Women's Fashion

More Mister Nice Guy

His work does not change radically from season to season, and women of all sizes adore his clothes. Lanvin’s Alber Elbaz talks to Vanessa Friedman about the importance of self-doubt – and kindness.

September 28 2011
Vanessa Friedman

Last March, when John Galliano began his long slide into ignominy and it was announced that he was leaving Christian Dior, Fashion first cried foul, and then mourned, and then, because it has the attention span of a six-month-old child, began to speculate on who would get the job.

Actually, there wasn’t much speculation involved: in an industry normally ripe with discord (hemlines are high! No, they are low! Girlish is in! No, minimalism!) there was a striking consensus to the conversation. “Well, Alber will get it, don’t you think?” “They want Alber to do it.” “Alber is top of the list.” And so on.

“Alber” is, of course, Alber Elbaz, artistic director of Lanvin since 2001, Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, winner of the Council of Fashion Designers of America International Award, one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2007 – all around perennial top of the list. According to the fashion and luxury industry headhunter Floriane de Saint Pierre, who originally brought Elbaz to Europe in 1997 to take on Guy Laroche (he had been working as the first assistant of famous New York designer Geoffrey Beene), “He is now the natural choice for everyone when they need to fill a creative director post. He has proved he can make money with ready-to-wear, he can do menswear, he can do accessories, he has a point of view. He is a true creative director, which is a job that demands not just talent and expertise, but vision.”

Even Elbaz says, “whenever there’s a job opening, they start talking about me. I don’t really understand it. Is it because they think Lanvin is too small for me? Or I am too big? I asked a friend once, and he said, ‘Alber, maybe it’s because you are so good.’”

At this Elbaz, who recently turned 50 and resembles a cartoon Charlie Chaplin (he is very round, always wears dark suits, often with a bow tie or a thin scarf at the neck, and stands with his feet splayed), shakes his head. “It’s funny for me to hear,” he says, “because I come from the opposite side of things. I always think I am so bad.”

This sort of statement is vintage Elbaz, and though it can seem disingenuous – how can someone who routinely gets reviews calling him a “genius”, who sends editors out of his shows “feeling ecstatic”; someone whose fans include everyone from Tilda Swinton to Natalie Portman to Michelle Obama, think he is bad? – it actually gets to the heart of the Elbaz appeal.

At a time when the gilded cages of designers seem to be sequestering them further and further away from reality, the fact that Elbaz is so articulate about his own neuroses is key to his success. If every designer ultimately creates a public role for themselves – Tom Ford is the stubbled sex god; Rick Owens, the punk; John Galliano, the eccentric genius; Stella McCartney, the coolest girl next door – Elbaz is the angst-ridden, empathetic best friend; the one with whom you want to share a tub of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie. You can tell him your problems, and he will tell you the story about when he had a willow tree recreated for his last runway show. He saw it, and “hated it. I thought it looked like a bush, and the girls looked like they were running out of the bush, and then I started questioning myself and my judgment, but I said to myself, ‘You can take it away’, and I felt better, and I started to take bits off, so it looked more like a tree and not so much like a bush and, even though I still didn’t really like it, I felt the only place I really wanted to be was under the tree and so I knew I had to leave it, because even though I was devastated that everyone would be coming to my show after the Galliano show, I thought we would all be looking for a sensation of protection.”

He really does talk like that.

As he says, “I hate everything I did yesterday. I have to; otherwise how would I have the energy and drive to do something today?” He also says the motto of his life was coined by his mother (with whom he was very close, and who died in 2008): “Be both big and small.” Do not, in other words, be afraid to dream big, but also never forget you are just a man. Though Elbaz says this so often it can start to seem trite (when you have read the 50th interview and he has trotted out the same idea, it’s hard not to think it’s a line), he clearly means what he says. It’s not his fault that suddenly everyone else wants to hear it.

“He has created a unique business model,” says Jeffrey Kalinsky, executive vice-president of designer merchandising for Nordstrom and founder of New York and Atlanta boutiques Jeffrey, referring to the fact that Elbaz is a designer who works in the old-fashioned hands-on way and makes real money in the modern fashion industry doing it. According to chief executive Thierry Andretta, Lanvin not only posted revenues of €168m last year – up 28 per cent on the previous year – but has actually experienced the highest same-store revenue growth in the sector, up 32 per cent. It has 27 directly owned stores around the world, around 25 franchises and more than 730 points of sale – and is debt-free. At Harrods, says fashion and beauty director Marigay McKee, the Lanvin order has grown threefold in the past five years in ready-to-wear and tenfold in accessories, which means that it is now “one of the most important brands in the store”. Beyond that, she says, “We buy in a wide range of sizes, from a 34 to a 44. The same dress! And that is very, very unusual.” At Lanvin, Elbaz has, in effect, not only raised niceness to a high art, but also monetised it.

Not that he would put it that way, however. What he might say is that he is a Gemini and he has learnt to live with contradiction. “I think there are two kinds of designers,” says Elbaz: “the kind who add things and the kind who take them away. I start with a lot, and then I start taking things off.” He has effectively created his own aesthetic – as McKee says, “Lanvin never looks like anything else” – which combines extreme decoration with great ease. Though seductive, his designs are never overtly sexy, so that, for example, as in this autumn/winter’s collection, a ribbed one-shoulder sweater dress might be finished by an enormous silk gazar flounce at the neck (£1,980) or a peach silk dress might have its entire top made up of one graceful drape (£2,330).

Because of his own struggles with weight, which are public and frustrating, Elbaz designs clothes that make a woman feel beautiful, “but are never challenging”, says 40-something McKee. “I wear them when I want to be chic and understated. In fact, for the past three years I have worn Lanvin on New Year’s Eve.” Elbaz himself says nothing makes him happier than when “a friend calls me and says, ‘Alber, I am wearing your dress to divorce court because it gives me the strength to face my ex and his lawyers’.” (Conversely, he found it difficult to deal with the fact that his friends threw him a big birthday party for his 50th; he likes to be the host, not the one being honoured, which is another way of saying he likes to take care of people and has a hard time letting them take care of him.) As a result, according to Kalinsky, “there is no specific Lanvin customer, because everyone is potentially a Lanvin customer”. And everyone is potentially always a Lanvin customer, for though fashion is a seasonal industry, Elbaz’s work does not change dramatically from autumn to spring, year to year. “People build their wardrobe out of Lanvin staples,” says McKee. “They get a piece a season, and they can always get what they want.”

“He has a super-long-term approach to making fashion,” says Andretta. But that is the point about Lanvin: it nullifies the entire debate about art and commerce. Because, says Kalinsky, “Alber mixes art and commerce naturally, you realise there doesn’t have to be a conflict between the two”. Yet, says Elbaz, “I don’t do anything because it is commercial! What does that mean? That it is cheap? Generic? Familiar? Commercial should just mean something you love to have.”

In fact, what Elbaz has proven so convincingly is that by not being driven primarily by commercial concerns but by emotional ones, you can be enormously successful. He began the Lanvin wedding line, Blanche, because “so many friends were asking me to make them a wedding dress”. This season he is launching childrenswear for the same reason: women in his office asked for it (“There were 14 babies on my floor last year,” says Elbaz). Fashion is an emotional industry – people buy clothes because they love them or they think they will solve their problems – and if you tap that, the wallet will follow. As Andretta says, “Lots of people in the industry trust Alber,” and they trust him with both their bodies and their money. After all, he knows what it is to lose everything, and he never takes anything for granted.

Elbaz was born in Morocco to a hairdresser father and a painter mother, but they emigrated to Israel when he was a baby; his father died when he was a child. He studied at Shenkar College of Textile Technology and Fashion in Tel Aviv, and was encouraged to move to New York in 1985 by his mother; after a brief stint on Seventh Avenue, he was hired by couture and ready-to-wear house Geoffrey Beene. Seven years later, he was brought out of the shadows by Ralph Toledano, who lured him away to be creative director of Guy Laroche.

“I remember, before I even met him he made an impression on me,” says Toledano, who is still close to Alber – he calls him a “brother” – and still attends all Elbaz’s runway shows (and did so even when he was chief executive of rival brand Chloé). “He sent a letter, and it was on red stationery, with Alber at the top and Elbaz at the bottom, both in black, and I thought, ‘but why has he taken the “t” off Alber?’ And then I realised that both first and last name had five letters, and he was already thinking about what a label of his own might look like, if it ever happened. Then I met him and saw his portfolio; it was like a coup de foudre.”

