Alber Elbaz (Sept 2005)
This past June in New York, in the days before he was presented with the award for international designer of the year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (C.F.D.A.), the fashion world's equivalent of an Oscar for Best Picture, Alber Elbaz was not rejoicing. The award was a validation of sorts, a long-overdue acknowledgment of his talent and the work he had done since 2002 at Lanvin, the long-moribund French couture house that he has rejuvenated. But the attention and accolades, though welcome, made Elbaz both giddy and anxious. The giddiness was largely for show, a part of the cuddly, jovial image that Elbaz puts forth, especially in social situations. He is a small, round man, and he nearly always wears a black suit with trousers that are much too short, a silk bow tie knotted loosely at his throat and black rectangular glasses that set off the softness of his face. Elbaz understands the power of fashion, how clothes can create a personality, real or otherwise. This gift for artifice extends to his own sartorial choices. While he appears to be playful and a bit theatrical (and he can be), Elbaz is mostly thoughtful and distinctly aware of the vagaries of his chosen business. Now 44, he has worked in fashion for nearly 20 years, including, for 2 of them, as the chief designer of women's wear at Yves St. Laurent, and he knows that being chosen by a group like the C.F.D.A. means that you will, inevitably, be discarded in favor of another. "Being a designer is not about being a star - I didn't work for the eight seconds when you get a prize," Elbaz told me over lunch at Chanterelle in TriBeCa the day before the awards ceremony. "For me, there is nothing scarier than being of the moment. Because the moment ends."
Elbaz's fashion philosophy - that clothes should be timeless, that the elegant simplicity of a Lanvin dress or skirt or sweater should endure for many seasons - represents a departure from the luxury-addicted, logo-crazed fashion world of the 1990's. That time was personified by Tom Ford, the designer of Gucci (and later, Yves St. Laurent, where he succeeded Elbaz). Quite simply, Ford sold sex - specifically, high-gloss, international jet-set sex. All his clothes and accessories were created with an eye toward the kind of seduction that is best accomplished through an overt display of the goods. Through Gucci, Ford created the global fashion business - a woman in Japan was carrying the same interlocking-G hobo bag as a woman in Kalamazoo - and he also expertly marketed himself: Ford's carefully maintained stubble, nut-brown tan and half-open white shirt made him a symbol of the times.
But, as it always does, the fashion mood shifted. Even before Ford quit designing for Gucci in 2004, he realized that the luxury market was changing. Sept. 11th had altered the outlook even of the fashion-conscious, and although women still wanted something sexy, their sense of what that might be was less obvious. "It's a hard time for women today," Elbaz said as he ate a cheese puff at lunch. "Women today are not allowed to have age. They have to be not young and not old. As a designer, I have to understand that and also what a woman goes through in the course of a day. Women have to be perfect at home, perfect at work, perfect lover, perfect mother, perfect daughter. And they have no age! That's something to understand, and then, I ask myself, given all that, what is it women want in their wardrobe? What is worth them spending 1,000 Euros rather than 1,000 pennies?"
When Ford sat down to conjure up a dress, he usually began by thinking about a woman's backside. "I concentrate on the butt," he once told me. "If that looks good, everything looks good." Elbaz begins designing with the waist, quite a different erogenous zone. "The waist is the most important part of a woman's body," he explained. On first glance, Elbaz's clothes for Lanvin can look simple, but then you notice the care that has been taken with these classic shapes: the washed silk faille has been cut so that the pleats of a skirt fall like a tulip, skimming the hips; a waist-length jacket has been shaped so that the linen moves in sync with the body; a simple trench coat in artfully rumpled gold silk fits like a long-beloved garment. Elbaz's embellishments are unique - tarnished metal paillettes adorn the grosgrain-ribbon waistband of a fuchsia silk sheath; ornate gold beading decorates the arms of a humble white cotton peasant blouse; and pearls, an Elbaz trademark, are entwined with tulle for long necklaces or sewn onto silk taffeta and then tied around the neck like a beautiful, ornamental bib.
