“Do I look like Claire Chazal? Or better?”
Ensconced in a circular desk, Alber Elbaz was in a film studio on the fringes of Paris hoping his delivery of AZ Factory’s back story would be as smooth and compelling as that of the revered French news anchor.
Elbaz marked his return to fashion tonight with his humor, heart and soigné touch fully intact — but with the added pizzazz of cutting-edge “smart” fabrics, a new business model hinged on projects rather than collections, and with storytelling, problem-solving and entertainment embedded in design, distribution and communications.
The designer said his guiding light for the start-up — a joint venture with Compagnie Financière Richemont — came from the Swiss luxury group’s chairman, Johann Rupert. “He said, ‘Make it happy,'” Elbaz related during a break from shooting the 25-minute film that unveiled his first fashion designs in more than five years.
It was screened tonight as part of an online version of Paris Couture Week, and the film climaxed with a jubilant scene of 20 models of all ages and sizes dancing on a podium in form-fitting dresses, candy-colored evening confections and printed pajamas. Elbaz unveiled three “projects” in the mini movie, the first of which — My Body — went on sale immediately on the AZ Factory website, Farfetch.com and Net-a-porter.com, the Richemont-owned e-tailer.
Elbaz called his film “fashion entertainment,” and his plan all along was to unveil AZ Factory on screen. “I even thought of anti-bacterial dresses before there was COVID-19,” he said as he guided a visitor around the studio — a curtained makeup area encircled by vignettes of a living room, news desk, display podium and a talk show setup. “We’re showing the scene behind the scene and it’s all becoming one,” he explained.
The designer called AZ Factory a “production and communications company” more than a fashion house, although rest assured he plied his formidable draping skills, and various feats of engineering, to make sure that his dresses not only fit the body, but hug it in a warm embrace — something Elbaz is missing dearly during the pandemic.
A self-described hypochondriac, and an asthmatic forever battling his weight, Elbaz takes all precautions to avoid the coronavirus. All visitors were subject to a nasal swab and required a negative result before being given a black surgical mask to layer over their N95 — it’s less distracting on the dark set — and Elbaz had sanitizing gels and sprays, plus Perspex dividers, at all his temporary work stations.
None of this undermined his warm demeanor, and gift of gab. Dispensing with fashion shows, he now wants to “show fashion.”
“It’s not really my comeback,” insisted Elbaz, who has been largely absent from the fashion scene since being ousted from Lanvin in 2015 after a stellar 14-year tenure that catapulted him to the pinnacle of the Paris fashion establishment. “It’s a reset. It’s the birth of the company. It’s not me, it’s us.”
The designer hinted that his forced break from fashion was trying, and at times demoralizing, but it ultimately allowed him to rethink his approach and conceive AZ Factory.
“We’re all a little bit afraid of boredom, but boredom is essential for creativity,” he said. “You start to question, you doubt.”
Indeed, Elbaz confessed that when the pandemic arrived, a few months after he unveiled the joint venture with Richemont, he asked himself if fashion was still important. And the answer was a resounding yes “because it’s one way to feel better with no side effects,” he said.
During his time off he observed fashion with fresh eyes, “not looking at women, but seeing women,” he said.
“I started with one black dress with one technique,” he said. “It’s one story at a time and that’s why I don’t call it a collection. I find it easier to design this way.”
And yet he poured loads of R&D in his neo-LBDs, tasking an Italian factory with developing a knit with gradient compression capabilities, allowing his dresses to hug in some areas and release in others. He took the idea from knitted running shoes. Elbaz obsessively fitted all sizes each time a new color way was introduced as it could affect the stretch capabilities of the fabric.
“The whole idea was to see how function can become fashion. I worked more like an engineer rather than a designer,” he marveled.
Still, Elbaz couldn’t resist adding a detachable bow to a three-hole dress, transforming it with a glamorous flourish. While his original idea was to do 11 black dresses, he ultimately added ivory, beige and multicolor versions.
While projects will unfurl at irregular intervals, Elbaz decided to unveil three during couture week. About six weeks after My Body comes Switchwear, melding the hero garment of the pandemic — the sweat suit, plus some arty pajamas — with glamorous evening separates in recycled duchesse polyester, taking a woman from couch or yoga mat to a grand soiree in a flash. “You can be AZ lazy, or AZ crazy,” he quipped.
