PARIS, France — “After working long hours, you get home, you want food that will give you a warm hug and nothing does that better than a pizza or burger. Nothing!” says Alber Elbaz, the designer of the storied house of Lanvin. Elbaz has a love for food that’s so strong it has compelled him to consult a psychiatrist, who, on a particular visit, asked him a question that got the designer thinking: “If, today, women, can buy a new body [through cosmetic surgery], why do they buy a dress? Isn't the body the new dress? What is your job as a designer? To unveil the body or to cover it?” recounts Elbaz.
“I left the meeting, my head spinning. I couldn't wait to get to the office. All the time I was thinking, ‘I am going to be a fashion surgeon, like a plastic surgeon,’” continues Elbaz. “It was just a month away from the show, but I changed all the fabrics into stretch and the colours to beige. And all the time I kept asking myself, ‘Is the body the new dress or is the dress the new skin?’ But, as the days, went by I began to become bored. I started to add stones and colour, because I really couldn't see beige any more. It was then that I realised that fashion is not really about the body at all. Its essence is simple: to make the woman look beautiful, to make her fly.”
This is no soundbite. Indeed, Elbaz is very careful when he communicates. His comments are never slick nor calculated to be clever. And, like his work for Lanvin, which he joined in 2001, they reflect consistency, intellectual involvement and a depth of investigation into designing clothes that puts Elbaz on the level of a master like Cristóbal Balenciaga.
Well known is the story of Balenciaga's reaction to a journalist whose enquiry about his “new ideas” for the coming season elicited the cold reply, “Madam, I never have new ideas.” Diana Vreeland once told me, referring to Seventh Avenue in the 1970s, that “modern designers think they need ideas. But they are wrong. All they need is a point of view.” In many ways, Elbaz’s way of working at Lanvin reflects the stance of both Balenciaga and Vreeland. He does not think each season must be a new start, or a fresh awakening. Indeed, he resists the ebb and flow of fashion in favour of developing his own ideas, incrementally, over long periods of time.
Talking to Elbaz is a joy. Over a breakfast table, his remarks are punctuated with giggles and much self-deprecation. But it would be foolish to pretend that Alber Elbaz does not know his worth. When he joined Lanvin, the company had only 15 wholesale accounts; today, the company has over 400 stockists. And, indeed, his success has been well rewarded. Elbaz has a stake in Lanvin, but when I ask about it, he smiles and says, “What does it matter? I am happily married to the house of Lanvin.”
Would he ever take seriously offers to join another house? “Would you ask a happily married man if he was contemplating moving out to find another partner?” he replies. “I am proud that I haven't moved but, instead, have worked to preserve the Lanvin story and yet make it happen for today.” After a pause, he adds, “But you know, our work is always our work, no matter what the brand name is. A pizza is the same in New York as it is in Florence. You can make it anywhere if you have the basic ingredients and the skills required.”
Alber has not always been at Lanvin. In 1999, when Gucci acquired Yves Saint Laurent, a young Alber Elbaz was designing the brand’s ready-to-wear collections. But Tom Ford, then creative director of Gucci, removed Elbaz and installed himself at the design helm of the brand with a directness which is still not forgotten in Paris. Elbaz was devastated. “YSL was like a death somehow,” he recalls, without rancour. After a pause, he laughs and says: “As you know, I am a drama queen. Everything moves me, anything can please me and anything can upset me. At the time, the YSL affair affected me deeply and I was very depressed. I decided to have a year and a half without work and it gave me time to think about my life and my career. The big question was, ‘Do I want to stay in fashion, or study to be a doctor?’” he recalls. To find his answer, Elbaz embarked on extended travels in Israel, India and South America, much of it by public bus. After months staying in small hotels and guesthouses, he realised that being a designer was, indeed, his calling.
“Work is the only place I feel beautiful. The only place. It is my remedy to everything,” says Elbaz. “I've learned that you have to face the difficulties or they never go away. I feel that the only real job of a designer today is to find solutions.” I know Elbaz developed this attitude during his seven and a half years working in New York with Geoffrey Beene. “Mr Beene taught me my work. And, also and above all, that work is almost an antibiotic, it cleanses the problem. But I do believe in being neurotic. Fashion is like life. It needs fear and uncertainty if you are to move forward.”
Elbaz rarely looks back. It is the present and how it points to the future that intrigues him. He is interested in how digital media is changing fashion. “Today, the way we do shows and the way they are being exposed to the world on the Internet is a world away from the days when we showed our collections to 150 highly trained and knowledgeable journalists and their opinions were all that mattered. Now, the whole world sees a show and that changes our focus and format,” he says. “One of the questions I think of a lot is whether the show is for the people or the press.”
