Alber Elbaz on his incredible life in fashion

All photos by Paolo Roversi.

This story originally appeared in i-D’s ‘The Home Is Where The Heart Is’ Issue, No 306, 2010⁣.

Born in Morocco, Alber Elbaz was raised in Israel and graduated from the Tel Aviv School of Fashion and Textiles before moving to New York in 1985 to pursue a career in fashion, where he learnt his trade under American Couturier Geoffrey Beene. In 1997 he moved to his current home of Paris to become head designer Guy Laroche, before Pierre Berge and Mr Yves Saint Laurent appointed him as heir apparent to the house of Yves Saint Laurent upon Yves’ retirement. Shortly into his tenure at YSL, the Gucci group acquired the house, Elbaz then joined Krizia as head designer, before joining the house of Lanvin to breathe life and spirit into the then dormant brand. His vision for the house of Lanvin was a complete story from the moment he took over the mantle, with him overseeing every detail of the empire – from the shop windows to the shoe boxes that come secured in a black bow – his passion and knowledge for every detail is unprecedented.

Alber’s day-to-day life sees no blurring between the personal and professional with his role consuming his every thought and waking moment. It is his unrelenting passion, which translates hand in glove through his work at Lanvin. Elbaz doesn’t think in terms of trends, instead he explores the same ideas each and every season and produces a wardrobe of essentials each time. The materials at Lanvin are extravagant with fur, silks, animal skins and lace often figuring, but in his expert hand a raw seam, exposed zipper, or torn hem brings everything crumpled and shabby and chic into the present day. Simultaneously timeless and of the moment, sophisticated and sexy, chic and cool there is a fragility and strength to the womenswear which is now mirrored by Lanvin menswear under the direction of Lukas Ossendrijver who Elbaz oversees as his male counterpart.

This season Lanvin stormed Paris with a positively perfect Parisian spectacle. The trench, the evening dress, jewellery to cherish and covet, tailoring, jumpsuits, knotting, draping, lingerie detailing and embellishments all worked alongside a colour palate of rust, emerald, mustard, camel, coral and smoke whilst bows, ribbons, taffeta, chains, embroidery and Madame Grès style draping continued to place Lanvin in a whole world, decades away from many other labels.

Since his finale show at YSL back in the autumn of 2000, Alber Elbaz has continued to receive standing ovations and increasing numbers of fans, both male and female, for his creative force at Lanvin. Elbaz is a collector’s designer. That is to say his fans collect and add each season to their wardrobe. Lanvin has become a redefined label by a man with an enormous heart. It is hard to imagine Alber in the Israeli army during his teenage army service. Seeing him today sitting in his favourite chair in the bar at the Hotel de Crillon, it is impossible to imagine this man in army fatigues holding a gun. Alber Elbaz is such a gentle man who entered Paris and learnt his craft with the masters, a gift that he continues to pass on through his work at Lanvin to this day. We meet days after presenting the spring/summer collection for 2010 to discuss his role.

Natalia Vodianova in Lanvin by Alber Elbaz

Natalia Vodianova in Lanvin by Alber Elbaz, 2010. Photo by Paolo Roversi.

When did your love with fashion start?

l first fell in love fashion when l was about four or five. Sometimes the rush makes me not like it that much, because l want to have time to dream. l think it’s important to have time to dream and time to think. A lot of designers are now having the press ask if they can come and film their work. They always want to come three days before the show when all the models are there and all we have left to do is comment on whether a dress is too long or too short. But that is not what we do for a living, that’s the end of the whole process.

How do you first approach designing a collection?

For me everything starts with major research about different subjects. l don’t really do research in flea markets, l prefer to do research in libraries. I don’t travel for inspiration either because l find most of the time traveling kills the dream. You have this fantasy that if you travel to Russia for instance, you will see Anna Karenina throwing herself off the train station, but when you arrive you see she is no longer there and there is something else there instead. A lot of the time I don’t find it inspiring. I need time to think on a silhouette and colour before I do the bags. I need to know where the bags are going, this way or that way, and how the women would like to hold their bags. That’s how it develops. Then with the jewellery it’s about what kind of jewellery I want to have this season and why. The ‘why’ is important to me because I am not an intellectual, I wish I was, but I’m not. I don’t work with intellect, I work with intuition and instinct and because of that it is always a bombardment of emotion. My studio ask me, ‘Why do you think this is what you want to do?’ And I don’t have a reason.

