NEW YORK — Alber Elbaz on Tuesday visited The New School’s Parsons School of Design to discuss his life after Lanvin with Paper magazine founder/editor/publisher Kim Hastreiter and fashion consultant Julie Gilhart.
The former Lanvin creative director, who was abruptly dismissed from the French fashion house in October, never mentioned being fired directly, referring to the development as “the tragedy” throughout the evening.
“Since my tragedy, I’ve been traveling the world and meeting students,” he told the audience of 600. Reaching into a large brown shopping bag, he said, “I brought some tissues with me. Did you bring tissues?” Elbaz began throwing boxes into the audience. “Sugar is a very important thing for the brain, especially when you create, so I brought candy,” he said, tossing bags of hard candy from the stage.
“Now everybody’s loose and happy with tissues and candy.”
Elbaz said his daily life has changed in big and small ways. “People think fashion is one long party that never ends,” he said. “It’s a party, but it ends. The life cycle goes through highs and lows. I came here without a private car, without a secretary and without a [public relations representative] to tell me what to say. There’s something quite fabulous about being free.”
Elbaz left no doubt as to how he felt about some of the fashion at Monday night’s Met ball, which he attended. “Loud is the new cool,” he said. “I prefer whispering. I saw the exhibit at the [Costume Institute], and it was my favorite ever. It was so much about whispering again. It was about workmanship. It was almost silent.
“I always feel that ugly is the new beautiful,” Elbaz continued. “I’m not into that. Ugly is ugly. Maybe it’s a reflection of the times, so I’m not surprised that there’s so much ugliness.”
He admitted to being unsettled by some of the changes roiling the industry. “Show now, wear now,” he said. “I’m thinking what is happening? We can build a wall to protect us from the world or we can build a windmill that will help us go faster. Fashion built a wall and bunker to protect itself.”
The changes, Elbaz said, are the industry throwing ideas against the wall to see what will stick.
The designer made clear that he has no use for the pretension of fashion insiders. “We need to celebrate design so we can celebrate fashion again,” he said, adding facetiously, “It really helps if you’re famous. These days, if you hold a camera, you already call yourself a photographer and wait for [the Museum of Modern Art] to call you. If you’re good-looking, you can be a chef.”
Warning students about taking short cuts, Elbaz said, “You can use Google, but dream and think also. I hear ceos speak to wholesalers who say they need everything less expensive and retailers who say that only expensive sells. If we have a better dialogue with management, and inject more love and less fear into our work, we’ll have a beautiful reason to wake up every morning. Nothing kills me more as a designer and creative person that politics.”
Despite the long hours and sacrifices of “finishing a collection and being half dead and knowing that you’re late with the next collection,” Elbaz said his beef isn’t with the industry’s crazy hours and limitless expectations. “It’s not about the hours and being tired. Designers are not machines.”
The only thing that really matters to a designer is having creative freedom. “We can no longer create for needs invented by marketing people,” he said.
For his next act, Elbaz said that as a man who is full of contradictions, he’s attracted by the high street and high market.
“I want to touch both,” he said. “I’d love to touch the world of the high street and next to it, I’d love to make clothes for women I love.
“Since I left [Lanvin], I have a huge scar,” he said. “For the first couple of months, I walked around Paris and it was raining. I never knew if it was the rain or my tears.
“If I ever find an interesting job that will make me want to wake up again, I’ll teach every Friday and work one day in a hospital,” he said of his plan for giving back. “There’s no formula. But I don’t want to think about Lanvin.”
The self-deprecating designer said, “It’s not always easy being me. The day after a show, I’d get so depressed.”
Elbaz described growing up in a small neighborhood in Casablanca, surrounded by blue-collar families. “I always sketched women. You’d think these blue-collar workers would have made fun of the fatso sketching women,” he said. “They didn’t. People who are divas and difficult to deal with usually are not the best.”
With that, Elbaz was finished ruminating about his life and career. “I have to run,” he said. “I have an event at 7.”