OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — Renowned fashion journalist Suzy Menkes once called superstar designer Alber Elbaz a "master of improvisation." That instinctual, passionate disposition was on full display onstage at VOICES, BoF’s annual gathering for big thinkers, in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate, as Elbaz waxed on lyrically about what he’s learned since his abrupt firing from Lanvin in 2015.
Elbaz’s departure broke the heart of many of his fans and colleagues alike. “Fashion is always more of a family to me than an industry: a little bit dysfunctional but a great family,” he said, letting piece after piece of paper from his speech fly to the ground surrounding the podium. (He promised to recycle the contents of the prettily arranged pile in due time.) “For years, I thought I was hugging people with my clothes," he added. "Years later, I received all these hugs back.”
In a breezy-but-heartfelt, almost-stream-of-consciousness performance, drawing plenty of laughs and punctuated by the refrain that he was "jobless and homeless," Elbaz covered impressive ground, offering a flurry of succinct insights that both amused and provoked:
On our image-obsessed culture: “What is it about this obsession of looking good? How about doing good and how about being good?”
On the industry's risk aversion: “Why so much fear and not enough love?”
On the amount of output expected of fashion designers: “No singer or rockstar can produce 14 hits in one year… In fashion, we run run run and we lose no calories.”
On marketing’s increasing significance in the fashion business: “Fashion is changing — fashion houses became fashion brands.”
On reigniting his creativity: "I was homeless for a few years. I lost everything: my studio, my team,” he said. In the process, “I actually met myself again. I became a designer, I started to dream and to think; I started working the streets; I moved my studio to the street.”
On the importance of dreaming in the digital age: “Glamour is electrifying and maybe electricity is better generated by engineers,” he said. “Fashion might not be that fast and not as electrifying, but we remain an industry that creates dreams.”
On the new global uniform: “When I was traveling the world, I met many smart people…in t-shirts and sneakers,” he said. “Streetwalks don’t always follow catwalks.”
On why fashion brands need to pare back to grow more sustainably: “In fashion, we respect tradition… we have amazing old recipes. But maybe there’s too much butter. Maybe it’s time to cut the butter and make them healthier, and therefore more relevant.”
On the image deluge: “I love internet, I love Instagram, but I often see all these posts, the ones of these after-show dinners. There’s always gorgeous bouquet of flowers but the plates are empty.”
On talent today: “Why do people say that designers [in the past] were better? Today designers are good, they are very very good. Maybe the speed and the system troubles them a little.”
On everyone’s favourite consumer segment to dissect, millennials: “I love millennials — I’m fascinated by that generation,” he said. "Today we cannot sell them anything any more because today they decide.”
On the importance of not forgetting those that came before Generation Next: “I’m not a math genius, but there is also one set of parents, two set of grandparents…”
On his dream of finding a perfect business-side match: I love CEOs, really I do,” he said. “When they are good they are our best partner… they dance the tango together.”
With papers scattered around him, Elbaz wrapped with one final thought. While “love” might be the word with which he’s most closely associated, respect is “more important.” In fact, his enthusiasm for it cajoled the audience to come and join him in a karaoke rendition of Aretha Franklin’s famous hit song of the same name. He bopped around the stage, dancing and singing with VOICES attendees who seemed thrilled to let loose after a series of intense talks. It was still joyfully mesmerising; he somehow convinced people to get up and act. And if anything deserves respect, it’s that.
To learn more about VOICES, BoF's annual gathering for big thinkers, visit our VOICES website, where you can find all the details on our invitation-only global gathering, in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate.