Alber Elbaz was not the first fashion designer and industry insider lost to COVID-19, but his death at age 59 on April 24 cast a pall on the budding notion of a vaccine-supported pandemic recovery.
Tributes poured in as industry titans, retailers and designers remembered Elbaz’s ebullient character and unassailable joie de vivre, an irreverent creator of joyful and clever women’s wear, and a steadfast friend who loved with generosity.
As Christian Louboutin put it, Elbaz leaves behind a legacy as “a fantastic, one-of-a-kind couturier, but also as a truly nice guy.”
Kering chairman and chief executive officer François-Henri Pinault mourned his “dear friend…a man appreciated by all, for his humanity and exceptional humor” as much as “a creative genius admired for his style that brought together femininity with modernity.”
Describing him as “a bright and sensitive designer,” LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton’s chairman Bernard Arnault highlighted Elbaz’s “creativity, both irreverent and elegant,” that had helped him leave a lasting mark and breath life into Lanvin, “one of the oldest and most iconic French heritage brands.”
But there was one word that came back with clockwork regularity, almost eclipsing a stellar record that included a Saint Laurent Rive Gauche tenure, his 14-year spectacular rejuvenation of Lanvin and lately, the AZ Factory fashion start-up he initiated as a joint venture with Compagnie Financière Richemont.
“As soon as you hear the name Alber Elbaz, there is a unanimous feeling of warmth and joy, and dare I say — love,” said Linda Fargo, senior vice president of the fashion office and store presentation at Bergdorf Goodman, where Elbaz put on a memorable runway for his fall 2009 trunk show.
“We all loved Alber for who he was, what he did — everything,” said Dries Van Noten, who felt the late designer added joy, happiness and fun in fashion.
His secret recipe was to “put love and humanity at the center of his work. He had an absolute and driving desire for modernity,” said Ralph Toledano, president of the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, noting the designer’s acumen and willingness to take “the time and distance to reinvent his fashion work between know-how and innovation.”
Tickled by his wit and then engulfed in his warmth, his work acquaintances often became friends. “I have lost not only a colleague but a beloved friend,” wrote Richemont founder and chairman Johann Rupert in a statement confirming the designer’s passing, and the sentiment was echoed by even those who could have been professional rivals.
Take Tom Ford, whose arrival at the design helm of Yves Saint Laurent after Elbaz’s firing when Gucci Group took over the label, and who remembered him as “a true gentleman. Kind, funny, clever and someone that I was always happy to see. In fact, I think that most people were always happy to see Alber as he had a genuine warmth about him.”
Acknowledging the fashion world’s loss of “one of its biggest treasures,” Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli had “lost a true, honest, special friend” who “welcomed [him] as no other did” when the Italian designer started as creative director. Solace came from “admiring the legacy of his work that will remind all of us how huge [Elbaz’s] talent was and how his vision of beauty, his human approach to fashion will always remain peerless.”
While the industry was unanimous in missing his talent, spirit and zest for life, dozens of anecdotes showed his human side, be it stopping Giorgio Armani in an airport to congratulate him on his work; greeting and soon laughing like old friends with Ralph Lauren; charming Maria Grazia Chiuri’s mother, who made sure her daughter passed along pots of homemade jam, and hanging out with his neighbor Rick Owens to share persimmon cookies sent by the American designer’s mother.
Those who worked alongside him lauded his giving nature, like Alithia Spuri-Zampetti, who worked under Elbaz at Lanvin, and credited him for teaching her “everything [she] knows,” over the course of seven years.
Joy also emerged as an essential quality of Elbaz, with Schiaparelli’s Daniel Roseberry commenting that unlike designers whose trajectories often are fueled by “this very tortured or tragic part,” Elbaz’s joie de vivre was “a foil to that….When other designers were really emphasizing the darkness and the selfishness of their own feelings, Alber was really about service.”
Or as Donna Karan put it: “He was not ‘Do Not Touch Me,’ he was a guy you just wanted to hug.”
Retailers around the world named his creative spirit, his ability to create desire and his deep love for women that made him ensure they felt beautiful and empowered as setting him apart from his peers. José Neves, founder, chairman and CEO of Farfetch described him as “inspiring and inspired,” while Jim Gold, CEO of Moda Operandi, called Elbaz “undeniably one of the most important and talented fashion designers” — although the designer’s humanity was his best loved feature.
At his shows — hotly anticipated and always rousing affairs that were akin to “the Super Bowl,” said Mindy Prugnaud, a partner at Paris-based buying office Mint and a close friend of the designer — he strove to make sure guests felt welcome, greeted by bow-tied ushers offering cocktails and treats. “Our first names were usually penned on the chairs, creating a sense of familiarity because it was not about our job title or our surname. It made you feel welcomed as if you were sitting at his home’s dining table,” remembered Anna Dello Russo.
“Alber was all heart, love and light,” said Ken Downing, former senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus, who went on to describe the reaction to Elbaz’s shows as “not polite applause, this was unbridled, uncontrollable love for Alber” coming from “adoring crowds of press, retailers and clients” who would wait for him after the show because “he [had] touched them all like a friend.”
For Sarah Rutson, then fashion director at Lane Crawford, Elbaz’s design ethos and regard for women were equivalent to a love letter and “the fashion shows were a moving, living expression of that love.”
His final one was no exception. The outpouring of love for Elbaz came to a culmination at the AZ Factory “Love Brings Love” tribute show last October, which saw Elbaz’s wish fulfilled to unite the fashion family and celebrate its creativity and heart — although “one night is too short to say what he meant to me,” opined Olivier Rousteing.
France’s First Lady Brigitte Macron; Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo; actress Demi Moore; luxury titans Pinault, Diego Della Valle, Marc Puig and Antoine Arnault, plus a who’s who of top designers came out for an electrifying runway display that saw top designers, heritage brands and his team at AZ Factory each create an homage look, using his toolbox of dressy fabrics, grosgrain, ruffles, bows, industrial zips and candy colors.
As cannons blasted heart-shaped confetti and models gyrated to the sound of the O’Jays ’70s hit “Love Train,” the applause was thunderous.
As Etienne Russo, who worked with Elbaz on most of his Lanvin shows as founder and CEO at Paris-based production house Villa Eugénie, said, “in that applause, you could feel the love they were giving back.”