By Laurie Brookins | August 1, 2010 | Style & Beauty
“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.”
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.
Elbaz has been key to each of these decisions. “I don’t feel a responsibility just from an artistic point of view,” he says. “But to do a good collection also means that the people supporting my dream will have a good salary. It’s a huge responsibility to also make it happen for them. So every move we make is very calculated. We never jump too high or too fast, and we work very hard.”
FROM LEFT: Audrey Tautou; Diane Kruger; Natalie Portman; Rose Byrne
Thierry Andretta smiles when he hears this; the Lanvin CEO has stopped at the table for a moment, having just returned from purchasing vintage-inspired Mickey Mouse T-shirts from a nearby Uniqlo. Andretta won’t debate Elbaz’s modesty for one moment, and doesn’t hesitate when asked what’s at the heart of Lanvin’s success. “I think Alber succeeds simply because he loves women,” Andretta says. “In every ready-to-wear piece, every shoe or piece of jewelry, you feel that he loves women, he wants them to feel elegant, comfortable, a little sensual, not too sexy. You perceive it immediately.”
That such a talent comes without a hint of artifice or guile only makes Elbaz more of a rock star in the eyes of editors and consumers alike. He recalls recently asking his longtime partner, Alex Koo, who is also Lanvin’s director of marketing, whether Koo thought they were still cool. “He said, ‘Alber, we were never cool,’” Elbaz recalls. “So I asked, ‘What am I?’ and [Alex] said, ‘You’re relevant.’”
Elbaz quickly realized he was satisfied by such an answer. “To be cool also means to be cold to me,” he explains. “Being relevant today means you understand a woman’s lifestyle, that you have found a way to mix the fantasy and the reality together and make it work for her. Fashion design is not art, because art must be pure fantasy; in design you have to go with the rational and the emotional, and somehow in the middle, they mix. This is pure design.”
TOP LEFT: The finale of Lanvin's Fall/Winter 2010 showing. TOP RIGHT: Black python three-strap bootie from Lanvin’s Fall/Winter collection. All items pictured available at Bal Harbour Shops, 9700 Collins Ave.; lanvin.com
Photographs by theo wargo/wireimage.com (portman); mike marsland/wireimage.com (tautou, kruger); steve granitz/wireimage.com (byrne)