If the dress ranks as among the most important fashion items of the new millennium, credit must go partly to Alber Elbaz, whose rejuvenation of Lanvin owes much to this garment, which encapsulated the legacy of the storied French fashion house and Elbaz’s own women-first ethos.
“I said, ‘It’s all about zip-in and zip-out,’” he noted, referring to the “easiness of that piece of the wardrobe,” and to the exposed industrial zips that have become one of his design signatures.
This story first appeared in the September 25, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“It was just about giving ease to women,” he shrugged.
After working in obscurity for seven years with Geoffrey Beene in New York, Israeli-born Elbaz was recruited in 1996 to head Guy Laroche in Paris. Three collections of young and fetching designs won him one of the most high-profile jobs in fashion: succeeding 20th-century legend Yves Saint Laurent as the designer of YSL Rive Gauche ready-to-wear.
He was fired in March 2000 in the wake of Gucci Group’s takeover of the house, succeeded by Tom Ford.
He spent one tumultuous season at Krizia Top in Milan before sitting on the sidelines of the industry for a year and questioning his future in it.
“I was traveling, I was interviewing with, I think, every ceo on the planet, so there was a moment when I knew everybody, and I mean everybody,” he related. “It was great, but nothing really made me say, ‘I do.’”
That was until he found his footing in 2001 — at 22 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, where Jeanne Lanvin founded her fashion house back in 1889.
Having read that Taiwanese publishing magnate Shaw-Lan Wang acquired the house from L’Oréal, Elbaz obtained a phone number for her via a journalist and called her directly in Taiwan, leaving a message.
Wang rang him back within minutes, sparking a relationship with the house Elbaz has frequently likened to marriage, and one that has catapulted him into the designer big leagues.
“I said, ‘How come you called me back yourself?’ And Madame Wang said, ‘You called me yourself, so I answer myself. If your lawyer had called me, my lawyer would have answered,’” he recalled. “I understood that this was the basis, the DNA of that relationship, that it has to be all direct and personal and that is how we got that intimacy that we have.”
When Elbaz asked Wang what her vision was and what she would like him to do for the house, he said, “She didn’t tell me ‘Oh, I want it to be a commercial success.’ She just told me, ‘I would love you to wake up this sleeping beauty.’ And that was the starting point.”
Over the past 13 years, Elbaz has catapulted and transformed the fashion house — which market sources estimate has revenues of 250 million euros, or $321.1 million at current exchange — from one largely dependent on men’s wear to a leading designer brand for women, and one of the hottest tickets during Paris Fashion Week.
On the occasion of Lanvin’s 125th anniversary, Elbaz took time out to reflect on his tenure at the house.
WWD: It seems like you arrived at Lanvin with a very clear, creative road map for the brand. Is that true?
A.E.: I visited the archive and I stayed for a very short time — maybe less than a day, even — and everything was fragile and everything was desirable. I didn’t think of it as pieces of costume at the beginning of the century, but I thought of the women. When I saw the dresses, I saw the women that wore them. And I saw so many dresses and I thought, “OK. The first thing I’m going to introduce at Lanvin will be those dresses.”
WWD: Would you say you imposed an Alber Elbaz look on the house, or was it more about projecting the legacy of a brand?
A.E.: You know, when a designer takes over a house, either they throw out everything that was done and start anew, or they actually ask a question: Why is that house still alive? Or, what did they do right? So it wasn’t about asking what they did wrong, but it was asking what they did right. And that’s what I continued.
I started without firing even one person in the house — I mean absolutely no one. So it was working with the people of the house and working with the past of the house. I knew that my job was to understand the past, and to move forward to the future.
WWD: Were the codes of the house obvious?
A.E.: When I saw the clothes from the archives, there were a lot that were almost melted and wrinkled and they didn’t feel like the real dresses, but more like the lining of the dresses. And I think the lining of a dress is like a pajama, one of the most intimate things one can wear. So that’s where I started: I wanted to create a wardrobe that feels like pajamas.
I think as an overweight designer, I’m also very concerned about comfort.
WWD: Was there a moment when you realized that Lanvin was taking off?
A.E.: I saw some journalists starting to wear Lanvin and I think for a journalist to go and buy a piece of Lanvin, that was for me the biggest compliment because it wasn’t a present that we gave for a red carpet to some celebrity or another. It was a journalist that sees the whole spectrum of fashion around the world, and in the end she chose to buy a Lanvin dress with her salary.