How do you cope with the emotion?

My work is all very emotional. Everything makes me either very happy or very sad. Or very nervous or very relaxed. People say that when you have a life like mine you have to be like Liz Taylor, you can’t be like Greta Garbo, it is all too emotional. It’s not like it’s getting easier every season, you don’t get used to the pain, you don’t get used to the process; it comes and goes. It’s almost like having flu, we should know how to solve the problem but we still don’t.

Do you worry that with the rise of the blogger and increased backstage access, the mystery of fashion is being taken away?

There is less and less mystery in our business. All around the world now is the feeling that all it takes to be a designer is to be famous. A lot of designers are indeed famous but just because you are famous does not mean you can be a designer. My teacher in kindergarten used to say that a rabbit has two ears but not everyone that has two ears is a rabbit. You can buy botox, you can buy boobs, you can buy silicone but you cannot buy muscles, they are something that you have to train and work hard for. I can tell you this because I am working for that and it doesn’t come easily. And it is the same for design or art; you have to practice. You can’t just say ‘I’m going to be a designer’. In order to be a designer, you have to understand the lifestyle and the construction and know the process and the secrets of the industry. First you must go through the process of making coffee for everyone, then lunch for everyone and then working in the industry, starting to do something with a needle and a thread. Not everything is instant, not everything is about rapidity. Rapidity is something that is suddenly in everything; it’s everywhere. But is it right or wrong? What does the Internet do to our design? I don’t do the Internet, I don’t even do email. If clothes look beautiful on the hangers they won’t necessarily look beautiful on the body. And that which may not look good on the hanger, may look good on the body. Mr. Geoffrey Beene once told me that fashion is not what’s on the back or the front of a coat but what’s in between.

Was Geoffrey Beene your mentor?

He was my mentor and he is my mentor. I have been very lucky to work with two of the best designers in the world. I went through the old fashion way of training, next to masters. Both Mr. Beene and Mr. Saint Laurent are people I could observe, a beautiful diffusion. We are lucky in fashion, we can wake-up in the morning, we can have a dream or a fantasy and then we have a team of people around us who realise those dreams. I don’t think many people in other domains have that. To meet people like Irving Penn was beautiful, it was maybe six years ago; it was a photo shoot that I was doing. They all prepared me, they told me I had to be at all these places at these exact times, and not to talk too much, and then I saw him in a white shirt, almost like a doctor. I have a fascination with doctors so I hugged him. He looked at me and he said, ‘Alber, nobody hugs me’. It’s like when Michelle Obama was hugging the Queen and it was fabulous. I’m sure that she wanted to hug the Queen and I’m sure the Queen needed to be hugged. That’s the power of the human touch, you see. That’s what I’m saying when I’m talking about emotions. It was fabulous, we spoke for three or four hours, we talked and talked and talked and he took me to this room, and it was just him and me and we did the session. I remember after I received the photo, I sent a copy to my mother and she said to me, ‘Why do you look so sad and afraid?’ I felt like Irving had actually captured my soul and that’s what the photo was all about. And we kissed when I left.

“Constant worrying is a curse and a blessing for a designer, because on one hand we are always having a panic attack but on the other hand it makes us go forward.”

How old were you when you worked for Yves Saint Laurent?

I was around 37. One day after my work at Guy Laroche, Mr. Bergé called me up and said that Mr. Laurent wanted to see me. I asked what about and he said ‘we want you to come and work for Mr. Saint Laurent. He wants to leave Rive Gauche and concentrate on Couture.’ So he wanted me to take over Rive Gauche. It was almost inspirational, when the dream is no longer a dream. I had some very good times and I also had some very emotional times when another company bought Yves Saint Laurent and they wanted to buy my job. Life is full of surprises and I believe in karma and destiny. Sometimes life is painful, it’s not all easy and fabulous and grand, but we have to go through these processes and later understand that maybe there was a reason for this. I have a friend that found out she was very sick and she was in hospital. She bought lots of jewellery and diamond rings and every time she felt painful she looked at the diamond and she would feel better. Now when I go to parties and I see women wearing a lot of diamonds, I know it hurts somewhere. I’m killing the diamond industry but it helps the pain go away.

