The Ebullient One

Obituary | Alber Elbaz, considered one of the most likeable designers in the business, will always be remembered for turning around the fusty house of Lanvin

Alber Elbaz succumbed to complications due to COVID-19, as reported by The New York Times, quoting a statement issued by Richemont, the Swiss luxury group that backed Mr Elbaz’s latest venture AZ Factory. He was 59. The fashion designer died in the American Hospital in Paris, the same institution where Kenzo Takada too died from COVID-19 in October last year. According to Israeli media, Mr Elbaz was “infected with the South African COVID variant despite being fully vaccinated”. Poised for a major comeback in January, the Moroccan-born Israeli designer was once a major force of fashion when he held the design directorship at Lanvin, ushering an era of unabashed elegance tinged with fun and sometimes (subtle) irreverence for the more-than-a-decade-old French house. Women adored his clothes. Meryl Streep, who wore a gold Lanvin dress in 2012 to receive the Oscar for her role as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, later told Vogue, “Alber’s dresses for Lanvin are the only ones that, when I wear them, I feel like myself, or even a better version of her.”

Born in Casablanca in 1961 to Jewish parents—a hairdresser father and painter mother, Albert Elbaz (he later dropped the T from his first name, apparently to ensure the right pronunciation in French) immigrated to Israel with his family when he was 10. As he recounted, he started drawing dresses when he was seven. Dana Thomas told British Vogue that he said to her, “I would sketch women—queens, nurses, women in pictures… It’s funny—a lot of what I’m doing now, I did then.” But he did not pursue that path—at least not as soon as he was old enough. After national service with the Israel Defence Forces (“I had asthma, so they put me in charge of the entertainment of the soldiers,” he once told Sarah Mower), Mr Elbaz enrolled at the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design in Ramat Gan (a city in the district of Tel Aviv) to study design. He was close to his mother (his father died when he was 13) and with her blessing and financial support of US$800, left for New York in 1985, a month after his graduation, to pursue a career in fashion.

The finale of the AZ Factory spring/summer 2021 video-show. Screen grab: AZ Factory/Youtube

When in New York, Mr Elbaz began in an unnamed dressmaker’s shop in the Garment District. Some accounts thought that to be a bridal fashion house. He held that job—designing eveningwear—for two and half years. According to fashion lore, he met Dawn Mello who introduced him to Geoffrey Beene in 1989. But Mr Elbaz told Ms Thomas that it was his boyfriend who introduced him to the American couturier. He was offered a job as assistant after a ten-minute interview with Mr Beene, and he remained for seven-and-half years. Mr Elbaz always credited everything he had learned to Mr Beene, as well as everything about designing. In 2012, he said, “I was very much into design because I came from the house of Geoffrey Beene, which was all about design, and then we pushed it also to desire, to women, to reality, to be relevant.” In addition, what he admired there, remained with him forever: “the inside and the outside (of the clothes) were as beautiful—that the back and the front were as important.”

In 1996 (some reports state 1997), Mr Elbaz moved to Paris, where his first appointment was at the house of Guy Laroche, then looking unmistakably staid, unlike its heydays in the ’60s. The Observer declared in a 1998 headline that Mr Elbaz would be the “man who’ll put Guy Laroche back in your closet.” Suzy Menkes, then writing for The International Herald Tribune, enthused earlier that “(Mr. Elbaz) blew out the dust of the (Guy Laroche) couture house with a show that was spring clean.” But, as the designer himself said, “I didn’t forget that Guy Laroche’s customers can be, like, 75 years old and they like pink, bouclé and gold buttons.” But he would be at Guy Laroche for a mere two years. With Yves Saint Laurent, who also grew up in North Africa, retiring from prêt-à-porter, he was installed by Pierre Berger as YSL’s creative director in 1998. Many observers considered the appointment “a perfect fit”. This time, the tenure was similarly short. Just after three seasons, he was ousted when Gucci, then headed by Domenico de Sole, took over the brand and Tom Ford installed himself as the designer.

