Alber Elbaz was nothing short of a wunderkind when fashion executive Ralph Toledano plucked him from obscurity in 1996 and put him at the creative helm of Guy Laroche, then a dusty, almost forgotten French brand.
Recognition came quickly. On Oct. 17, 1997, an ensemble melding leather, tulle and delicate floral motifs from Elbaz’s second collection landed on the cover of WWD with the headline “Smart Move.”
“I received the cover page, and I started to cry,” a rueful Toledano said in an interview on Sunday.
Commercial success was not far behind.
At Elbaz’s suggestion, Toledano agreed to take his first Guy Laroche pre-collection to New York, even though it had not been priced. The executive, who previously logged 10 years running the Karl Lagerfeld fashion house, called up his friends at the big U.S. department stores — Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s — which all dispatched general merchandise managers. By the evening, he had the chief executive officers and presidents in his office fighting to get the first shipments. “They all wanted it,” he marveled. Asked what got them in such a lather, Toledano replied: “It was the femininity,” noting that Elbaz’s colorful, flower-strewn designs stood out amidst the power dressing of the day.
As Elbaz’s third Guy Laroche show approached, word came that the house of Yves Saint Laurent requested tickets. “I understood immediately,” Toledano said, recalling how he stood behind YSL boss Pierre Bergé and overheard him telling French fashion journalist Laurence Benaïm: “It’s exactly what we need.”
To wit: After Elbaz’s fourth show for Guy Laroche came the job offer of a lifetime: to succeed the couture legend at the helm of Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche women’s ready-to-wear. (Hedi Slimane was recruited for men’s wear.)
Toledano said he knew immediately Elbaz was the right person to design Guy Laroche. The assistant of American design legend Geoffrey Beene for seven years, Elbaz was among candidates for Guy Laroche put forth by Paris headhunter Floriane de Saint Pierre.
Elbaz first wrote a letter to Toledano, on red paper with his first name stacked above his last name, as if on a clothing label. “The first thing that came to mind is, ‘This man is super smart. He knows how to stand out.'”
And how. Elbaz strolled into his first meeting with Toledano, at New York’s Carlyle Hotel, wearing a red jacket, red shoes “and no socks,” Toledano recalled.
Interviewed in 2003 by WWD when Toledano was decorated with a Legion of Honor, Elbaz gave his side of the story.
“He was the one to give me the first chance and to introduce me to the broader fashion world,” Elbaz said. “I always say the relationship between a designer and the president of a fashion house is like being a husband and wife.
“And I must say,” he added with a laugh, “Ralph was a wonderful husband.”
“We had a telepathic relationship,” said Toledano, describing Elbaz as “like a brother,” partly because they both have roots in Morocco.
“He designed for women. He thought about women. He cared for women. He gave fashion femininity, elegance and of course creativity. Everything Alber did was relevant,” Toledano said. “I must also mention humanity. Being human was at the center of everything he did, every day. He wanted family around him, to give love and receive love.
“Yves Saint Laurent was the first one who took the heart as a symbol, but Alber deserves it as much,” he continued. “It was all about heart, generosity, love and humanity.”
Toledano called Elbaz’s death at 59 a “big loss” for the fashion industry. “And I will have one regret — not to have seen an haute couture collection by Alber Elbaz. It was my dream.”