You’ve done an amazing job at Lanvin.

Thank you. I thought about how I can make it happen. What can be done, how I can make it happen and with whom I can do it?

You seem to have been given total freedom?

Yes, totally correct. I would not be able to do this job if I didn’t have freedom and the feeling of total love from the people around me. Everything is very personal and I take everything very much to heart. This position wasn’t just given to me; I’ve worked very hard to do what I do. When they saw that my vision worked one time they gave me another opportunity to do another project and then another one, the same was true for the men’s collection. I had been asked to work on a men’s collection for a while but I didn’t ever feel the time was right. I knew I had to take more time on it. After I realised a certain direction for women, I realised there was a DNA for men. It was not about designing a shirt or a jacket or a tuxedo, it was about defining French men. It wasn’t about English men or Italian men; it was about the French. So that’s what I tried to do, to get that French-ness into the men’s collection.

Natalia Vodianova in Lanvin by Alber Elbaz. .png

Natalia Vodianova in Lanvin by Alber Elbaz, 2010. Photo by Paolo Roversi.

How would you define the French man today?

Everybody is still a little bit confused about French men.I have a lot of friends around the world, my age, older and younger and they always tell me, ‘We don’t just want a suit anymore, we want a nice tuxedo that’s a bit different’. They want their clothes to keep being practical and pragmatic but to have something else as well, something with a little more emotion.

How did you capture this emotion?

I started with the relationship between a fashion-loving mother and how she would project this onto her son. I wanted to have a house that had one vision, not separate ones for the man and the woman, but yet I wanted to give freedom to the team and Lucas [Ossendrijver, menswear designer at Lanvin]. I come in during the beginning of the process, at the middle and at the end with Lucas. We work on the whole process together. I know what I’m giving and I know that I’m part of it. I thought in the first menswear collection, the man was maybe a little too feminine. Four years later I see that women are getting stronger and more on top of everything and men are becoming more pretty. I’m asking, ‘how does that happen’? Why does that happen? I know that in medicine and in law school now it is like 80% women. It’s all about waves. I began to understand that when I started seeing straight men in the gym that used to wear white T-shirts and shorts now wearing pink body suits and yellow sneakers and it was totally ok to do that. It’s ok now for women to fall in love with younger men. A friend of mine was saying to me, ‘I see so many women fall for younger men now and vice versa, and the reason is that they are lonely’. There is no longevity anymore, yes there is a physical thing, and again it’s something you don’t buy, its something you have to work for. She talked about loneliness, I wanted to talk about sex and she wanted to talk about loneliness. It was about individual women, it wasn’t about models. It was about different women. I started with that for the last collection, working with the idea of the synonymous woman. When I started eight years ago I think women were much more fragile and delicate but now they’re becoming sharper and tougher, or at least they pretend that’s the case, they might go home and collapse and cry, I don’t know! Here goes the suit and here goes all the collapsing dresses, that was my interpretation of the women’s lifestyle, to have a suit that then turns into a dress, to take all these parts that are made by men’s tailors, to take the sleeves or to take the back. How you turn something that is square into something rounded, it’s all part of the construction. Then the second part was about dresses that all fall apart.

What is your relationship like with your mother?

Fabulous. Every man somewhat resembles their mother. For a long time I thought about the relationship between a woman and her son. You see a boy wearing a grey Gap sweatshirt and jeans but he will have red glasses on and pink socks. These are hidden things a mother buys her son but she would prefer nobody sees it and it would be hidden. My mother is both my biggest fan and my biggest critic, but more often a critic. From a design perspective I always need a story and one time she asked me ‘What are you doing?’ and I said, ‘I have no idea’, so she said ‘What kind of a designer are you?’ There was love and that was more important, so she didn’t have to be a fan she just had to be a mother. She passed away a year and a half ago and one of the last things she said to me was, ‘Alber, I wish you to be big and small. Be big in your job but remain small and modest in your person.’ That was the best thing that she could have said. I believe this is what I am.

Where did your love affair with the bow tie begin?

I have no idea. Maybe because it helps to take some attention away from my face, I don’t know!

