Alber Elbaz of Lanvin is a technical virtuoso on a mission to make people smile. Sarah Mower profiles a designer who deals in delight ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Spring 2009

AN INVITATION TO Alber Elbaz’s pre-collection presentation at the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris is one of the most cherished in the fashion calendar. There is no grand catwalk, and only half a dozen people in the audience. Instead, you get guests sitting on a couch in one of the hotel’s salons, a simple canvas screen backdrop, and the designer stepping forward in his Chaplinesque shoes—hands in pockets, bow tie maybe slightly askew—to do a show-and-tell about his ideas. Models pop out from behind the screen (which Elbaz might well have painted himself) and every-one—meaning a diplomatic mix of editors and journalists from Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and the serious newspapers—gets to laugh and relax, and understand why a dress falls such-a-way, where a belt snaps, or how a bow on a brooch came to be placed just so.

Lanvin And, especially, they get to listen to the designer, as he thinks aloud about what might make his customers still want to buy clothes in a post-crunch world. “I want to make women laugh and feel beautiful,” he says, looking at his shoes. “It’s a paradox. I’ve looked back at how women dressed in times of war, and they become even more beautiful. Maybe it’s the feminine survival instinct. When we feel down, maybe we need a nice dress or coat to face the world. I’m here to work for women. To find out how to make the dream, but to keep it real.”

This small, low-cost event is the antithesis of the theatrical spectacular, the opposite of how most people imagine the fashion business behaves. It is also a PR masterstroke. Even scary, powerful arbiters of fashion like to feel included in something this cosy. This empathy here can be seen in everything Elbaz does, from his considerate, semi-fitted, body-skimming dresses to the delicious wit of his stores. Elbaz understands, perhaps better than any other designer, that in a time of crunch, confusion and too much meaningless stuff, being personal is a vital professional asset.

THE MINUTE YOU cross the threshold of a Lanvin shop, there’s a palpable air of delight. At the flagship headquarters at 22 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré—just across the street from that bastion of French establishment correctness, Hermès—the shop feels deshabillé, as if you’d walked into some particularly exuberant lady’s home just as she was throwing things on, trying to get dressed to go out. It’s the opposite of the clinical, minimal, intimidating spaces favoured by many designer labels in the early 2000s, before Elbaz sidled onto the scene.

Clothes are hung facing invitingly outwards; bags and jewellery are strewn, as if spontaneously, on tables and armoires; everything asks to be touched. Window displays, devised by Elbaz himself (and often dressed by him, at night), are comical tableaux in which the mannequins get up to all manner of fun—dancing on tables, petting toy dogs, swinging on trapezes or slipping off park benches in mock-shock while reading a financial newspaper. Even the piped music is good: at Christmas, Madeleine Peyroux’s cover of the vintage hit “Smile” (“you’ll find that life’s worthwhile…if you just smile”) trickled like honey into the ears of browsing shoppers. Even if they didn’t buy anything, they did leave smiling.

It is the same with his approach to men. The new Lanvin menswear shop in London, which opened in Savile Row last September, was intended—according to the press release—to give a feeling of “luxury and conviviality, where customers feel instantly at home”. In practice, that meant an unprecious opening during fashion week, at which the eccentric Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain played rock standards such as “Smells like Teen Spirit” à la George Formby. Again, everybody left happy.

Since the turn of the millennium, Elbaz’s supreme design gifts have led fashion into an entirely new look. His clothes have a luxurious “undone-ness” about them, often looking almost as if they’ve been twisted and knotted together minutes before being put on the rail. The fabrics he uses—taffeta, silk, satin, faille—are often washed or hammered in some way, to beat anything stiff and ladylike out of them, and frequently left with raw edges. For anyone with a knowledge of technique, his ability to waft an airy, flattering, semi-fitted dress out of a length of fabric and a single seam is breathtaking, yet he never uses his mastery to make things pompous or overly formal.

LanvinElbaz calls himself an “emotional” designer—which can sound like touchy-feely fashion nonsense. But observe him over time, as I have (we first met in 2000), and it becomes clear that his warmth and humour have become a corporate asset for Lanvin. It’s Elbaz’s emotionality, as much as his design flair, that gives Lanvin the advantage. At a moment when there are no rational reasons left for buying luxury goods, what else but feelings will continue to persuade people to spend?