WWD: Kate Moss was an early adopter, wearing one of the dresses with jewels trapped in tulle. Have celebrities been crucial in propelling Lanvin?
A.E.: Absolutely. We saw Kate Moss wearing a dress that wasn’t even in the store yet. I think she was shooting it for a magazine and she decided to wear it out to a party.
Then a month or two later, I saw this lady who was about 88 years old from Washington wearing the same dress and it struck me: That is our logo: the mother and the daughter. So it’s not that we tried to do the clothes for the cool girls. Our logo is not a lion and it’s not a tiger, it’s just a mother and a daughter. It’s a very emotional logo.
WWD: What have been your most memorable celebrity encounters or red-carpet moments?
A.E.: I always told the press office: Don’t call people and don’t push them because I didn’t like this aggressiveness of pushing people and obliging them and sending them things. I thought, if they like it, they will come. Then we will start from a different perspective and it will be easier.
WWD: How do you feel about the advent of pre-collections?
A.E.: I think that I’m the first one who started presenting pre-collection, which was the biggest mistake of my life. I did the Hôtel de Crillon thing and I invited like 10 editors and a few retailers and I thought, How wonderful just to have tea with beautiful flowers and to talk about flowers and fashion. And then more people wanted to come, and we did a second show, and then more people wanted to come and we had to turn it into a season. Now, the fact is that almost everything that is in the store is all about that pre-collection.
But what I also have to do is to bring that dream. Through all my work, I’m always finding something that is between the reality and a dream because I will always start with a dream, I will always start with a story, but then I will try to make it real.
My whole exercise for the last dozen years at Lanvin was how to work around the idea of modernity, [and] make it beautiful. How can I prove to the world that beautiful is modern?
WWD: Uncertainty and self-doubt are things you’ve said you’re familiar with. Is that what propels you in your design career, or do you finally feel more at ease and confident?
A.E.: Oh my God, I mean, it’s all about not doing my job well enough, not doing it right, not doing it on time, not being able to deliver. It’s that motor, that endless motor, you know? I wish I could tell you, Oh, it’s becoming better. I always remember one night before one of the couture shows I saw Mr. Saint Laurent and I asked him how he was feeling and he said, “Very bad!” And I said, “Why? But after all these years?” And he replied, “Because of all these years.”
And I thought, how smart and how intelligent and how sensitive that answer was, and I’m using it.
WWD: Does your training at Geoffrey Beene and YSL still help you in your work?
A.E.: Absolutely. You know I’m very, very lucky that I had two mentors, two teachers who taught me everything I know. When I see students today and they graduate from school and they’re already looking for a backer and they already want to be creative director, I’m thinking: You know what? Take the time and learn, to learn from the best, to learn what to do, to learn what not to do. And you learn through those schools of life what is it that you want to do and don’t want to do.
WWD: Has the Lanvin archive always been a guiding light?
A.E.: I always go back and forth. When I first arrived, we were not allowed to touch all these books and sketches and stuff, but today everything has been digitized and everybody has access to it. And I always go back to it and I always get inspired from it. I think that karma is a good thing. I think the fact that I respect the person who conceived the house, I think I’m getting it back from her as well in my own way.
WWD: Can you talk a little about your rapport with Madame Wang?
A.E.: It’s about having dialogue, having moments of intimacy, about respect. It’s about good faith, and it’s about loyalty. It’s above and beyond business strategy. I think business strategy is something that happens. We’ve always had — I mean, knock on wood — like a very personal and very good relationship through all these years. She gave me the thing that I needed, which was liberty and freedom. Freedom is luxury.
WWD: You seem to bristle sometimes at corporate speak, yet Lanvin has become a substantial player in the business. How do you reconcile that?
A.E.: I work mostly by intuition. Every time I think too much and try to rationalize every issue, it doesn’t work. I think that intuition is the essence of this métier. I know that we’re getting into marketing and all that, but you know what? The fact that a woman bought a white shirt last season does not mean that this is what you’re going to sell her next season. Maybe because she bought only white shirts, maybe this is the time for a black dress. And if you do a black dress, maybe it’s time to do a coat to go with it. And maybe it’s using a little bit of this intuition. That’s what designers are all about —otherwise who needs us?
WWD: You hadn’t tackled men’s wear before Lanvin, so how did you approach it?
