Modern Living

Alber Elbaz:The designer who preferred to whisper when the world was getting louder.

ART DE VIVRE - Ricky Toledo, Chito Vijandre - The Philippine Star
Alber Elbaz:The designer who preferred to whisper when the world was getting louder.
Alber Elbaz with model Caroline Trentini at his Lanvin atelier in 2004 (vogue.com)
STAR/ File

A trip to Paris was never complete without visiting Lanvin on Rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré.  The windows were always a joy to behold, with witty scenes like sculptural white mannequin “wedding guests” with the longest lashes and reddest lips riding pink Vespas in easy, strapless dresses beside a smart car. A bridesmaid would be collapsing on the pavement in her slinky silk jersey frock as the door opened to reveal a bride resigned to the fact that she would be late for her wedding.

Que Sera, Sera, you can almost hear the famous Doris Day song playing, a favorite of Alber Elbaz, the endearing “teddy bear-like” designer of the house who imagined the beautiful dresses and the tableau to showcase them. Meanwhile, a steady flow of customers would be entering to snap up the boutique’s latest offerings.

Lanvin was actually known as the oldest surviving but dusty French house before Elbaz took over in 2001 and made it the global powerhouse that placed it in the big leagues. It was perfect for him because it was small, with a history of family-centeredness, which was always important in his life.  The logo was a mother and daughter, after all, and founded on the love of Jeanne Lanvin for her daughter, Marguerite.

His raison d’etre for designing has always been his love for women and their needs. His atelier, with all the patternmakers and seamstresses, became his beloved family for 14 years, punishing them with his exacting standards that would require many sleepless nights of work before a show but rewarding them with champagne dinner parties catered by Caviar Kaspia, and sending flowers of appreciation to each one of them after the show.

The same care he had for his staff would be lavished on his clients and peers in the industry.  He would always tuck in little notes with personalized doodles together with the dresses of clients like Sarah Jessica Parker, who keeps them as treasured mementoes to this day.  For Vanessa Friedman, fashion editor of The New York Times, who bought a runway sample since she could not afford the boutique retail price, she got the surprise of her life upon receiving the dress when she saw underneath the label a grosgrain ribbon with an embroidered message: “For Vanessa, Love Alber.”

For fellow designers, he always sent bouquets of flowers before their shows and always showed his appreciation for their work.  Maria Grazia Chiuri of Dior related how Elbaz was the first person to make her “feel at home in the fashion industry.”  There are just too many stories about the designer’s kindness, with hardly anyone having a mean thing to say about him in an industry known for catfights and backbiting, that when it was announced that he died last April 24 from COVID, everyone in the industry was shocked and saddened, with countless tributes from friends, journalists, clients and fans who were heartbroken by his demise.

Born in Morocco in 1961 to Jewish parents — a painter mother and a hairdresser father — his family immigrated to Israel, where he grew up and would draw dresses at age seven and later cut out dresses to clothe the pieces of their chess set.

Studies at Shenkar College would provide the foundation for his métier. To pursue fashion professionally, his mother gave him $800 to go to New York in 1985, where he first worked in a bridal firm and later landed a job with Geoffrey Beene. “Beene really loved him,” according to Paper magazine editor Kim Hastreiter, “because Alber, from the start had ‘the touch,’ sharing Beene’s passion for problem-solving and conceptual purity: Could a dress be made with one seam? How about no seams? Or a 25-foot zipper? Plus, crucially, he could make it lovely.”

His talent and experience with Beene would lead to his appointment in 1996 as creative director of Guy Laroche in Paris.  But after only three shows, Pierre Bergé offered him the dream job of succeeding Yves Saint Laurent as designer of the house’s pret-a-porter. This was short-lived, however, since the house was sold to Domenico Sole’s Gucci group a year later, with Tom Ford taking over Alber’s post.

“When he started at Saint Laurent,” says Chloë Sevigny, one of Elbaz’s most loyal clients, “perhaps the fashion world wasn’t embracing him because he wasn’t as handsome or as suave as Tom Ford.”  Elbaz’ following, in fact, started with cool girls like Sevigny, Tara Subkoff and Marina Rust, who preferred the understated femininity of his designs.

They would follow him to Lanvin when he took over in 2001.

“To wear Lanvin is to feel dressed up without making a big statement… womanly and sophisticated,” according to Sofia Coppola, who preferred Elbaz’s style to the sexy and theatrical.  “This is why his clothes are so wearable and so loving,” says Elbaz’ old friend, the artist Izhar Patkin. “They are always a step short of theatricality.  With the same vocabulary, a designer could do something theatrical; he does something emotional.”

It all boils down to the humanity that is always at the heart of Elbaz’s design.  He always wanted to know his clients well before designing for them: their desires, their dreams.  “I want to make the dress disappear,” he said once. “You almost want to make it feel as if nothing was done. I have to make a piece that in the end will disappear.  All I want to see is the face of the woman.”

It’s no wonder that women have chosen his design for the most important moments of their lives — actresses like Tilda Swinton, Emma Stone and Charlize Theron received their nominations and awards in his creations.

Meryl Streep, who wore Lanvin to the Oscars multiple times, says that his dresses “are the only ones that make me feel like myself — or even a better version of her! When it becomes necessary for me to become that outsize, overpraised monument to the changing status of women in the cinema and the world — that’s when I need Alber the most. He is undaunted by all of it — my insecurities, my weight, my height, my age.  He just makes me feel lovely.”

Natalie Portman considers him a philosopher-mentor who advised her, “Wear flats. You’re short. It’s much cooler not to pretend.”  Even clients as diverse as Jennifer Lopez, Rihanna and Kim Kardashian, who would normally be in va-va-voom fashion, would discover another part of themselves when Alber got to know them and designed something less overtly sexy.

Despite his success at Lanvin, however, he was unceremoniously fired in 2015. He apparently couldn’t come up with enough “it” bags or accessories that were driving the big fashion houses, which the management wanted to emulate, among other business practices that Alber was not amenable to.

He also lamented how the system of too many collections and too many pieces was detrimental to the essence of fashion and creativity: “And now, we have to create a buzz, making sure it looks good in pictures. The screen has to scream. Loudness is the new cool. I prefer whispering. It goes deeper and lasts longer.”

For the next five years, he wandered the world meeting people from Silicon Valley to Switzerland and questioning fashion and his role in it while doing collaborations.

Finally, in 2019, he found an answer in a new brand: AZ factory.  Backed by Swiss luxury company Richemont, it was based on the concept of using technology in the service of beauty — creating clothes that solved women’s problems, at a more accessible price, with sizes XXS to XXXXL and sold directly to them.   Launched in January 2021, it embraces the new age of body positivity, investing in high-tech stretch knit fabrics to combine glamour with comfort.

“The dress that creates the perfect shape — that was yesterday,” he said at the launch.  “I don’t want to make clothes that bring more stress to women.  I want my dresses to be like hugs.”

Such a fitting finale to a life dedicated to make women feel beautiful and loved.  And with his legacy, the women of the world and all lovers of fashion can only hug him back many times over.

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Follow the authors on Instagram @rickytchitov; Twitter @RickyToledo23; Facebook - Ricky Toledo Chito Vijandre.




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