“I realise more and more as I work on a collection, I am doing so on three different levels,” the designer continues. “I am working with my eyes, I am working with mirrors and I am working with the Internet. Each one brings an entirely different element to the garment. With my eyes, I see it and it looks quite okay. In the mirror, I see the proportions are not right. Then, I look at the Internet and it shows me something completely different. Everything that is hard works beautifully [online], but things that are soft don't. So, I have to take on board three different ways of visualising and each one is valid. The difficulty is to make them into one vision.”
Lanvin is one of a dwindling number of French fashion houses that still operates a full atelier and Elbaz is adamant that this is just as crucial today as it was in Christian Dior's time. “The designer needs the luxury of working in his own atelier and his own team — and everyone in that team must be attuned to the nuances of the way everybody else is thinking. This is the heartbeat of high fashion clothing. It is disappearing, because it is cheaper to have clothes made in Eastern Europe or China. You send a sketch and they make it into a garment. But fashion is not about a sketch. It is about a process, like an abstract painting. When does a painter making an abstract piece know it is finished? The painting tells him: ‘Don't touch me any more.’ So many houses no longer work with an atelier. Being a seamstress is a dying trade. How many girls say to me, 'Oh Alber! My dream is to be a seamstress!' We all know the answer. It may be easier and cheaper to do it in a factory, but there is more flatness in the process, so then you realise you need print and colours and a lot of layering to make the garment work. But we are still an industry that basically needs a seamstress, a needle and some thread.”
But like many creators, Elbaz knows that between sketch and final garment, there are, inevitably, rocky patches. Working under considerable time pressure, Elbaz frequently reaches a point where he almost hates what he has done. But the designer has come to realise that this is an important part of his creative process, “because if I love it too much, I won't be able to move forward. I learn from the customer almost as much as I do from the atelier,” he says. “I remember, in my second year at Lanvin, seeing a picture of Kate Moss wearing one of my dresses and then, in the shop, seeing a woman from Chicago, well into her seventies, wearing it. And I thought and still do, ‘That's what Lanvin is and what it can do for a woman of any age.’ We are not a cool brand, because, with us, comfort is a starting point to beauty and the elegance we stand for.”
“I remember a customer once said to me, ‘Alber, whenever I wear one of your dresses, men fall in love with me.’ And I said, ‘Next time you wear one of your Lanvin dresses, I want you to fall in love with a man.’ She said, ‘What's the difference?’ So I said, ‘Active and passive.’ I love the idea of love. In fact that is the DNA of the house, which was, after all, founded on the love of a mother for her daughter. So I started to work on this concept.”
Although Elbaz believes in the necessity of traditions, he is intrigued by new technology. At his shows, “I used to see people looking and writing,” he recalls. “Now they are all documenting. But a document has no opinion. So we are designing clothes for the photo or the woman? Fashion now is about images and there is no analysis or opinion any more.”
As a countermeasure, Elbaz has, for several years, chosen three or four of his key looks and presented them personally, each season, to a carefully chosen group of senior journalists and commentators. I have been to these presentations and they are instructive, engaging and moving in their honesty. Elbaz started doing them because he felt his shows did not provide him with enough interaction and feedback from viewers. “I didn't want them to be a monologue. So I set up a dialogue. Out of it came the concept of pre-collections,” he says, blaming himself for starting the industry practice of producing pre-collections, a major source of revenue for brands, as well as stress for designers. “It was the biggest mistake I have ever made.”
“I now believe pre-collections have demoted fashion, because we use it to give women what they want, not what they would long to have,” says Elbaz. “Also, pre-collections are completely trend-led. “‘What do you need?’ ‘A straight skirt.’ ‘For how much?’ ‘400.’ ‘You need a bag?’ ‘Fine.’ This isn't a designer's work. Why don't the business people design it? They know what they want.”
As far as I am aware, Alber Elbaz is the only designer at a top class fashion house who actually dresses the windows of the brand’s flagship store. He does it on Sundays and he loves it. “It entertains and stimulates me and it gives me joy and peace,” he explains. “You start with a sketch, do the fitting and begin the windows. I like laughing as I am doing them and it often ends in tears — of joy and exhaustion. Crying and laughing are very important and I want the people who see them to do the same.”
Why does the house of Lanvin not have a couture line, as most other French high fashion houses do? “I already do my version of couture,” says Elbaz. “My clothes are already almost one of a kind. I do not do a coat in three lengths and four fabrics. I do one coat. It is a certain length. It is red or whatever colour and that is that. No themes and variations. If I do that red coat in black I have changed its individual energy. It’s what I call industrial couture. Couture you can take right off the rack. This is the modern age. Who wants to have six fittings?”
“And remember, we are working in a couture atelier and we might do ten fittings on one garment. We take infinite care. I spend hours over the colour of a thread, or getting the perfect stitch,” adds Elbaz. “My door is never closed, not even when I go to the doctor — and remember I am a true hypochondriac. I go to hospital if I even have a pimple!”