Kalinsky, meanwhile, remembers coming back from the first showroom appointment after Elbaz had taken over at Guy Laroche. “At the time I had only one store, in Atlanta,” he says. “And I was hyperventilating about this collection, and wanted to buy the whole thing. And I did. And it sold.” Elbaz stayed at Guy Laroche two and a half years, until Pierre Bergé hand-picked him to to take over women’s ready-to-wear at Yves Saint Laurent, since Saint Laurent himself wanted to step back and concentrate on couture. “It was very hard,” says Toledano, “because we had such a partnership.” Elbaz said, in the official press release, that it was “the realisation of my life’s dream”.

Unfortunately, it soon turned into a nightmare: after three seasons, in 1999, Saint Laurent and Bergé decided they wanted to step back even further, and sold the company to Tom Ford and Domenico de Sole, who brought it into what was then Gucci Group; Ford himself decided he wanted to be the man at YSL, and Elbaz, for the first time in almost 20 years, was out of a job.

“I didn’t want to do fashion for a long time,” he says now. “And then I thought, after one and a half years in the desert, ‘What makes me happy? Actually, I like fashion: it is something you make that gives a sort of protection to people so they can leave home in the morning. It’s not about running from one red carpet to the next to prove you exist.’ But I also decided I’d only work with people I love, making things I loved. Because you can only make mistakes freely next to people you love, and mistakes are the way you move forward.”

In 2001 he started calling fashion people again and met Taiwanese media mogul Shaw-Lan Wang, who had recently bought Lanvin from L’Oréal and was looking for a designer; within 15 minutes, Elbaz was on board. “I intuitively thought I would like to be at a company owned by a woman,” Elbaz says. “And I liked that it was small and nimble, not a big titanic group.” He also liked that it was the oldest French couture house (founded by Jeanne Lanvin in 1889), yet had no modern identity to speak of. And he liked the logo – a stylised drawing of Jeanne Lanvin playing with her young daughter – and all the emotion and connection it represents. He feels the same connection, so that today, says Andretta, Lanvin “is synonymous with Alber. He touches everything.”

As Toledano says, “I have seen him get so much better over the years – so much more mature as a designer, and this is beyond the very high level where he began – but the man has also never changed.” Instead, he controls the pace of his own evolution.

There are no real titles at Lanvin – Elbaz calls it a “round table” – though there are now 11 different collections being produced, not including last November’s much-lauded foray into accessibility when Elbaz created a line a for H&M that sold out worldwide within six days (when long queues formed outside H&M stores on launch day, Andretta and Elbaz, in typical Lanvin fashion, asked the chain to offer tea to customers waiting outside in the cold). According to Andretta, Elbaz never asks anyone he works with to do something he won’t do himself – and similarly, when he asks a lot of the people he works with (and Lanvin is relatively small: there are only about 20 full-time employees in the womenswear ateliers), he also asks a lot of himself. “If they have to stay late, he is there with them,” says Andretta. “And he is the first one there in the morning.”

“He really cares about people,” says Toledano. “And they love him.” Compare this to the rumours of designers who go AWOL from the office, leaving collections to their teams to create, and you can understand why, when combined with the numbers and the reviews, Elbaz is top of the wish list.

But when asked if he’d thought about leaving Lanvin, Elbaz shakes his head. “How could I do that? The people who work there enable me to do what I do. They are my orchestra. I can’t say to them, ‘Oh, bye, Mummy’s leaving now.’”

Andretta thinks the company’s revenues can double or more in the next four to five years. In which time, Elbaz wants not just to take care of his brand and his women, but his industry too. “My dream is to unite all the designers of the world and create a union so we can all talk together,” he says. “Then we can see how to make the system better; how to better protect our creativity. You know, I felt terrible when they were saying I would replace Karl at Chanel. I wrote him a note apologising.

“There was a time in fashion when all the designers hated each other,” he continues. “But we have realised we are all in the same moment. We all go through the same pain of creation. I send them flowers before their show. I sent Marc [Jacobs] flowers, I sent Rick [Owens] flowers; I just got flowers from Stella [McCartney].”

He pauses. “Why not?” he says, and looks concerned for a moment. “It’s better that way, don’t you think?”