All of Elbaz's clothes combine the hard and the soft: he is an expert tailor who leaves seams unfinished; he will sew a garment so exquisitely that it could be worn inside out, but he will intentionally leave the collar frayed. "I don't relate to perfection," Elbaz said. "And neither do the women who buy my clothes. I cannot bake, but I can cook a wonderful meal because I can improvise. But I could never make a cake because they tell you 10 grams of this and 10 minutes here, and I cannot follow. So, no cake, no perfection."
Elbaz - who was born in Casablanca, reared in Israel and then moved to New York in 1984 and now lives in Paris - may represent a new kind of global perspective. Mostly, his clothes evoke classic French style, with their feminine sophistication and refinement, but they are also, like American sportswear, conceived with an eye toward a woman's active life. And the signature Elbaz accents - the pearls and the coins he uses like jewels - seem to have been purchased at a Middle Eastern bazaar. This multicultural formula has been a financial success at Lanvin. In the last three years, sales have reportedly risen to about $100 million a year, 10 times what they were when Elbaz took over the collection in 2002. During a personal appearance at Barneys in New York last winter, Elbaz sold $1 million worth of clothes in one day. "Fashion is important all over the world," Elbaz said. "And we have to bring beauty back to fashion. But sexy . . . that's a word I cannot hear anymore."
This may be a veiled reference to Tom Ford, who was the darling of the fashion world for almost a decade. Elbaz has said that he believes his ascent would have been speedier if he was conventionally handsome like Ford. "I sometimes think that if I was thinner and more photogenic, my career might be different," he repeated as he sampled a goat-cheese ravioli. "But I'm also afraid to lose weight because my design sense might disappear." The fact that Elbaz looks different from most of the fashion flock may allow him some philosophical separation, too. His image may not be Ford's superslick, after-dark image, but Elbaz has his own carefully honed persona, one that, perhaps, more aptly fits these uncertain times. Some of his gowns are extravagant, but for the most part, they are classic pieces with a twist and a perfect fit. Even well-heeled customers desire that mix: pieces that seem one of a kind but are also practical. In this climate, Elbaz has emerged as the favorite outsider for fashion world insiders.
"We love an outsider, especially if they are supertalented like Alber," says Ronnie Cooke Newhouse, who worked with Lanvin to create its recent advertising campaign and who has been wearing Elbaz's clothes for years. "But nobody chooses that role for themselves, because if you're really the outsider - and Alber has been - it's a much harder life. In our business, there's the tortoise and the hare. Being the tortoise has been important for Alber - his experiences have made him who he is. And now that he's crossed the finish line, everyone wants to invite the tortoise in."
t around 3 p.m. on a Wednesday in early July, Elbaz was in his fifth-floor atelier off the Rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré in Paris. It is a long, loftlike room, curtained off into sections, which are divided into workstations. In the carpeted middle section on the left side of the atelier, Elbaz, who was wearing his usual black suit with a bright green scarf worn like an ascot, had assembled his design team to work on the spring collection for 2006, which is scheduled to be shown in Paris on Oct. 9. Elbaz and three assistants - two women and a man - were sitting on plush brown velvet chairs around a repurposed dining-room table. To Elbaz's left were three bulletin boards displaying pictures of Japanese women, including geisha, drawn from books and magazines; photos of various kinds of floppy hats; and lots of drawings of high-heeled shoes.
"Spring will be the obi collection," Elbaz had told me in New York. Obis are the sashes that geisha wear to secure their kimonos. "I will start working on whatever that represents," Elbaz explained. "That's the starting point. The beauty for me is that you move on and go upside down, but you have a starting point." A year before, when he was planning spring 2005, in what was his breakthrough collection, Elbaz began with the idea of Fortuny, who in the early 20th century revolutionized evening wear with his intricately pleated, loose-fitting floor-length gowns. Elbaz then married that sensibility to Madame Grès, who was known for her Grecian-like draping. Somehow this connected to the Silk Road and women's progress, and that led him to the idea of jackets and the removal of shoulder pads to create a more refined and modern silhouette.
