At Via Quadronno, an Upper East Side cafe noted for its cappuccinos, Alber Elbaz was loosely discussing the difference between designing for women who are strong, as when he started his career, and for women who are powerful, as in today, when a powerful looking woman named Ester recognized him.
Approaching his table, Ester congratulated Mr. Elbaz on his success as the designer of Lanvin, the Paris-based fashion house, and told him that, like him, she was born in Morocco. She then blessed him, speaking in Hebrew. Later, when Mr. Elbaz asked for the check, he was told that Ester, a regular at the restaurant, had already paid the bill and left.
“But I must thank her!” Mr. Elbaz, looking crestfallen, told the waiter.
He extracted a black marker and a piece of paper from a zippered navy snakeskin pouch, which functioned like a briefcase, and quickly sketched a portrait of the woman. It included a pearl necklace and her Chanel bag, the quilting rendered as crosshatching and a logo of interlocking “C’s” dangled from the side. He also drew a caricature of himself, with a big circular cartoon head framed by glasses and an oversize bow tie. This he left for Ester with his gratitude.
The waiter, not recognizing Mr. Elbaz, looked at it as if it were a child’s drawing, and put it in a drawer.
The key to understanding the success and longevity of Mr. Elbaz, a nice guy who did not finish last, comes down to this: “I never think people should do things for me,” he said during an interview at the cafe last week. “I think I should do things for others. That makes me more comfortable.”
Much of what has been written about Mr. Elbaz on the occasion of his 10th anniversary as the designer of Lanvin, a milestone that normally might merit a mention somewhere near the classifieds, could illustrate what is a rare example in the catty fashion industry of the Buddhist concept of mudita, or taking pleasure in another person’s good fortune. These days, everyone seems to love him, and naturally, that makes him uncomfortable.
At a time when many designers believe that their roles are being marginalized in favor of competing corporate interests, the success of Mr. Elbaz, a charming, gallant, hard-working, self-deprecating guy who, by the way, claims to have never used drugs, has been heralded a triumph of talent over the excesses of luxury marketing. This is a designer, after all, who reportedly turned down Dior and the promise of designing couture last year when the headhunters came knocking because he could not betray the company that invested in him when his own stock was down.
In Mr. Elbaz, who, at 50, is still as compulsively neurotic as a teenager about his appearance — which most would describe as cuddly (though he would just say fat) — the tendency to put himself beneath others can be to a fault. No mirror goes passed without reflecting a mistake. No compliment goes undeflected by a joke about his weight. No assurance goes undoubted. And no gesture of appreciation goes unmatched by Mr. Elbaz, who once, after a sales meeting with Neiman Marcus, grabbed a bouquet of flowers and chased down the buyer in the streets of Paris because he believed he had been unprepared.
Mr. Elbaz was already in the middle of a semi-successful career when, in 2001, he was hired at Lanvin by Shaw-Lan Wang, the Taiwanese publisher who owns the label and who is reverentially referred to by employees as Madame Wang.
Madame Wang, who is rarely present in the Paris atelier, gave Mr. Elbaz the freedom to build the label as he pleased. With little interference, he has revitalized Lanvin, making it a power player in French fashion, with an outsize reputation that belies its relatively small size.
He had previously been the handpicked successor to Yves Saint Laurent, at the point when Mr. Saint Laurent gave up ready-to-wear to focus on couture in the late 1990s. But then, when Tom Ford and the Gucci Group took over the house in 1999, Mr. Elbaz was fired the next year, an event that has seemingly had a lasting, practically mythological, effect on his career. As he has said, when he started at Lanvin, he would from then on only do things that he loved, and “no more marketing research.”
“He was like an abused child,” said Kim Hastreiter, a founder of Paper magazine, who has known Mr. Elbaz since he was an assistant to Geoffrey Beene more than 20 years ago.
Lanvin operates like a small family business, with Mr. Elbaz, who has a hand in every product design, right down to the window displays, describing himself as “the mommy” in the relationship, and Madame Wang as “the daddy.” When the Dior job came into play last year, after the dismissal of John Galliano, there was enormous speculation about the future of the house until Raf Simons, the former designer of Jil Sander, was hired this April. Mr. Elbaz had been one of the names most frequently floated by editors and retailers, along with Haider Ackermann and Mr. Simons.
Though it was not entirely clear that Mr. Elbaz was ever offered a job to turn down — he can be maddeningly vague on the subject, saying, “It doesn’t matter, so don’t go there,” when pressed for details — he said there was little to appeal to him to rejoin a large conglomerate (the label is controlled by Bernard Arnault, the chief executive of LVMH), apart from the possibility of designing for one of the few remaining houses with an active couture atelier attached.
“But I could not say to them, mommy’s getting divorced now,” Mr. Elbaz said.
His decade at Lanvin has been celebrated this spring with a grand party in Paris that followed his runway show, Lanvin-themed window displays at Barneys New York that included an eight-foot-tall statue of the designer overlooking Madison Avenue last month, and now the publication of a 700-page coffee-table book focused solely on the creation of his most recent collection.
While he appears to be at ease under the spotlight, he never does reveal too much. His comments, after a while, may even start to come across as scripted; he often repeats the same stories with the same punch lines. Ms. Hastreiter of Paper said she suspects the jokes are something of a coping mechanism of a designer who wasn’t seeking out the fame he has found. One of his best lines, delivered to an audience at Barneys for a trunk show in April, concerns the period after he was fired from YSL, when he considered becoming a doctor.