Alber Elbaz with is adorable sketches in his AZ Factory office. Photo: AZ Factory/Richemont

But it was at Lanvin where the world really saw and enjoyed his groove. Mr Elbaz joined what is considered the oldest operational French couture house in 2001. He brought to Lanvin a romance that was slipping the grip of fashion at that time. But Mr Elbaz preferred not to call it romance, saying to WWD in 2014, “I work mostly by intuition. Every time I think too much and try to rationalize every issue, it doesn’t work. I think that intuition is the essence of this métier.” The clothes—often draped—were designed for real occasions, during a time when the right clothes for those occasions still mattered. Memorable are the hyper-feminine details, such as ruffles and flounces, and the edgier, such as visible zips, and exposed and unfinished hems and seams, as well as costume jewellery set on or fastened with grosgrain ribbons. For menswear, which he oversaw the work of Lucas Ossendrijver, formerly Hedi Slimane’s assistant at Dior Homme, Mr Elbaz was one of the earliest adopters of athleisure and creators of luxury sneakers. So noted he was and so red-hot Lanvin was that in 2010, the French brand collaborated with H&M for a collection that sold out. Those who queued for a go at scoring a piece would remember.

When Mr Elbaz departed from Lanvin in November 2015, he left the fashion world quite in shock. His sudden parting was also mired in rumours of the breakdown of relationship with Lanvin owner, the Taiwanese media doyenne Wang Shaw Lan (王效蘭). He quit, it was initially reported and believed. But according to a New York Times editorial later, Mr Elbaz sat “at his home in Paris reading a letter from Lanvin telling him not to come into the office, because he had been fired.” Ms Wang had quite a reputation then as a formidable business woman. In August 2001, through her holding company Harmonie SA, she led a group of investors to acquire Lanvin from L’Oréal Group. Old-school and used to getting her way, she was described as “autocratic” and as China’s Jing Daily once wrote, “Even though the company has a clear executive structure, it was not surprising that she was willing to circumvent it.”

Lanvin spring/summer 2016, Alber Elbaz’s last collection for the house. Screen grab: FF Channel/YouTube

Sudden firings in the ateliers of luxury fashion was not new that year. Eleven months earlier, Gucci’s Frida Giannini was asked to leave and was replaced by Alessandro Michele. But Mr Elbaz’s termination was thought by industry folks and Lanvin customers to be especially unjust and undue. That Mr Elbaz was well liked by the many who knew him made the very public corporate divorce uglier on the side of the hirer, rather than the hired. After the acrimonious exit of Mr Elbaz, Lanvin reported its first annual loss in a decade. No one was surprised. The brand would subsequently only see a series of creative directors who failed to bring back the glory days of the Lanvin. It was finally sold to Forsun Fashion, part of China’s Fosun Group, also owner of St John and Wolford; it was their first acquisition of a key luxury brand. Lanvin’s current creative director is Frenchman Bruno Sialelli, former head of menswear at Loewe and womenswear at Paco Rabanne.

Post-Lanvin, Mr Elbaz said he would like to take an extended hiatus and travel. But he did collaborate with others, including the French parfumeur Frederick Malle on a fragrance called—oddly (or, perhaps, cheekily)—Superstitious. There was also a project with Tods, as well as a one-off with the Japanese-owned American bag brand LeSportsac. While acknowledged as a true talent, it surprised many that Mr Elbaz was not snapped up by a major house. Or that he and his life partner of more than two decades, Alex Koo, who had worked with Mr Elbaz in Lanvin as merchandising director, did not start their own label. But in 2019, it was reported that he was conceptualising a new brand that would be called AZ Factory. Richemont, the conglomerate that has Cartier, Chloé, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Yoox Net-a-Porter Group in its stable of brands was to back it. In January, AZ Factory was launched during Paris Couture Week to warm response, with many expecting more from the new label. Unlike the luxury brands he was associated with before, AZ Factory would be modelled as see-now-buy-now, and would be available from size XXS to XXXXL, and in what was thought to be accessible price points, which seemed so distant from how exclusive and costly Lanvin was (and is). In 2009, he explained to The New Yorker why his designs for Lanvin were expensive. “It’s so much work,” he said. “Doing a collection for me is almost like creating a vaccine.” Was Alber Elbaz really being prescient?