For this interview we caught up again over lunch in the red-plush-and-crackled-mirror bar of the Hôtel de Crillon, effectively Elbaz’s work canteen, as his studio is a few steps away. Typically, he begins with self-deprecation and ends with a sharp observation. “Being an overweight designer, I’m very aware of comfort,” he observes, waving for the waiter without looking at a menu he clearly knows by heart. “We don’t only do clothes for 20-year-old girls. We see the same piece worn by a 20-something and an 80-year-old. I love that. I love to see old women, grey hair, wrinkles.” This pragmatic, considerate attitude to customers’ needs—in direct opposition to received fashion-industry wisdom, which is to make clothes for a narrow band of young, skinny customers—is the motor behind Lanvin’s success. “I never went to business school,” he shrugs. “I do things by instinct. At one point in my life, I accepted ‘I am what I am.’ At first people think Alber is funny. But I’m not funny at all.”

ALBER ELBAZ ONLY reached his present prominence after the kind of struggles and knocks that would have floored many people. He was born in Casablanca in 1961, the youngest of four children. The family moved to Israel, where his father worked as a colourist in a hair salon. “Since I was a really small boy—about four or five—I used to go to school always with two bags: one with books, and one with colours. I would sketch. I had a teacher I thought was very, very beautiful, and every day I sketched her and drew her dress. My mother asked the kindergarten teacher, ‘What do I do with my son, he sketches only women!’, and she said, ‘Leave it, and see where it goes’.”

There was little money at home, and no toys. “But we had a box of chess pieces,” he remembers. “I used to make hair for them with cottonwool stuck on with chewing gum, and cut dresses for them out of the silver paper in my father’s cigarette packets.”

Perhaps inevitably, Alber ended up studying fashion in Tel Aviv before, at 25, plucking up the courage to go to New York to look for a job. “I came from nowhere, as an immigrant,” he says. “I wanted to succeed, but no one would take my call because I didn’t even speak English. Everybody asks you, ‘Where did you work before?’ And if you didn’t work anywhere grand before, no one grand will take you.” He eventually found a place designing mother-of-the-bride dresses for a downmarket garment manufacturer, where he made friends with a girl in the studio, Susie Billingsley, who, after she got fired, ended up as an assistant at American Vogue. Through her, Elbaz eventually got an interview with the great New York modernist designer, Geoffrey Beene, who gave him a job. Beene, Elbaz acknowledges, taught him “everything”.

After seven years as Beene’s right-hand man, Elbaz moved to Paris—again without being able to speak the language—to look for a job that might let him express himself. He landed the top job at Guy Laroche in 1996, turned out acclaimed collections until 1998, and was then, fatefully, headhunted by Pierre Bergé of YSL to design the Rive Gauche ready-to-wear collection after Saint Laurent’s retirement. His three collections were jumped on by young, avant-garde stylists—but behind the scenes, things were strained. For one thing, Elbaz was intimidated by the weight of YSL’s heritage (“I was even frightened by the secretaries,” he confessed to the New York Times); for another, he didn’t know that the company was about to be sold to Gucci Group, then controlled by Tom Ford and Domenico de Sole. Ford wanted to design Rive Gauche himself, so Elbaz found himself summarily fired.

The corporate machinations were no reflection on Elbaz’s work, but it was a potentially crushing blow. For two years, he was out of work, licking his wounds, travelling in Asia, and complaining to his boyfriend about fashion. “Then one day, [my boyfriend] said, ‘If you don’t like it any more, stop.’ And that did it. I suddenly started sketching again. I tried to hold myself together. And from that time, I found out that there are so many people I adored in this business. There wasn’t one person who didn’t return my call because I was out of Saint Laurent. And that showed me that I was Alber, and I didn’t want to be someone’s replacement any more.”

