Los Angeles — Even in this jaded town of bold-face celebrities, there seems to be little that beats a personal appearance by a rising star like Lanvin creative director Alber Elbaz.
Elbaz was on his first visit here last week since joining the French house in fall 2001, and chalked up $700,000 in fall orders for Lanvin during a trunk show Thursday and Friday at Barneys New York. That marked a record for the Beverly Hills flagship, surpassing a high of $300,000 for a designer trunk show at the door last month by Emanuel Ungaro ready-to-wear designer Giambattista Valli.
While Lanvin has announced it would get out of the watch business and seek a license for its perfumes in an effort to stem losses of $26.8 million in 2003 on sales of $97.6 million, women’s ready-to-wear sales at the 115-year-old Paris house have increased tenfold since Elbaz signed on, now accounting for 16 percent of total sales.
Last week’s numbers were helped by the critically acclaimed collection, enjoyed during a gala at the Wilshire Boulevard store May 12 by 400 guests, including co-hosts Kelly Lynch and Anjelica Huston, Calista Flockhart, Kristin Davis, Sheryl Crow, Elizabeth Wiatt, Jacqui Getty and Jaime Tisch.
To die-hard fans such as Chloë Sevigny, Elbaz’s appeal lies in his thoughtful, old-school approach to the craft of dressmaking over the flash and fame sought by many designers caught in the modern cult of celebrity.
“He’s my favorite, he’s so sincere,” said Sevigny, who arrived swathed in a pumpkin charmeuse dress. “For eveningwear, no one compares to his quality and sophistication. If I could wear him every night I would.”
The soft-spoken designer isn’t wont to do the cocktail circuit out of self-promotion. “He’s so charming, so humble. That’s what I love about him,” said China Chow.
Elbaz preferred his friend, Barneys creative director Simon Doonan, to reprise his turn as a cheeky fashion commentator during the presentation, which he delivered with aplomb.
Doonan and his team also emptied the second floor of its designer stock, transforming the space into a lush Parisian dinner club illuminated only by oversize antique candelabras atop dozens of long tables. The floor was returned to its working state by morning, in time for the trunk show.
Elbaz overcame his shyness for the gala, walking the red carpet and posing for photographers throughout the night because the event benefited The Rape Treatment Center, the Santa Monica, Calif., nonprofit organization of the UCLA Medical Center.
His presence proved good for charity and business. The event raised $40,000 for the treatment center. Thursday’s day-long trunk show alone, with Elbaz’s personal appearance, produced orders of $500,000, beginning with an 8 a.m. visit by Demi Moore.
“I know we have a lot of great women wearing our clothes and I’m very, very happy,” Elbaz said some 12 hours before the frenzy, over coffee on Barneys’ balcony looking out onto the Hollywood hills. “Whether they are famous or not doesn’t matter. I want to work with people. Not for them and not under them. When you run after stars and try to get into the system [of dressing celebrities] it’s very hard. We don’t have the means to do that. I am not willing to do it.”
Luckily for Elbaz, he has influential friends who are. Sevigny has followed his career from Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche to Lanvin, where Elbaz arrived a year after it was acquired from beauty monolith L’Oréal by a venture capitalist group led by Taiwan publishing tycoon Shaw-Lan Wang. Other award show-bound pals — Nicole Kidman, Naomi Watts and Maggie Gyllenhaal — also champion their friend on red carpets from here to London.
Elbaz admitted his guilty pleasure of watching the pre-shows, particularly their over-the-top commentators. “I won’t miss them for anything,’’ he said. “At the same time, I’m thinking ‘You’ve done a movie that has done a billion dollars at the box office, you’re talented and you’re being asked about who you borrowed the jewelry from or who gave you the dress?’ It is embarrassing. It should be about who you are. If you look great, that’s fabulous, too.”
That speaks to the heart of the Lanvin woman, as Elbaz considers ways of interpreting shapes with as few seams as possible and, in the case of fall, dresses that can transform into more than one look. It’s a tension in contrasts that represents what is modern for Elbaz, including merging the feminine with the feminist.
“There is something more secure about women today,” he said. “Women’s lives are so round. Fashion is not as important as it used to be in that sense. It’s more about the person. Women today have a variety of needs. I’m actually spending more time at the store [in Paris]. I’m selling. I’m a very shy person, but when I am next to my clothes I’m not shy anymore. At the end of the day what I love the most about my work is the human touch.”
That “human” factor is driving the obsession for vintage right now, he said. Earlier in the week, the Lanvin team was feted by vintage guru Cameron Silver at his restored RM Shindler-designed home. Sevigny, Getty, Lynch and her husband-producer Mitch Glazer, publishers Lisa Eisner and Roman Alonso, stylist Arianne Phillips and artist Liz Goldwyn were among the guests at the private dinner.
In vintage, Elbaz said, “There is this kind of individuality. There is an emotion there that is maybe not existing today in a lot of clothes. I don’t try to kill Cameron’s business, but I’m trying to go back to the essence of that,” he said in reference to peers who merchandise more than design.
Energized by his trip, Elbaz rushed home late Thursday to prepare for his editorial preview June 20. He is hesitant to say he’s finally comfortable in his recent success.
“I always said that I want to be in fashion like another eight, nine, maybe 10 years max, and then leave because there is a moment when you are connected to the people that you do the best work. The moment you are not connected anymore, it will be time to move on.”