The Fashion Dreamer: One-on-One with Lanvin’s Alber Elbaz

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Alber Elbaz (Image courtesy of Look mag)

In this industry it’s easy to get jaded quickly – call it fashion fatigue but after a while you get bored of hearing designers feed you the same sound bites or listening to them talk about how wonderful they are. Then you meet someone like Alber Elbaz and your faith in fashion is restored.

To say that I am a huge fan is an understatement. Not only is he one of my favourite designers but he is also one of the few that is keeping the dream of fashion alive. At the same time, his clothes are relatable in that you can wear them, they fit well and flatter a woman’s body. There are few designers out there who can do both and Alber is one of them.

I had the privilege of interviewing him in Beijing in April, where he was celebrating his 10 year anniversary at the brand. This milestone is a huge personal achievement, especially considering that fashion houses change their designers more than frequently than Kim Kardashian does her boyfriends.

The party he held at the Beijing Hotel that April evening summed up his views on life and fashion – it was fun, intimate, beautiful and magical. Hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did meeting him.

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Me and Alber after our interview (above)

ALBER ELBAZ is in tears. It’s 9am and we are sitting in a quiet corner in the lobby of the Raffles Hotel in Beijing where he will be hosting a party later that evening to celebrate his 10 year tenure as creative director of French fashion house Lanvin.

This landmark event –the brand’s second celebration since its anniversary show at Paris Fashion Week in March – is an incredible achievement for a designer who, unlike many of his peers, has survived 10 years at a fashion house without so much as a scandal or vicious rumour (although we’re not counting the whispers that he could be Karl Lagerfeld’s successor at Chanel). In light of this, you can forgive him for being emotional or shedding a tear or two.

“No no, I am allergic to the pollen outside,” he says, dabbing his eyes with a polka dot handkerchief.

“Personally I feel we have so much more to achieve. We are far from perfect. That being said, when we started we only had three stores that came in to buy Lanvin, and one flagship boutique. [Success] wasn’t something that happened overnight – we didn’t use a fat chequebook of a rich owner to buy more stores or advertising. We did things very slowly and organically, with hard work,” he says.

Indeed the fairytale transformation of this sleepy French house into one of the world’s most desirable luxury brands is made all the more magical by Elbaz, its central character and self-professed “dream maker.” With his portly figure, sweet smile, geeky glasses and signature tuxedo and floppy bow tie, Elbaz is easily the industry’s most loved and adored designer thanks to his affable charm and self-deprecating sense of humour.

“Do what you like, as long as you make me look thin, I am happy,” he jokes with the photographer while striking a pose.

While other designers keep fashion editors waiting for hours at their runway shows, Elbaz placates them with delicious confections from Pierre Herme, flutes of champagne and heart-warming renditions of classic songs like, Que Sera Sera. As his peers criticise each other in the press, he always finds something good to say (During our interview, he preferred to point out Tom Ford’s good looks rather than address the fact that he cruelly ousted him from his dream job at Yves Saint Laurent in the 1990s). He is the first to admit, unapologetically, that he loves McDonalds even though he knows it’s bad for him.  If you think that the fashion designers are elitist and superficial, one meeting with Elbaz will throw your preconceived notions straight out the window.

“We don’t like bitches, they kill me,” he says with a sweet smile.

Then there are his fantastical clothes: Gorgeous draped jewel coloured gowns with unfinished hems, show stopping embellished suits and burnished voluminous coats that make us want more, and more, and more.

Elbaz is clearly in the business of making everyone feel happy, which is probably why he contemplated a career as a doctor before fashion.

“Both professions deal with the spirit and body together. A doctor might give you Tylenol and we give you a red dress, but the sensation is quite the same. It has the same amazing effect,” he says.

Elbaz was born in Casablanca, Morocco in 1961 and moved to Tel Aviv in Israel when he was 10 years old. He loved sketching from a young age, although his decision to study fashion design at Shenkar College of Textile Technology and Fashion was purely based on gut instinct.

“When I was in third or fourth grade, I remember sketching my teacher every morning – she had a white car, was blonde and beautiful. That being said I can’t put a label on when I wanted to get into fashion – it’s one of those things that was just there, that was in me,” he says.

In 1987, at the age of 26, he took a chance and headed to New York determined to live out the fabled American Dream. Unable to speak English and with no experience on his CV, he managed to bag a job with legendary designer, Geoffrey Beene, where he learned the importance of hard work. Even until today he cites Beene as his mentor and greatest inspiration.