"It's never about going to India and saying the collection will be maharajah," Elbaz said. "And I don't have one muse, where I'm looking at her and getting high from the way she sits. I'm inspired by many women. It's about getting interested in a story. When I get the starting point for a collection, I go down to my living room in my pajamas, and I start sketching. Or I'm in a hotel room, talking on the phone or listening to CNN, and I'm sketching. I'm a lucky man - by the end of a week, I'll have 400 women in my sketchbook. "
In July, the spring collection was in its earliest stages. "Geisha are perfect," Elbaz said, now at work in his atelier, "and perfection is never interesting to me, but the search for perfection, which all women feel, is interesting. That's a timeless struggle, so why not provide women with a solution? For years, men have had uniforms, and a dress works like a uniform. You don't have to think - you zip in and zip out. And then clothes become about simplicity and form and function."
Elbaz sketched as he spoke, drawing skirts and shoes, and then, a dress with an exaggerated lower half. "This looks like a balloon with no air," he said, staring at his sketch.
"Maybe we can open the back and shape around it," an assistant said.
"As long as it doesn't look too fattening," Elbaz replied, still sketching.
"Do we want to introduce embroidery if it's in wool?" another assistant asked.
"I like the embroidery that's broken up," Elbaz said. "It should look washed and faded."
Hania Destelle, Lanvin's director of communications and one of Elbaz's closest associates, interrupted the meeting. With her was a tall blond woman. Destelle is his prototypical customer: an attractive mother of two who works. "Excuse me, Alber," she said in French. "Here is the model." In two days, Elbaz would be having seven small presentations of his precollection for spring. These would be intimate gatherings for 12 fashion editors or buyers at a time, held at the Hôtel de Crillon, with Elbaz explaining his collection and showing the clothes on four models. "What is your name," Elbaz asked the tall blond girl. "Can you walk for us?"
As she walked up and down in a brown chiffon Lanvin halter dress from two years ago, it was hard not to notice that the dress had an obi-like sash at the waist. When I mentioned this to Elbaz, he said: "Lots of elements repeat in my clothes. Art is a monologue; design is a dialogue - I look at what worked in the past, but even if a certain element remains, it always changes." Elbaz considered a shoe, which had a skyscraper-high heel. "For this collection, I want shoes and hats that look like cars," he said rather inexplicably. "I want crazy accessories, but not crazy clothes."
The meeting ended, and the design team dispersed. Elbaz picked up the shoe again. It was a jazzed-up version of a platform pump that he has made in the past. "I'm not sure if I love it or hate it," he said. "But sometimes if you love someone or hate them, it's often the same thing." Elbaz paused. It was just a shoe, but Elbaz seemed to be contemplating something other than fashion.
A few moments later, Destelle rushed back in to say that the designer Vera Wang was in the Lanvin store, which is directly across the street from the atelier. "One of the problems and joys of having the store so close by is that I'm constantly being interrupted," Elbaz said as he dashed down the elevator and through the Lanvin men's store (he does not design the men's-wear line) and through the doors of his shop, which, in some ways, is also his research center. The Paris boutique is a mecca for celebrities like Kate Moss, Sofia Coppola and Nicole Kidman as well as regular customers - all of whom Elbaz has been known to ply with macaroons from Ladurée as, say, he pins up a hem on one of his dresses.
"The coolest thing about Alber was that he wasn't pushing anything," says Natalie Portman, who wore a gorgeous pleated silk Lanvin creation to the Academy Awards last year. "I first went to him for a dress for the Golden Globes, which is a month earlier than the Oscars," she recalled recently, on the phone from Madrid. "We're both from Israel, and we were speaking in Hebrew. Most designers would have come up with a dress for me immediately, but he said he needed to think about it. And then weeks later, he sent me the Oscar dress. The dress was sexy in the way that a confident woman is sexy - it was understated, but still alluring."