“For me, this is my new couture,” he said, while noting all his designs are off-the-rack. “What couture stands for is experimentation and individuality, and I think that’s what the project stands for.”
In traditional couture houses of yore, the designer had a strong personal rapport with his or her top clients. “We can be close to our customers in a different way,” he suggested.
SuperTech-SuperChic is the moniker of his third project, focused on nylon microfiber, typically used for activewear and underwear only, but here carved into tuxedos and bustiers, the works from 350 euros to 1,300 euros.
“I never had those prices in my life,” he said, disclosing another unique feature of AZ Factory: elastic prices somewhere between direct-to-consumer brands and luxury.
Underscoring the high-tech aspect of this fashions, the film intersperses footage from factories and fabric labs in Italy, Portugal, Holland and Turkey, and Spain.
He described sustainability as a given, from the recycled and eco-friendly fabrics to the natural pigments used for dyeing.
Other of Elbaz’s innovations are more common sense. Sensing an injustice in how most garments for men fasten closed on the front, he attached long chains to the back or side zippers of dresses, so women can yank them up themselves. Other dresses have back bows that can be buttoned on and off, giving day to evening some new chutzpah.
Accessories include pointy-toed sneakers and colorful, sparkling costume jewelry.
For his film, Elbaz conscripted models from ages 18 to 70, and in the sizes he’s offering, from XXS to 4XL, and he invited them all to speak and act.
“It’s a celebration of women,” he said, noting that when he saw rough footage of the film, “I only saw faces. I didn’t see the clothes. I was happy that the women didn’t disappear.”
Elbaz insists he’s not acting, just speaking and “telling a story” as he always has, recalling his gab sessions at the Crillon around his pre-collections that fostered a “dialogue with journalists.”
“I’m a person of words, so it’s fashion entertaining but it’s also storytelling,” he said, recalling that his first sitting with legendary photographer Irving Penn involved two hours of conversation before a single frame was shot. “He told me, ‘Alber you should be a writer.'”
No wonder AZ Factory chief executive officer Laurent Malecaze didn’t flinch when asked if he felt like the CEO of a fashion house, a tech firm and a media company. “It’s not a traditional fashion company for sure,” he said.
Malecaze joined Elbaz last October from the management helm of luxury retailer The Webster, where he helped accelerate and widen its digital operations.
Elaborating on the distribution strategy, he said the plan is to take on a limited number of partners in Europe, Asia and the U.S. that fully embrace the brand’s unusual business model of projects, entertainment, education and consumer engagement.
“We don’t want them to just carry the products; we want them to co-create with us to create something unique,” he said. “And because we want to test many new ideas, so our partners will have to be flexible, to be excited about testing new things and not only going the traditional way.
“It’s very important for us to to try to reach bigger audiences than the traditional fashion people,” he added.
For example, Farfetch is planning an “AZ Factory World Tour” — billed as an an immersive, virtual experience around the idea of pop-ups — while Net-a-porter is to host a live broadcast of “The Talk Show With Alber Elbaz & Friends,” where VIP guests are to discuss fashion, science and body positivity, as reported.
He declined to identify potential future partners, but hinted “it will be a mix of expected ones and more surprising ones, digital and non-digital,” across Europe, North American and Asia. “We are also working on some ideas with more innovative partners, people that you would not expect to necessarily carry a luxury product,” he added.
Malecaze described the AZ Factory website as “Netflix meets a traditional luxury e-store,” incorporating videos about its factories and technologies, rotating 3D product images and styling tips from an Alber emoji. “It’s not just transactional — it’s driven by content and by entertainment.”
At launch, My Body dresses will have NFC tags that unlock an experience about how the dress is made on a smartphone.
“There’s a wish from Alber to innovate in every aspect,” Malecaze said. “We have the luck of being small and new so we can redefine what we want to do.”
Asked about the pricing, Malecaze said “there was a lot of co-development” with fabric firms especially to be able to reach its pricing “sweet spot” between about 210 and 1,300 euros.
“It doesn’t mean that all the collections will be exactly in this price range. We will move depending on the complexity of the project, while aiming to offer the most affordable prices possible,” he said, while adding that prices could go higher “if Alber decides to do a very couture project.”
Malecaze said there are no set timelines to unveil new projects, though Elbaz had dozens prepared when he first presented his concept to Rupert.
All Malecaze could say was “before summer, you will have another one.”