“Everything I know today comes from his school because he formed me. I realised my dream with him. I came to America as a fat immigrant with two suitcases – one filled with clothes, the other with dreams. When you look like me, you don’t get your way on just being gorgeous. Even today when people tell me it’s so difficult to get anywhere in fashion if you don’t know anyone, I always say connections can only get you to the door – that’s all. Maybe to the roof, but never to the sky,” he says.

After seven years he moved to Paris where he landed the top job at Guy Laroche in 1996. In 1998 his dreams were realised when he was brought on to design the ready-to-wear collections for Yves Saint Laurent after Saint Laurent’s retirement. His happiness was shortlived, however, when he was unceremoniously dumped by Tom Ford after only three collections. This earth-shattering event was almost enough to scare Elbaz away from fashion entirely.

“After Saint Laurent it was very tough, I was ready to give up. I took a long break and was in India for a while, which changed my view on things. There was something very real about India. I saw poverty but somehow it didn’t seem like poverty because money didn’t matter. There was a sophistication and elegance in the people because of their humbleness. It was not just about looking good but feeling good – fashion for me then became important because it made people feel better. Besides I couldn’t be a taxi driver,” he jokes.

The events that later led him to Lanvin were serendipitous. In 2001, he heard that the house had been bought by Taiwanese magnate Sha-Lan Wang (or Madame Wang, as he affectionately calls her), so he took a chance, made a phone call and offered himself up for the role of creative director.  Wang agreed to meet the designer, and the rest as they say, is fashion history.

Elbaz credits his close and enduring relationship with his boss as one of the main reasons for his longevity in the business.  Until today she is his proudest supporter and ardent cheerleader, sitting in the front row of every one of his shows. Even during our interview she calls several times to check on her adopted son, while later than night she waltzed down the catwalk in his arms. Best of all, she trusts Elbaz implicitly and never gets involved in the design process.

“I love her. After all these years I have had many offers to go to many places but it’s the people of Lanvin and my attachment to her that makes me stay here. She’s not bothering anyone on a daily basis, she lets me create. At the end of the day she is a special one,” he says, tearing up again.

While Elbaz’s artistic freedom has allowed him to excel (and the brand to profit), it’s also his uncanny ability to understand what real women want to wear that has made him a success both from an editorial and commercial perspective. Since his first collection in 2002, he has won women over with his luxe styles that balance French elegance without being too fussy or overdone, all the while capturing an untouchable fragility in his frayed edges, hammered silks, exposed zippers and airy volumes.

That’s not to say that his woman is weak – to the contrary, she embodies both femininity and power, and delicateness and strength making the Lanvin woman as complex as she is alluring.

“Let me tell you a story. One day a friend of mine sent me an SMS while she was sitting at the back of the taxi on the way to court to meet her husband’s divorce lawyer. She said, ‘I am wearing Lanvin and I feel beautiful and protected.’ I was so happy to hear this because I never about power women.  I prefer to give them strength and not power. That’s how I would like to be remembered,” he says.

It’s also his relationships with women around him that has provided him with a foundation to build an empire for the house. While he has stayed true to Lanvin’s heritage –  it was founded in 1889 and is one of France’s oldest couture houses – he’s also continually adapted it to the ever-changing needs and desires of the modern woman.  His bridal line came about because an older friend was getting married and wanted to wear something chic. His children’s collection, which launched last year, was the result of several women in his atelier falling pregnant.

“I always say if it’s not edible its not food and if it’s not wearable its not fashion. For me I see fashion like California cuisine – you take the history and tradition but you cut the butter and replace it with olive oil which is more modern.

“Of course you can do clothes made out of paper that editors love and want to photograph, but I think the true test of every piece you are doing is to see if it’s working in reality. I need to translate fantasy into the real world, without being ridiculous. At the same time, it’s being able to push boundaries season after season.

“To do crazy clothes is easy; to do really simple clothes is easy.  But to achieve what is in the middle – something that is made without any cuts from one piece of fabric, or that has a special volume that you can only see when you wear it thanks to a drape rather than a corset– that’s hard. This freedom in clothes is the little thing that I always try to bring my work,” he says.

With such a personal and emotional approach to his craft, it came as a surprise to many when Elbaz decided to launch a more affordable collection with fast-fashion retailer H&M in 2010. While the idea of doing a mass produced collection – which incidentally sold out within an hour of its launch – went against Elbaz’s principals, he changed his mind when he saw it as an opportunity to appeal to share his vision with a different group of women.

