“Did Mr. Beene change your life?” Alber Elbaz and I are sitting at a corner table in the Mercer Kitchen; it’s the height of Saturday brunch, and it seems that the ultra-hip Soho hotel rests at the crossroads of the world, given how many people are stopping by to greet the designer, highly recognizable thanks to his cherubic, teddy-bear looks. I’m always a little delighted by this dichotomy, the notion of this sweet, huggable man who creates some of the most intellectual, artful clothes one can view on a runway today.

Elbaz has helmed Lanvin as its creative director since 2001, and during his tenure has quite literally transformed the historic Paris house into one of the world’s most soughtafter labels, a feat to which only a handful of other designers—Lagerfeld, Galliano, Ghesquière—can attest. Add in the rhapsodic reviews from editors—“genius” and “triumph” are two words oft-applied to his current Fall collection—and it’s clear the 48-year-old Elbaz enjoys a sort of Teflon reputation at present, all the more remarkable when you consider that for several seasons he has led the charge in changing the consumer mind-set about a garment’s construction and its overarching modernity. Which makes the question extremely relevant:

“Did Mr. Beene change your life?”

I’ve pulled up a photo on my iPod, and Elbaz’s face softens as he looks at the image, which highlights the sinewy back of a model, her alabaster skin adorned with a meticulously planned network of delicate black straps layered with a gossamer fabric I have not yet identified. “Oh, I remember this dress—horsehair and tulle,” he says, drawing the last word out slowly, as though recalling that particular design in his mind’s eye. “This was 1995, yes, while I was with Mr. Beene. I worked with him on this dress.”

Runway styles from Lanvin's Fall/Winter 2010 collection.

It’s difficult to envision a designer more celebrated in the 1990s for both his keen artistry and technical skill than Geoffrey Beene; no one knew this more than Elbaz, who had been toiling away in a mother-of-thebride house during his first two years in New York (the Moroccan-born, Israeli-raised Elbaz had emigrated to the US in 1987). “America was very good to me, but after a couple of years, I thought, My dream is not fulfilled; is this why I came here?” he remembers. “Then I was introduced to someone who introduced me to someone else who said they were looking for a designer for Gucci. But after a few minutes she said, ‘No, Alber, you have to work for Geoffrey Beene.’ And that was Dawn Mello, who had been president of Bergdorf and at this point was with Gucci. I said, ‘Miss Mello, I’ve tried calling, and I can’t get past the receptionist.’ It was a Monday evening, and she made a phone call; by Tuesday at 8:45 in the morning, I was there for the interview, and 10 minutes later Mr. Beene hired me.”

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