“I thought, I love Advil, and I like Tylenol,” he said. “I should share it with everyone.”
The degree to which designers are exposed, and expose themselves, is something Mr. Elbaz was thinking about very carefully when he prepared his last collection. He was concerned about the pace at which designers are producing collections, and also about the number of his colleagues who were facing conflicts with their employers, often over creative demands.
During the weeks before his show, Mr. Simons was fired from Jil Sander, after the company had held secret negotiations with the designer Jil Sander to return to the brand, and Stefano Pilati, the most recent designer at YSL, was also let go at the end of his contract, an outcome that had been rumored for years.
“The behind the scenes is almost becoming as important as the scene,” Mr. Elbaz said. “It is like, when we are at the shows today, what we see the editors wearing is almost more important than what they are seeing on the runway. In art, the curators are becoming more important than the artists. Now it becomes about how you put your show together, and not about what you show.”
His show, the night of March 2, encapsulated his thinking about fashion over 10 years. When he started designing that collection, he thought generally about the words “the house of Lanvin,” which might call to mind the signatures he has created for the house, the jewelry veiled in chiffon, the gently ruched dresses, the widely flattering shapes or perhaps some of the more unconventional gowns Mr. Elbaz has created for the Oscars red carpet, like the one-sleeved black velvet gown worn by Tilda Swinton in 2008, or, this year, Meryl Streep’s loose gold asymmetrical dress, which was inspired by the idea of casually throwing on a scarf. (In a bit of a fashion coup, Lanvin also dressed Jean Dujardin, who won for best actor; Ms. Streep won for best actress.)
For that fall 2012 collection, the designer peeled back his thinking even further to the underpinnings of the house, and began making dresses from a nylon material normally used for making bras, which became the opening of his show. While he initially thought of darker colors, and black, he ultimately wanted to make a statement about color, and ended up completing the collection with a series of jewel-tone cocktail dresses, many emblazoned with jewelry accents in the shape of tiger’s heads or with waves of thick ruffles.
“I want to make great clothes and dress women in a way that is modern, though I am tired of that word,” Mr. Elbaz said. “Does modern have to mean hard and harsh? Or can modern also mean pink chiffon?”
While it was a major collection for Mr. Elbaz, what fashion people will remember most about that show, held in a cavernous event space on the edge of Paris, was the ending.
As the models took their finale turn, Mr. Elbaz stepped on stage and began to sing the opening lines of “Que Será Será,” which he said was a tribute to all the people in fashion who had helped him achieved his dream. Then Joey Arias, the cabaret singer and performance artist, took over as Mr. Elbaz walked down the runway, occasionally turning in a circle, as editors and celebrities cheered him along from the darkened sidelines. Mr. Elbaz later said he was also sending a message to other designers who have been through troubled times.
“It’s very difficult and I’ve been there myself,” Mr. Elbaz said. “It’s very difficult when people are writing that you are part of history. You are dealing with people and emotions here, not robots.”
ON an unusually windy April evening, Mr. Elbaz was sitting in a sedan parked outside the London Terrace apartment building in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. Inside, in a penthouse apartment with sweeping views of the city, Mark Lee, the chief executive of Barney’s, was giving a party in his honor.
Mr. Lee had been part of the Gucci team that took over YSL, when Mr. Elbaz still had two years remaining on his contract. It had been a tough moment for him, particularly when he read an anonymous comment in Women’s Wear Daily, based on reports that Mr. Ford was about to take over the collection, that quoted someone in the Gucci camp saying, “If you buy a Ferrari, you don’t ask your friend to drive it.”
As the guests, mostly the top editors of fashion magazines, began to arrive at the party, Mr. Elbaz experienced what he later described as an anxiety attack.
“I was sitting in the car for 15 minutes, just because, you know, these people were coming for me,” Mr. Elbaz said.
When he finally went upstairs, the night became something of a comedy of errors. An artwork propped against a wall fell over and smashed when a stiff wind blew through the penthouse apartment. Sparklers on a birthday cake set off the fire alarm, drawing a less-than-amused response from the fire department. A toilet overflowed. Of all moments, this was the one when Mr. Elbaz chose to settle an old score.
“Just to remind everybody,” Mr. Elbaz said as the cake was cut, “Mark fired me 12 years ago.”
Though the comment sucked the air out of the room, Mr. Lee was good-natured about the incident. Somehow, it just came out, Mr. Elbaz said, when reminded of that moment. In retrospect, he said that Mr. Lee and Mr. Ford had changed his destiny.
“We have a history and, yes, he fired me, but time goes by and we change,” Mr. Elbaz said. “When things like this happen, it’s your choice whether you are going to be a victim or move on. I am much happier today than I was before.”
The reason for that, he said, is having a sense of freedom at Lanvin, and ownership of its success or failure. That said, he doesn’t mind being asked about other jobs, and, at one point, he mentioned he has been approached by other houses since Dior. So will he stay at Lanvin forever?
“I want to say yes,” he said. “It’s like, when you marry someone, you swear you are going to spend the rest of your life with that person. I will say yes, but you know, you never know.” (Via New York Times)