“I thought I would never do it, but only idiots are stuck and don’t move forward. So when you see something that’s happening in the world that is very democratic, how can you not explore it? Especially when it means that more women could afford my clothes and enjoy it. The H&M people said we’ll probably meet three times but we met 30 times because I wanted to make sure the prototype was as close as possible to our main line. I believe if you do something, you need time to do it right,” he says.

Perhaps similarly, it’s also for this reason that he’s waited until now to make some noise in China. The brand has been available on the mainland for many years and recently opened its flagship boutique in Beijing, with another planned soon for Shanghai. And although Elbaz has made countless of personal visits, his last public appearance was back in 2004.

“We came years ago and then the brands followed with logos. There was a hunger for glamour and we let the logo pass. Now that everyone a logo, I feel it’s the time to enter China from the back door. I have no problem with backdoors. Chinese women that have tasted the logo now want something different.”

So now that he has celebrated a milestone in his career, what does the next 10 years hold for Elbaz and Lanvin? Aside from expanding the brand’s accessories collections, he is open to almost anything whether it’s launching a more democratic line or designing another label for Madame Wang (“If she buys another brand and needs a designer and asks me, I would do it with pleasure,” he says like a true gentlemen).

One thing he definitely won’t be doing is going on vacation, only because he’s so addicted to his work.

“My greatest challenge is to wake up every morning and start it all again. My biggest fear is keeping what I do new and relevant. Stress is the electricity that pushes you to push forward. If you think you are fabulous and amazing, you don’t go anywhere.

“It was intuition that attracted me to Lanvin and that’s how I will continue to work. When I work with intuition I win – when I work with my mind too much and try to speculate and rationalise, it doesn’t work. I have to go with a gut feeling,” he says.

As published in the Post Magazine on June 3, 2012 

And the quotes that didn’t make it in:

On his fashion peers:

“Sometime when there are events in the industry, the sensation is more like a wedding banquet. When you see a crowd of fashion people it always seems bizarre – women wear cherries in their head, and you think ‘what is she doing?’ But when you meet that person you realise there is a lot of fragility in fashion. We are a very unloyal business because one season we love the red dress then three months later we don’t. But yet with many people I meet there is a great deal of loyalty.”

On women today:

“Women today are so strong and powerful. In the past I always said men are powerful and women are strong. Now it’s a phenomenon – women are not only strong which is internal but also powerful. And when you are, you show your own individuality. You don’t need a logo to put a label on you. You don’t have to say ah you are wearing such and such. It’s what Coco Chanel said years ago – if someone tells you your dress is beautiful, its not really a compliment. But if someone tells you, you are beautiful, that’s the compliment.”

On fashion’s revolving doors:

“There’s a lot of it everywhere, you see it at the post office and it’s happening here. There is politics and there are manipulations. We are exposed – there are divorce cases everyday in the world but if you are famous it becomes public information. I think it’s the same thing, but the fashion industry in the end of the day is a good industry. We are there to make sure people look good. This is our living, our job, to make men and women look good and feel a bit better.”

On humanising fashion:

“Every department store in the world has a bag department that’s the size of Monaco. But what you usually see is the bag and not the woman behind it. I don’t agree with this – before the bag should be the woman. It’s a human issue for me, it’s a human approach. It’s first about the human being, then the object around them.”

On his “gift”:

“I am not a religious man in the classic form of going to church or synagogue every weekend. But I feel maybe being a designer has come from somewhere. I am only the little machine that brings it out. That’s the moment that keeps me in fashion.”

On his mentors:

“There are many designers I like and respect. Years ago I was sitting with my psychologist and she asked me the same question. I told her I like Balenciaga and Dior and she said, ‘Is there anyone alive that you like?’ There was a time in fashion that everyone hated each other, but there are no longer those wars. We have to support each other. We are all colleagues going through the same process, same fears and agonies day after day.”

On his role as a “father” to his colleagues:

“You know the difference between the seamstress and psychiatrist? Its one generation. We are not part of a group, we are independent so I have to make sure whatever I do sells and works so we can give pay checks every month to people. We support so many men and women around the world with Lanvin. They can have a life because of a red dress that we made. A seamstress can send her son to a medical school- we give them a  dream to move on beyond the sewing machine. That for me is the best. Every time I finish a collection, it’s important for me to make it for the people for Lanvin.”