LanvinThe right opening arose in 2001, when a Taiwanese publishing magnate, Shaw-Lan Wang, bought Lanvin from L’Oréal. Lanvin had been founded in 1889 by the milliner Jeanne Lanvin, and by the time she died in 1946 it was an established couture house. But, to all but the few whose memories went back as far as the couturier Antonio Castillo’s stint at the house in the 1960s, the name was now virtually meaningless. Since the 1980s, the door of the Lanvin design studio had revolved embarrassingly fast: between 1984 and 2001, it sucked in and spat out no fewer than six designers, two of whom survived for only two collections. 

For Elbaz, the beauty of the Lanvin job lay exactly in this lack of heritage and image—it would allow him to create his own vision, quietly. He had a slow start. The woman he respectfully refers to as “Mrs Wang” hired him, as he remembers, “straight after 9/11”, when fashion generally was at a low ebb. But his reputation gradually built, especially amongst young London stylists and magazines—always the quickest to grab hold of anything new (Intelligent Life’s fashion editor, Mary Fellowes, remembers that “we not only wanted to photograph his pieces, we wanted to buy them—and for stylists, the two things are usually mutually exclusive”).

Word-of-mouth enthusiasm spread, until in spring 2003, when Elbaz designed a break-through collection of pleated dresses with antiqued crystal, tulle-covered necklaces implanted in their necklines. Fatefully, Kate Moss got hold of one and wore it to the opening of a Manolo Blahnik exhibition, her first public foray after having her baby. Her photo was splashed everywhere, and—having neither sought, let alone paid for, the endorsement—Lanvin had its launchpad. Suddenly everybody wanted to be at Lanvin’s shows, stores were mobbed, and the world finally started taking Alber Elbaz, the fashion joker, seriously.

From that collection flowed many of the elements on which the Lanvin look has since been based. After the strict minimalism and tailored pant-suits of the 1990s, Elbaz had found a way to say something new with dresses and with decoration. He helped bring flowing lines and femininity back into favour. And he singlehandedly reinvented an entire sub-category of fashion: costume jewellery. “People said it [costume jewellery] was ‘old’—but I like old,” he says with a laugh. “Old people don’t scare me. Fat people don’t scare me. And maybe I had a craving after so much minimalism. So I started. I introduced fabric to jewellery, wrapping pearls in tulle and fastening necklaces with grosgrain ribbon. It became our trademark. I thought it looked personal.”Alber Elbaz

There we are again: the personal is at the heart of his business. Lanvin does not conform to the trickle-down paradigm of fashion, where a top line of clothing is followed by a second, cheaper collection, which is itself followed by other ever-more commercial diffusions of ideas handed down from the designer original. “Instead of diluting, I kept it concentrated in capsules. So we have bridal, we have denim, made by the best denim people [the hip Swedish label, Acne], now we have sweaters, accessories.” Elbaz makes a point of overseeing everything himself, from the advertising campaigns right down to the stores’ ribbon-handled carrier bags—which he thinks may explain his portly silhouette. “At 8.30 I’m at the office—and I’m still there at ten. You come home so tired and so stressed. And then you’re not into steamed vegetables!”

Stressed or not, Elbaz has brought Lanvin to the point where its twice-yearly runway shows are critically lauded, mentioned in the same breath as the conglomerate-owned giants YSL, Louis Vuitton and Balenciaga. Accolades have come thick and fast, culminating in 2007 in the award of a Légion d’Honneur for services to French fashion. (Not often given to foreigners, it is usually only awarded to senior Parisian fashion notables.)

All this in only eight years. And now? As Elbaz considers the economic crisis—the most serious challenge to luxury fashion in two generations—he doesn’t sound fazed. “You know, [fashion] has become a bit too much. I think this will clean the air, and make us think more.” Yes, he is considering his prices carefully, and talking to his women-friends even more than before about what pieces they really need. But Elbaz is not one of those designers who have to work out how to get down from an ivory tower to face reality—because reality is what he has always preferred. “I was never behaving like a star,” he smiles. “I was very much with my feet on the ground. If you are up in the air, you are destroyed.” 

Picture credit: Justin Creedy Smith

(Sarah Mower is contributing editor at American Vogue and Her most recent book is "Stylist: The Interpreters of Fashion".)