Illustration: Just So

Rudderless: So This Is What It Looks Like When A Fashion House Has No Design Director

Dior AW 2016 finaleFinale at the Dior autumn/winter 2016 show. Photo: DiorTV

Whatever you feel about Saint Laurent’s latest collection, there’s no denying Hedi Slimane is focused. You take away a clear picture, knowing what he wanted to do, where he wanted to take you to. So much of the autumn/winter Paris collections is wearyingly obsessed with wearability—no doubt an approach first popularised by Mr Slimane, but was really there all along at Chanel—and multiplicity that it was all as confusing and forgettable as the “Front Row Only” Chanel show with its staggering 93 looks (90, if you discount the 3 men’s outfits).

So it is really not surprising, even if we risk sounding picayune, that the two, storied French houses left without a captain would steer their respective collections rather without a rudder. Sure, the design team took over, but you sense that different people were tasked with different parts of the collection, and no one was savvy enough to edit or ensure that there would be some unity in the line. There seems to be a belief that if you put out instantly wearable clothes with a certain mood that may be evocative of the past or a certain designer, such as the last one holding fort at the house, you’ll be good to go. After all, when a house is in transition (or disruption), people would understand.

Dior AW 2016 G1Dior autumn/winter 2016/17. Photos: Dior

At Dior, it was a Bill Gaytten moment: spring/summer 2012 season, just after John Galliano was unceremoniously dismissed. While, to be fair, the present interim collection has tried to stick to the house codes, it is undeniably safe and sane, posh and pretty. It couldn’t be other way, some sympathised. To be sure, these are not appetite-churning clothes, but they seem so disconnected with what’s happening in Paris, so different from the gentle rebellion led by brands such as Vetements and Jacquemus, so unable to redefine the Dior aesthetic beyond the Bar jacket and lady-like silhouette.

The design team proves that it’s hard to do Raf Simon’s Dior without Raf Simons. It’s even harder to duplicate Mr Simon’s sense of ethereal beauty with youthful edge. They’ve kept the pop of colour under dark suits, the floral fabrics shaped sensuously, the swing coats, but, strangely, they’ve omitted pants—those calf-length trousers that Cathy Horyn once said was not Mr Simons’s strength when he was at Jil Sander, but was beautifully refined by the pattern makers at Dior. It won’t be a surprise if the clothes sell, but it may not be those discerning women buy to keep.

Lanvin AW 2016 G1Lanvin autumn/winter 2016/17. Photos Lanvin

At Lanvin, as at Dior, it is very likely the design team tried hard, but here’s the predicament: it looks like they did try very hard. It’s not immediately obvious they intended to build on Alber Elbaz’s legacy—14 years, no less. Probably not, since the parting of designer and house was not, by many accounts, terribly amicable. Mr Elbaz had the knack for tempering overtly feminine flourishes with elements that are not encouraged in traditional dressmaking such as unfinished edges. However tai-tai his aesthetic got, it was usually balanced by the designer’s sense of humour and considerable wit.

Instead, these are clothes that trump propriety, good design sense and, what are believed to constitute French elegance and savoir faire: the silk satin dress and her lovely cousin in silk chiffon; the one-sleeve dress that is almost synonymous to Alber Elbaz; the flounces, ruffles and peplums that are, hitherto, crowd-pleasers. These are clothes that will look right in a rich woman’s wardrobe, save perhaps the calf-length coats with elongated contrasting lapels, a cumbersome-looking outer if there ever was one. Of the manifold variety of styles at Lanvin, quite a few will score with Chinese mistresses who must look womanly and kept.