Elbaz stopped for a moment outside the shop. He not only creates the clothes; he also designs the store windows. In July, a mannequin in a black flapper dress made of strips of silk that have been sewn into fringe was hanging upside down, like a circus performer. In the past, Elbaz has had his mannequins riding a carousel, taking a dip in the sea or walking a pack of red plastic dinosaurs. The results have been both whimsical and dramatic - the elegance of the clothes humanized by their often goofy surroundings.
"It looks good," Elbaz said as he quickly moved a vase of pink roses to the center of a table in the store's entry. He rushed upstairs, where Wang and her two daughters were perusing the sale items. It is unusual to see a designer purchasing clothes by someone else, and Wang had her arms full of garments. "I bought three of your silk dresses," Wang said enthusiastically. Elbaz stared. He does not take compliments well and tends to rearrange the dynamic of the moment by complimenting back. "I love your watch," he told Wang. He rifled through the racks, pulling out a long silk charmeuse gown in gray. "This would look beautiful on you," he said.
As Wang went off to the dressing room, a woman from Michigan, assuming he was a salesman, asked him for help: she wanted a pantsuit. In another stand against mass acceptance, Elbaz makes very few pants. "I don't think women have to wear pants to be strong," he told me once. "And if you're going to buy expensive designer clothes, why buy pants when so many designers do them much less expensively?" Elbaz sighed. "I don't gauge success by what sells. When I first got to Lanvin, they said: 'You have to do evening shirts - it's a very important item right now. Like a pirate top.' And I didn't want to have pirate tops. I wanted to have a dress."
early every day when he is in Paris, Elbaz has lunch at the restaurant bar at the Hôtel de Crillon. "I never skip lunch," he joked as he settled into his usual corner table. Elbaz, who moves comfortably between English and French (although he says he dreams in his native language, Hebrew), ordered a ham-and-cheese omelet with fries. "You know," he said, looking around the restaurant, "if you changed the color of this room, it would change everything about it. With red walls, you'd have a different clientele. It's the same with clothes. When you change a coat from black to orange to blue, you have to change the proportions. Colors seem to be the easiest thing to do, but they are the most difficult."
Elbaz's father was a hair colorist - he worked in a salon in Tel Aviv. Alber, who was then Albert, was the youngest of four and began sketching dresses when he was 7. He was always encouraged, although his mother, who does not like to travel, has seen only one of her son's shows. "I had to escape my family," Elbaz said, "and when I left Israel, I dropped the "t" from my first name. In Judaism, if you change your name, you change your destiny."
He flew to New York with $800 given to him by his mother and found a job with Geoffrey Beene, the brilliant, innovative American designer who conjured designs that challenged conventional ideas about how clothes should look and still managed to build an empire. Elbaz worked for Beene for seven years. "I thought I would die as an assistant," he told me. Although Elbaz respected Beene, who died last year, their sensibilities were very different. Beene was intrigued by modern, nontraditional fabrics and dresses constructed with only one seam. Elbaz was more intrigued by the idea of taking classic forms and subverting them. He learned a great deal from Beene but was eager to be in charge. In 1996, he moved to Paris and soon became the creative director of Guy Laroche. After only four shows, where he showed smart tweed suits and mohair coats, Elbaz was offered the job of a lifetime, succeeding the legendary Yves St. Laurent as designer of the house's ready-to-wear for women. The Laroche shows had created a sensation in Paris, and Pierre Bergé, who ran the business side of YSL, said he felt that Elbaz would fit in well with YSL's fashion sensibility, which is all about having what might best be described as a French point of view. "It was Alber's dream to work at St. Laurent," says Julie Gilhart, the fashion director of Barneys. "And the gods heard him."