A.E.: I thought, it’s the same logo of mother and daughter, but in this case it’s mother and the son, and how she influences him. I hired Lucas Ossendrijver at the time to do the men’s. I adore Lucas and I think he’s a great designer and a great person to work with. I started to introduce all these bow ties and pearl buttons and satin and evening and I remember how everybody around me was kind of in a panic attack. They would say, “But Alber, it’s so feminine,” but that’s what I saw — that touch of femininity into the masculinity. It was about this feminine touch about a boy dressed by his mother.
WWD: You go back a long way with Elie Top. Tell me about your collaboration with him on costume jewelry at Lanvin.
A.E.: At Saint Laurent, he did the bags for me and then he did jewelry. And we worked together for a long time. Elie is in a way like my younger brother. I mean that’s how I feel about him. He’s part of the family.
There were so many people who tried to kidnap Elie over the years, I can’t even start to tell you — I’m so proud that he’s still with me. I was actually the one that pushed Elie to do his own brand as well. I said, “You have a great name, Elie Top! No one could be topper than you!” So I let him grow, and we opened all the doors for him. I never hide people who work for me.
WWD: So how do you manage all your creative responsibilities? Are you a control freak or are you more of a conductor?
A.E.: Control freak. I’m sure that’s what you’ll hear from everyone, but not in a mean way. I’m a control freak, but I’m working so much that I think everybody around me sees that, and I’m giving an example not by saying it, but by doing it. And that’s why they’re all working extremely hard.
WWD: Lanvin is known mostly for ready-to-wear, more than accessories. Is that a source of pride for you or frustration?
A.E.: Frustration, let’s be honest. There are a lot of houses that are all about leather goods and they always did leather goods and that’s what they are good at. Then there are houses that did ready-to-wear and then they had some accessories to go with it. But I think that today, the whole leather thing, the bags, is the cash cow of fashion. In the past, it was licensing, then it was perfume, and today it’s like the bag.
We are selling fashions and are touching women with fabrics; we are touching people with love. This is what we do. The accessories will come when they come. You know, we are still like a whispering house and sometimes in order to sell a bag, you have to brainwash everybody in the market and you have to be everywhere all the time, and you have to have a celebrity wearing it, and you need publicity that is over the top and…the best corner in every department store in the world, a poster on every bus stop. This is the name of the game. We have to work with what we have. We’ll get there on our own terms.
WWD: You’re famous for evening dresses and cocktail dresses. Is it still your favorite thing to design or have you warmed up to other things?
A.E.: What I’m trying to do is to keep the same values I’m doing for evening and trying to do it also for day. So our day clothes are never just like a T-shirt or a sweatshirt, but I will take a gorgeous fabric and do a simple tank top, or I’ll do an amazing volume dress but I’ll do it in cotton. So I’m trying to do things I love — I cannot do things just because I have to. I have to love it. I have to understand it.
WWD: You’ve seen the industry change a lot since you joined Lanvin. What struck you the most?
A.E.: Today, fashion is more of a power business. I think power today in fashion is not a bad thing, [rather] it moves fashion forward, it gives the ability for people to realize their dream. So I think it’s a good thing…it’s not that it was good and now it’s bad, it was one thing and today it’s another. And I think that’s the beauty of fashion…it’s so rapid on one hand and also the fact that you can take one day then leave it the next and then restart again.
And how many people have a job that has so many changes? That every day is another day, and every season is another season? In that sense, we are lucky. We’re lucky that we have a team that can realize our dream, we’re lucky that it’s not about the conventional, it’s not about a routine — we’re lucky that we remain an industry of emotion.
We are still an industry that, at the base of it, are seamstresses with needle and thread, and this is what fashion is all about. And that’s maybe the weakness of fashion, but that’s also the strength of fashion.
WWD: What do you love the most about fashion?
A.E.: I think the people of fashion. I think we are a beautiful industry. We are one of the nicest industries in the world, you know?
I go sometimes to parties of different industries — and I will not mention so as not to hurt anyone around. But I can tell you that fashion — even though we always sound fake and affected and ignorant and all of the above, maybe — I have to tell you that in fashion I met a lot of great friends, good people, loyal, smart, talented, hard-working. I mean, this is one thing. And the fact that I can make women, especially women around the world, feel beautiful in front of the mirror, and for them, I’m very, very happy. That makes me happy. That makes me very happy.