Deconstructing Alber Elbaz
By Laurie Brookins
How spontaneous was Elbaz’s appointment? Consider that initially he didn’t have a desk or, for that matter, any definable workspace. “They didn’t have a place for me, so they put me in this little dressing room, which was really a closet,” he remembers. “Later they moved me into the studio, and then a month later Mr. Beene moved me with him into his office. So for seven years I was next to him.”
It was here that Elbaz honed his craft, learning from the master of fit, cut and drape. Those early influences remain much in evidence in Elbaz’s Fall collection, in the matte stretch suits, seemingly molded to create volume around the shoulders and then tapering down through the hips; in the exquisite, toga-like drape of a pleated dress that is wholly modern, even as it evokes some of the notions conjured by Jeanne Lanvin in the 1920s; and in the origami-esque folds of fabric that flutter down from a one-shoulder sheath—sleek pieces all, punctuated by triballike statement necklaces sporting feathers and medallions. These are clothes that are as powerful as they are feminine, sophisticated not merely because their intricacy is sometimes quite dazzling, but because upon closer inspection you realize many of them are at their heart so divinely, chicly simple.
Elbaz understands immediately that it is a compliment of the highest order when I remark that I see him in the dress still displayed on my iPod, while I see Mr. Beene in the clothes he produces to this day. “I remember a week before he died [in 2004], I called him,” Elbaz recalls. “I told him, ‘Mr. Beene, I’m going to be so corny, but I just wanted to tell you, everything I know, you taught me.’ And it’s true. Did he change my life? Yes, he did. He’s the one.”
“Alber is simply a very kind, very generous, very talented man,” says Laure Hériard Dubreuil, cofounder of The Webster, the Collins Avenue retail destination that has carried Lanvin since it was founded in 2007. “He came to the store when we were still in our temporary location, and he understood immediately that we wanted to make high fashion accessible, that we didn’t want to create a museum. And what he creates isn’t just the perfect idea of what a French woman would wear, or that ideal femininity that appeals to our Latin-American clientele. It’s just like no other brand. He’s very special."
With Lanvin, Elbaz indeed has been the soul of a house that has seen formidable growth during his nine-year tenure. “Our wholesale business was quite weak when I started. I think we sold to 12 stores; today we sell in more than 480,” he says. “We worked really hard on that. We are not a small house, but we are not a big house, either. I always say we are kind of human-sized, but we don’t have the red phone to pick up and say, ‘Daddy, we need some cash.’”
Stand-alone boutiques and the addition of a men’s collection likewise have been among the label’s focus in recent years. London and Shanghai locations have done exceptionally well, even as they opened during the height of the retail implosion of 2008 and ’09. For Lanvin’s first US location, it’s notable that the entry point was Bal Harbour, which opened its doors last winter: Though it was partly an issue of simple timing—one retail site becoming ready even as other cities were still being strategized— the decision was aided largely by sales at The Webster, which solidified Lanvin’s belief that an audience was ready in Miami. Subsequent US locations have opened in Las Vegas and, most recently, in New York on Madison Avenue this past summer.
Photographs by theo wargo/wireimage.com (portman); mike marsland/wireimage.com (tautou, kruger); steve granitz/wireimage.com (byrne)