Tell us about your creative process…

I’m not a normal Creative Director doing this and that, saying we should go for ‘pink’ this season or ‘Russian’ the next. I have to be in the kitchen. I have to smell the food. I have to taste it. That’s how everybody at Lanvin works and I hope it shows. Even working on our window displays, there is something about working on them that I love. I used to call my mother and be like ‘Mother, I’m so tired’ and she’d ask ‘Why’ and I’d explain, ‘Oh, because I’ve been working on the windows’ and she always used to say ‘Have someone else do the windows’. But I can’t; it’s part of the job I really enjoy. It’s part of the story I’m telling. When you bring your best into something you can really tell. Every time I work on a collection I hope it shows for everyone around me who work long days and nights and neglect their family for the collection. We are trying; we are not that big, we are human size. We work together and maybe it is one of the last family-houses in this industry.

“If clothes look beautiful on the hangers they won’t necessarily look beautiful on the body. And that which may not look good on the hanger, may look good on the body. Mr. Geoffrey Beene once told me that fashion is not what’s on the back or the front of a coat but what’s in between.”

How many people are in your team?

In the studio, between the different offices, the accessories, the commercial side, and the atelier I would say… I don’t know exactly. But I do know everyone by name and I know everybody’s stories. When I know that I feel as beautiful as the Queen of England.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I do very little outside of work because I have very little time. At 10 o’clock in the evening when I get home there is not much I want to do. When I am done I need to rest. My whole day is so hectic, spent running around, that I maintain a very, very simple life. You rarely see me at parties, at openings or at closings; I don’t do that. I used to but I have no time or patience anymore. Paris is not New York. In Paris you can’t get everything from the supermarket, you have to go to like seven stores; it has to be a passion. When I get home I don’t have the energy, it’s almost like I’m wasting the energy of my life in the office, all day long. You have to think and you have to come up with solutions, yes you have an idea and you have a direction you want to go but there are many things that hold you back. So when I come home I am mentally exhausted. Sometimes I feel I have to take a taxi from my living room to the bedroom. My brain is so tired. Therefore I need to lead a very simple and basic personal life. This is what allows the mix of reality and fantasy to the essence of my design. On one hand it is all about fantasy and imagination, then you have a sense of reality when you have to ask yourself what will women really want a year away from today.

Natalia Vodianova in Lanvin by Alber Elbaz.

Natalia Vodianova in Lanvin by Alber Elbaz, 2010. Photo by Paolo Roversi.

Do you have a muse?

I have women I have met at the stores who I travel with a lot. In London, for instance, we have 50 women and we talk about fashion and about diet and suits. I love women. They surround me and I feel very good with them. So I talk to them about what we’re doing and about why we’re doing it. The men and women that I work with explain to me that even after all these years they still have a migraine at the end of the day. They have to come up with solutions and new ideas all the time. When I go downstairs to the atelier I feel like I am going into the laboratory and in the atelier I feel like a doctor surrounded by nurses and it’s fabulous.

Has the recession changed the way you think about what you do?

Absolutely. When September 11th happened I got a phone call from a journalist asking me how it would inspire me and l replied that l didn’t think it would inspire me at all. So then he asked what I had learnt from September 11th and I said, ‘I think America discovered fragility again,’ and now we talk about this horrible time when a lot of people are losing their jobs. I am not a businessman, I don’t think in numbers, but I do understand that people are losing their jobs and that people cannot afford to buy the things that they could before. I think that everybody is talking about values… It has to be more emotional and l have been making more emotional clothes.

What do you mean by ‘more emotional’?

