PARIS – Celebrating his 10th anniversary at the creative helm of Lanvin, you might think Alber Elbaz would allow himself a little self-congratulation. After all, he catapulted the French brand into a beacon for soigne dressing. A ticket to a Lanvin show is among the most coveted of Paris Fashion Week. What’s more, the Lanvin business is buoyant and the house seems comfortably in place among fashion’s big leagues. Indeed, few would argue that Elbaz has left a mark on fashion in the last decade – a ringleader in the revival of dresses, and part of the vanguard in Paris that launched an enduring trend of couturelike French elegance. Yet asking him to enumerate some highlights of the past decade proves a fruitless line of questioning. “No proudest achievements. Nothing is ever enough for me. I’m always thinking what is wrong, what needs to be fixed,” he said over a drink at the Crillon bar one evening during the run-up to Paris Fashion Week. “I feel 10 years older, but no more relaxed.” That albatross of self-doubt, which is no stage act, is one of the designer’s endearing qualities, and it’s the engine that drives him and the Lanvin house to greater heights.
Born in Morocco, the Israeli designer worked in obscurity for years with Geoffrey Beene in New York before he was recruited to head Guy Laroche in Paris in 1996. He showed three young and fetching collections for that house, which won raves, media attention and ultimately the job offer of a lifetime: to succeed couture legend Yves Saint Laurent at the helm of Rive Gauche ready-to-wear.
After three seasons, Elbaz was fired in the wake of Gucci Group’s takeover of the house, with Tom Ford picking up the YSL design reins. Elbaz subsequently did one season with Krizia in Milan before enduring a difficult year outside the business, contemplating whether he would ever again have a place in it. He joined Lanvin quietly in late 2001, having struck a bond with its new owner, the Taiwan-based publishing magnate Shaw-Lan Wang, who offered him complete creative license and the coziness of a small, privately held company. Here, the 50-year-old designer reflects on his career, fashion, celebrities and that funny YouTube video.
Q: When you arrived at Lanvin, did you approach the job as another brand rejuvenation, or more of a startup, building the brand from scratch?
A: When you enter a house like that, you make a decision whether you want to destroy everything and start from scratch or you want to be a little bit more positive and that takes a little bit more time: looking into the past and analyzing what it is that made that house exist for all those years. So I start with the positive approach, because I am not here to hurt the business.
Q: So how did you unlock Lanvin’s secret codes?
A: When I looked at the archives; the one word that came to me back and forth was “desire.” So I worked around that and I said, “You know we are going to make collections for women, we are going to actually emphasize the desire, the desire in fashion, the desire in design.”
Q: You’re known for dresses. Is that because you like designing them the most?
A: I think that I was very alert to women, and I am seeing more and more that women are changing. Their lifestyle is becoming more and more complex and more and more difficult on a daily basis. So I was trying always to simplify their life. For instance, dresses in the first collection, a lot of people said they were very romantic, I didn’t see the romantic side of the dresses; I saw the easiness, the simplicity. … Women need something a little bit more easy in their wardrobe, instead of thinking every morning what goes with what, they just zip it in and at night zip it out. That is how I kind of evolve. I am thinking of something and, boom, I start to work around it.
Q: Is that how the bridal collection happened?
A: You know, one day I hear some friend of mine is getting married and she was not like 31, but like 51, and they got married in a little house in the south of France. She didn’t want to look like Cinderella, and I said, “Oh wow, I am going to start working on that.”
Q: Same for the children’s line?
A: After I had 14 out of 20 people in the whole studio going to have a baby, I thought maybe it is time. It seemed like everyone around me became a mother; I thought that it is time to dress the daughters.
Q: You seem partial to cocktail dresses. Is that true?
A: I don’t like that terminology. I like dresses for night, I like after party more than party. I like the mystery; I like the dream, like fantasy dresses. I think also that you make women dream. Women can dream at 9 in the morning and at 10 o’clock at night, it doesn’t matter. I think it is also important for me to make it pragmatic and practical and wearable. I always say, ‘`If you can’t eat it, it’s not food, and if you can’t wear it, it’s not fashion, it is something else.
Q: The video in which you dance with models was a hit on YouTube. How did that come about?
A: The whole story of the dancing girls started with YouTube, I mean all people talk about is YouTube. So we went to YouTube and saw the beauty of imperfection. The girls in YouTube and the guys always look very human and that is what makes it funny. It will make you cry and laugh, because humanity makes you cry and laugh because you can relate to it. And that is my whole philosophy, that they need to relate to it and that when they come to the store, I don’t want them to feel like in a pharmacy, that everything is there and please don’t touch it. I want them to touch it.
Q: Your shows are always a treat, and often evoke emotions. How do you do it?
A: I am always trying to put myself inside: Every dress I do, I think, “If I were a woman, would I wear it?” I always think if I were an editor and I was invited to a show and I would have to wait for 45 minutes in the dark or in the cold or in the heat, maybe I would like to have a fresh drink or a piece of chocolate. Maybe I would love to enjoy a sandwich. I think it is something very easy, very personal, something I would like to enjoy and I want to make other people feel comfortable. That’s all!