Alber Elbaz, fashion’s most loved designer, is best known for his iconic dresses. He not only turned around the fate of the exemplary Parisian fashion house Lanvin, but also dipped his fingers into every design aspect of the label before his recent departure after 14 years at its creative helm.
Alber Elbaz believes that clothes must move with a woman. “Movement is essential for me. It is life itself,” muses the Moroccan-born designer and former creative director of Lanvin. This statement – a pillar of his design philosophy – is fittingly apt for the moment, albeit in another context. Elbaz, who was appointed as Lanvin’s artistic director in 2001, was recently ousted from the French fashion house, much to the shock and chagrin of the fashion world. After all, he had successfully transformed Lanvin into one of the most covetable labels. In doing so, he brought about a revival of the oldest surviving French fashion house.
Women across the world have always been floored by the aesthetics and intuition that went into Elbaz’s creations for Lanvin. During his 14-year-long creative reign, the designer was revered for his striking cuts with flowing movement. The thing about Elbaz is that he didn’t just go about setting new trends at Lanvin – he also worked towards bringing back classic styles with a fresh appeal. Timeless appeal was infused into his women’s collections – whether they incorporated embellished tweeds, tiered ruffled dresses in pale colours, rich jewelled-toned dresses, sheer shirts or sleek cigarette pants. His refreshingly light and feminine dresses have been donned on the red carpet by some of the world’s best-known actresses like Natalie Portman, Charlize Theron and Kate Hudson.
A look back into his early days offers an insight into the evolution of Elbaz’s beautiful and highly creative mind. Born in Casablanca in 1961, Elbaz moved to Tel Aviv at the age of 10. His mother was a painter, while his father worked as a hair colourist. When he moved to New York in 1985, the young Elbaz worked at a dressmaker’s shop, after which he honed his talent as an assistant couturier to Geoffrey Beene for the next seven years – a period that majorly shaped Elbaz’s aesthetic sense. At Guy Laroche in 1997, he enhanced the label’s image, while the following year saw him design ready-to-wear women’s clothing for Yves Saint Laurent. By the time he was hired by Lanvin, Elbaz was already a force to reckon with in the fashion world. Over the years, he received many honours and awards, including the International Award by the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 2005, the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 2007, and an honorary doctorate by the Royal College of Art in 2014, among others.
“Everybody’s talking about the new democratic world and whether high fashion is relevant. But without high there is no low. I don’t like to intellectualize. I’ve always said fashion is like roast chicken: You don’t have to think about it to know it’s delicious.”
Elbaz likens his creative process to that of creating stories with unpredictable twists and perfect endings. “When I design a collection, I always start by dreaming up a story,” says the designer, adding that he approaches each collection with a clean slate. “Holidays and I don’t get along,” he adds, starting his workdays as early as 5am. He admits to being something of a control freak, and this – according to Elbaz – ensures that his work is set off to perfection. Be it in Lanvin’s collections, accessories, boutiques, window displays or perfumes, Elbaz insisted on overseeing it all, continually making suggestions and dreaming up new ideas. For instance, Elbaz cast non-models between the ages of 18 to 82 in an ingenious campaign for Lanvin’s Autumn/Winter 2012/13 collection. “I want to see beautiful women, not beautiful clothes,” he explained.
Within the realm of Lanvin’s accessories, Elbaz was the one who managed to make nameplate necklaces look chic, and bejewelled accessories appear refined and tasteful. As if designing fashion- forward yet timeless attire for women wasn’t enough to keep him busy, Elbaz furthered the brand to launch menswear collections, fragrances, a bridal line, a children’s line, and even sneakers. He conceptualised some of the most intriguing and unexpected collaborations, too. When he collaborated with high street brand H&M in 2010, the capsule collection that included tulle dresses flew off the shelves. Another collaboration saw him make his foray into cosmetics in 2013 with the launch of a limited edition make-up collection for Lancôme, the packaging of which was wonderfully whimsical – much like the designer himself.
Elbaz also kept alive and often revived several of Lanvin’s trademark touches. Back in 2006, he introduced all-new packaging, incorporating the iconic quattrocento blue once favoured by Jeanne Lanvin, the creator of the fashion house. His classic dresses have often been compared to Lanvin’s designs of the 1920s, which is most likely the reason why fashion critic Suzy Menkes once referred to him as “every woman’s darling”. According to Elbaz, beauty and comfort go hand in hand. “A lady’s beauty shines out when she is comfortable. For me, dresses symbolise ease rather than femininity,” Elbaz once stated.
The legendary designer orchestrated an exhibition during the fall at Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris. As viewers were immersed in the intimacy of fittings, the excitement of Lanvin shows and the beauty of the label’s designs, the show – housed in five rooms – portrayed Elbaz’s work through the years. Designed to be experienced as a continuous dialogue between fashion and photography, it can be counted as a first in the history of Lanvin. In a twist of fate, the introspective exhibition kicked off just over a month before Elbaz parted ways with the fashion house. Privy to his immense contributions to its legacy, visitors were gently reminded that one of the greatest eras in fashion had come to an end.
This article was first published in the December 2015 edition of Signé (UAE)