I think at the end of the day you have to go into beautiful, it’s no longer enough to work around the box; you have to make a beautiful product. I think there is a huge danger that we will have to cut prices and not use all the fabrics coming from Milan. There are the people who have the know how, people who have the secret, they have the secret and if we cut them today there will be no replacement in the future. I think it is very dangerous. What we have done is to maybe shrink that part a little but we still do the collection with the best people in the world, l didn’t want to compromise. It’s still handwork and it’s still the best manufacturers of knitwear and fabrics and jewellery and its almost like they create like there’s no tomorrow. But this time we made it a little bit smaller and l designed these capsules and all the capsules are based on need and desire and l thought instead of everyone coming to Lanvin just to find the latest trend of the second, maybe l will start making a denim collection. Then l arrived at these prices that are $300 maybe $400 for just one pair of jeans and l would work with a company that have the know how and then l will work over a weekend, what l will do over the weekend is take all the pieces we have made in the past and rework them with another factory, another way of producing them, so instead of having another company copying Lanvin we are copying ourselves for better prices. Then l got this feeling that a lot of women l know just want a white shirt and a black jacket, so l started to work with a factory that specialises in just that. Then l was a little more concerned about prices and fabrics so l did a collection all about jerseys and T-shirts. l developed a line of T-shirts and then l sent it to this company and asked for a jersey pattern and we tried it out with a few fittings and then we had this discussion about whether it was right or wrong to have a few items made in Paris, is it luxury or are we killing luxury? I thought if a woman in India did it or if a woman in France did it, as long as it is done with love then it is ok.

If it is made with love and for the right price?

Exactly, so now we have T-shirts. The last collection had all these embroidered dresses and l loved them. They had two dresses in one, two dresses for indecisive women who couldn’t decide if they wanted the blue dress or the yellow dress or the red one, so here they are both together. Then in order to make them more accessible we decided to do a line of T-shirts using the same embroidery. I thought this was great; again it’s about thinking about the high and also the low. This is the essence of fashion, thinking and feeling but then l had to think a little more, l had to try and make it more about women who would love to have it but cannot actually afford it and yet l don’t believe in secondary lines. You do not want to be the second wife; you want to be the first one. Therefore l decided I will work on different price ranges and collections, different collections that are not based on marketing but upon need and when it is based on need it is easier.

“What is beautiful for you may not be beautiful to someone else. Or whatever is beautiful here may not be beautiful there and what is sometimes beautiful today is not necessarily beautiful tomorrow. Perhaps this is the story of fashion and what makes fashion move forward, the fact that there is no decision whatsoever with what’s wrong.”

How do you define style?

You can’t define style. It’s like defining the perfume of someone you love, you can’t. The scent of the person is part of the scent.

Is it the same when you talk about beauty?

It is the same. What is beautiful for you may not be beautiful to someone else. Or whatever is beautiful here may not be beautiful there and what is sometimes beautiful today is not necessarily beautiful tomorrow. Perhaps this is the story of fashion and what makes fashion move forward, the fact that there is no decision whatsoever with what’s wrong.

Have you always been a worrier, even as a child?

Yes. I worry about everything, l take everything really seriously, nothing is half way. I either do it or l don’t. l either love it or l don’t. I don’t know how to do it in the middle. My partner Alex is good at being in the middle. Constant worrying is a curse and a blessing for a designer, because on one hand we are always having a panic attack but on the other hand it makes us go forward. If l thought l was fabulous l would be in The Bahamas the day after a show.

I can’t believe that you buy fabrics for the next season straight after the show.

It’s not just today, l started on Monday.

How do you find the space in your head to move on so quickly?

I don’t, but that’s exactly what l think are the terms of so- called fashion. You think about creativity and you think that you have to find direction and you have to find stories and it has to be directional, yet all of that you have to put aside because if you do not know the fabrics now, you will not be able to deliver a collection at the end of December, because in two months from now l have to come up with a whole list of new categories for a whole new collection!

So the fabric always comes first?

The fabric comes before l even know where l am going. It is as if l were an architect and l needed to buy all the materials to build a building without any idea of what kind of building l was going to build!

Is that the order in which a lot of designers work?

Yes, a lot of us. One thing you really don’t want to do straight after a show is go back into work. What l really want to do after the shows is lie in bed with my PJ’s on, eating soup and reading trashy magazines, watching movies and sleeping, just sleeping. Yet this season l couldn’t even do that because my sisters were here and l had to go out with them. Then l went to the office and started all over again.

When do you find the time to relax?

Relaxing is a dangerous time for me. Every time l go away for a long weekend l get sick. I went to Marrakech recently and l thought, ‘Wow it’s so beautiful’, but l ended up in the hospital with kidney stones! Why did those stones come in Marrakech and not back home when I am near to all my doctors? I think my metabolism must work around the fashion calendar. Fashion is all about working on adrenaline and the moment you stop, everything stops with you.

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