Unlike Guy Laroche (or Lanvin), YSL was steeped in tradition, and the man responsible for that tradition was still designing haute couture. Part of the reason Elbaz may have appealed to Bergé was that he would not overshadow St. Laurent: Elbaz was talented but sage. "At YSL, there are certain rules," Elbaz recalled. "There's what is and what is not St. Laurent. When I got there, it was the time of grunge. Everyone was wearing gray. They asked me to do a French Prada. I said, 'What about a new Yves St. Laurent for our generation?' " Elbaz paused. "I loved St. Laurent. He was so fragile and emotional. But I was afraid of the secretaries there. They were these perfect Hitchcock women. Everyone was so glamorous, and I felt very different from them."
Elbaz became a student of the YSL archives. "I saw all this color," Elbaz said. "I was almost paralyzed by the experience. I knew that Mr. Saint Laurent was all about Marrakesh, and that was my starting point. So, I thought, how would a blond lady feel in Marrakesh? How would she feel at night in high heels in a dark street with young boys looking at her? That was my first show. By my second show, I'd started to read that my days were numbered. It was like having a slow-moving disease that will eventually kill you."
For his second collection, which was based on colors like turquoise and purple from flowers that produce poison, Elbaz's narrative inspiration took a dark turn. The theme of the collection was waterproof clothes - frocks for a world in which malice lurked around every corner. Elbaz was feeling understandably vulnerable. The Gucci Group, led by Tom Ford and his business partner, Domenico De Sole, was negotiating to buy YSL, and it was clear that Ford would want to replace Elbaz with himself. "Tom Ford is not my enemy," he said now. "Well, at least, he isn't my enemy anymore. But then it was terrible. I was Lot's wife - I packed everything from the office at St. Laurent in two suitcases, and I did not look back."
He took two years off and traveled throughout India and the Far East. He thought about becoming a doctor but decided, instead, to return to designing. Elbaz heard that Shaw-Lan Wang, a Taiwanese publishing magnate, was purchasing Lanvin. He contacted Mrs. Wang (he always refers to her as Mrs. Wang) and said, "Please wake up the sleeping beauty." Although he was referring to Lanvin, which is the oldest couture house in Paris, he could also have been referring to himself. Last year, when LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the conglomerate that owns Christian Dior and other design houses, tried to woo Elbaz to Givenchy, he refused their offer. "Mrs. Wang is all about honor and respect, and she took a chance on me when others wouldn't. The fashion world is fickle, which doesn't mean I have to be."
wo days after our lunch at the Crillon, Elbaz was back at the hotel, upstairs in the Salon des Batailles, a reception room that was used by German generals during World War II and is decorated with a large crystal chandelier. "I'm obsessed with chandeliers," he told me earlier. The sparkly crystals and the narrow-to-big shape of chandeliers are repeated again and again in Elbaz's clothes. Elbaz has other leitmotifs - ribbons, raw edges, ballet flats, flowers in bloom, tulle and natural fabrics that have been washed and left wrinkled. "I am interested in easiness," Elbaz said as he arranged a dozen chairs in a semicircle. Facing them was a black curtain, which shielded a rack of clothes. Seven times that day, Elbaz would be presenting a small 14-piece cruise collection that would foreshadow what he planned to show for spring in October.
"I heard about a Japanese woman who put 10 kimonos in a bag, and I thought, How modern," Elbaz began, addressing his second small group of editors and buyers. "There's something about this basicness that I'm attracted to these days." The first outfit was a black linen skirt with an oversize T-shirt and a wonderful floppy straw hat that shaded the model's eyes. The hat was perhaps meant to evoke a geisha's chignon, but it more closely resembled a marriage between YSL's famous felt hats (think Maria Schneider in "Last Tango in Paris") and a Dutch bonnet without starch. Elbaz's hats accented every look from a black seamless dress that fit almost like a wrapped towel to a white poplin trench coat to what Elbaz called "a summer fur - cotton mixed with metal creates a fabric that resembles astrakhan." The final look was a lightweight gazar coat with wonderfully round sleeves. The lightness and the pouf of those sleeves were a feat of engineering, the kind of effortless detail that sets Elbaz apart as a designer. It was the sleeve as soufflé, a unique way to subvert the classic lines of a spring coat.
