humility. He has lots of ideas, and they can be stimulating for everyone.”
Elbaz has a reputation as an expensive talent and was paid handsomely at Lanvin, where he was subcontracted via his company AEK Designs, a private limited liability company under sole ownership. It posted annual revenues of 5.6 million euros in 2014, and 5.9 million euros in 2013, according to public records.
Fashion, lifestyle and accessories is Richemont’s smallest division, and includes brands such as Chloé, Dunhill, Alaïa and Peter Millar. In September, the division’s chief, Eric Vallat, stepped down a little more than a year after taking up the job.
In the April-to-June period, the division saw sales contract 3 percent, mostly due to the disposal of accessories brand Lancel in 2018. Richemont said the “strong performance” of Peter Millar, a golf and luxury sports apparel brand, during the period contrasted with that of the other maisons in the division.
With Cartier serving as Richemont’s revenue engine, and the specialist, high-end watch business beginning to pick up after a major transformation, the fashion and accessories division remains a challenge for the group, especially with competitors such as Hermès and brands belonging to LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and Kering, parent of Gucci and Saint Laurent.
A few years ago, Richemont began slimming down the division and putting the focus on its top fashion and accessories names. It sold Shanghai Tang and Lancel, and began to ramp up its high-end leather goods production with the purchase of the artisanal Milanese brand Serapian.
“We see significant potential in leather goods,” Richemont’s chief financial officer Burkhart Grund said during the company’s 2017-18 results presentation in May 2018. Grund added that Richemont’s plan was to grow its leather business organically through its existing brands, rather than rely on acquisitions.
The JV with Elbaz, who is chiefly a ready-to-wear designer, will no doubt have a strong accessories angle, given Richemont’s ambitions and expertise in the space, as well as Elbaz’s talents with footwear and fashion jewelry.
The development heralds Elbaz’s return to big-ring fashion, backed by one of its most prestigious luxury groups.
Since being ousted from Lanvin in October 2015, he has busied himself with speaking engagements and small design projects at various price points, including a collaboration with Tod’s on shoes; a Converse sneaker; a limited-edition makeup line with Lancôme; a range of travel bags and accessories with LeSportsac, and a fragrance with French perfumer Frédéric Malle. He was also approached to design the Schiaparelli collection.
He quietly designed wedding gowns for friends and met with a range of potential investors in America, Singapore and Europe to fund his new fashion project. It is believed to be hinged on online selling, frequent drops instead of collections, and an eclectic approach to products that may extend beyond apparel, sources said.
Elbaz could not be reached for comment following Friday’s announcement.
He has certainly kept his industry profile high, attending myriad fashion events and parties in various fashion capitals, and populating his Instagram feed with selfies, positive slogans, vacation portraits and his inimitable illustrations, naïve and playful. He counts 124,000 followers on the platform.
Prized for his couture-like approach, woman-friendly fits and affable personality, Elbaz is best known for his 14-year tenure at Lanvin. Shaw-Lan Wang, the Taiwanese publishing magnate who acquired Lanvin from L’Oréal in 2001, gave him a free hand to reinvent the business with chic cocktail dresses, chunky costume jewelry, ballerina flats, dressy sneakers and modernist men’s wear.
During his tenure he transformed a business largely dependent on men’s wear to a leading designer brand for women, part of the vanguard in Paris that launched an enduring trend of couture-influenced French elegance. (Though since his exit, Lanvin sales have dwindled and the brand is still finding its way out of the wilderness after a revolving door of design successors and business leaders.)
Known for draping fabrics on the body and using them to their best advantage, Elbaz frequently emphasized the human hand in fashion by leaving stray threads and adding small rips and tears, a riposte to e-commerce sites that gave fashion a high-tech, impersonal sheen.
Born in Morocco, Elbaz learned his craft at Geoffrey Beene’s elbow in New York, emerging onto the international radar when he was recruited by Ralph Toledano to helm Guy Laroche in Paris in 1996, a stint that won raves, media attention and the job offer of a lifetime: To succeed couture legend Yves Saint Laurent at the helm of Rive Gauche rtw.
After three seasons, Elbaz was fired in the wake of Gucci Group’s takeover of YSL, with Tom Ford picking up the design reins. Elbaz subsequently did one season with Krizia in Milan before sitting on the sidelines of the fashion business for one year.
It is understood he has held discussions to work for a range of top fashion houses over the years, including Dior and Max Mara. He has long harbored dreams to take over Chanel one day.
“I was very much into design because I came from the house of Geoffrey Beene, which was all about design, and then we pushed it also to desire, to women, to reality, to be relevant,” he said in a 2012 interview. “I think to be relevant is the story of my life.”