The presentation lasted 20 minutes, but the guests lingered. Some editors placed personal orders for the clothes, and others just studied the garments, as if they were mysterious artifacts. "I am talking to people from the world of words, and I want to explain why the shoulder pads didn't work and why I put the bird on the top of the plissé dress," Elbaz said, explaining his need to moderate his presentations. "There is always a reason why, and I need to tell the stories."
The small presentations also played to Elbaz's strengths. He is a natural showman, and he thrives on affirmation. After he showed each look, he said, "You like it?" which usually elicited a chorus of oohs and ahhs. This showmanship extends to his desire to provide a narrative for his designs. Most designers haven't delved into the novelization of their collections. This is another reason that Elbaz may have taken longer to become a fashion-world darling. He is not prescriptive in the style of Tom Ford, who basically said, Wear this and you will be a sex goddess from the 70's. Elbaz is offering a more complicated scenario: these clothes may have an intricate back story, but in the end, they will not turn you into anything. That part of the equation is up to the wearer.
After the presentation, Elbaz went back to his apartment in the Second Arrondissement and sketched to the news. He sketches all the time. "I also read, and books inspire me more than anything else," he said four days later at Ladurée, the patisserie around the corner from his studio. "When you see a painting, you see the red, you see the blue, and there is always a frame. There are never frames around words, which is why the power of the word is, for me, stronger than the visual. I also can't sketch to music." He was eating with Hania Destelle, who was, as usual, wearing Lanvin, a linen jacket that tied closed. As the coffee arrived, Elbaz produced his new sketches, which were row after row of stick figures with different outfits. One was wearing a dress with a flower pattern ("They are like Matisse," Elbaz explained, "and they may be embroidered") and one had a shawl-like top section ("That's my summer fur again," he said). "I was not so emotionally spent after the presentations last week," Elbaz said, putting his sketches away. "But after the big shows, I'm usually depressed. I get in my pajamas, and they show me the unedited video of the show at 10 or 11 p.m. the same day, and all I see are the mistakes. I'm so tired, but I can't sleep. It's like a coma. I'm not here, but I'm not awake either."
Actually, Elbaz thrives on this sort of elation-and-malaise seesaw. After becoming upset about all the supposed problems in his last show, he fretted for two days and then went back to sketching. "My life now is a marathon, and I'm such not an athlete," he said. "Sketching reminds me of why I became a designer in the first place. It presents the same excitement that it did when I was a child. It's a world of my own creation."
In the months to come, Elbaz would be taking a vacation in Thailand with friends, returning to Paris in early September, and then leaving for China to present a fashion show. He would then fly back to Paris, where he would complete and show the spring 2006 collection. "I love intense," he said. "There's nothing I fear more than vacancies. I need to jump from one project to another. But I also need time to dream, and dreams come when you are a little bit bored, when you are a little less wired. You need sometimes to take a three-hour lunch and think about things upside down. When you don't have time, you put the first skirt you think of onstage."
Elbaz told me that he plans to retire from fashion in six years. This is hard to imagine. He seems too attached to what he does to leave it behind, and despite his reluctance, he also enjoys the attention. "It took me a long time," Elbaz said. "Do you know many girls today who want to be seamstresses? I don't. They want to be designers and rich and famous and very, very, very fast. There's no patience. That was not my goal. I was interested in -- "
Elbaz interrupted himself and nudged Destelle. "Look," he said, "she has a bag from the shop." An attractive woman had balanced a large Lanvin bag against her table leg. "What do you think she bought?" he asked. "I can tell you what she should have bought." He stared for a second. "Maybe I should introduce myself," he said. "I like to say goodbye to the children before they leave home."