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Elbaz, Alber

Elbaz, Alber

Career
Sidelights
Sources

Fashion designer

B orn Albert Elbaz, in 1961, in Casablanca, Morocco; son of a hairdresser and Allegria Elbaz (a painter and waitress). Education: Earned degree from Shenkar College of Textile Technology and Fashion, c. 1986.

Addresses: Home—Paris, France. Office—Jeanne Lanvin S.A., 15, rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, 75008 Paris, France.

Career

D esigner for an evening and bridalwear company, George F, in New York City, c. 1986-89; assistant to designer Geoffrey Beene, c. 1989-96; creative director, Guy Laroche, Paris, 1996-99; designer for Rive Gauche ready-to-wear line, Yves Saint Laurent Couture, Paris, 1998-99; designer for Krizia Top, c. 2000; creative director for women’s ready-to-wear and accessories, House of Lanvin, Paris, 2001—.

Awards: Best international designer, Council of Fashion Designers of America, 2005; Légion d’honneur, Republic of France, 2007.

Sidelights

I n 2001, Moroccan-born designer Alber Elbaz tookover as the design director of Lanvin, and began turning out women’s collections that have given France’s oldest house of couture a much-needed twenty-first century remake. Elbaz’s newest seasonal offerings at Lanvin are almost always greeted effusively by the fashion press, and his dresses are a favorite of affluent, anonymous clients and red-carpet celebrities alike. However, the rotund, unas-suming tastemaker remains a remarkably unpreten-tious figure in the cutthroat, ego-driven world of high-end fashion. “I compare my job to being the maitre d’ at the Ritz,” he told Times of London journalist Lisa Armstrong. “You try to direct everyone but the minute you feel you’re one of the crowd and start acting snobby it’s very dangerous.” In 2007, he became one of the rare handful of foreign-born luminaries ever to be awarded France’s prestigious Légion d’honneur medal.

Elbaz was named “Albert” by his parents when he was born in 1961, but later dropped the “t” to ensure its proper, French-language pronunciation. His early years were spent in the legendary Moroccan city of Casablanca, but his Jewish parents later re-settled their four children in Tel Aviv, Israel. His father was a hairdresser, and died when Elbaz was 15, which forced his artist-mother to take a job as a waitress to support the family. Elbaz inherited his mother’s creative talents, and was drawing by the time he reached school age. He was particularly fascinated by women’s clothes, even at an early age. “When I was nine, I gave my teacher a notebook full of pictures of all the clothes she wore during that year,” he recalled in an interview with the Independent’s Susannah Frankel. An asthma sufferer, he was also markedly uninterested in sports, telling Frankel that “when we were divided into teams for any kind of sport, nobody wanted me. I was always left till last and then it was like—you take Alber. My mother told me once that she asked them if it was normal for her son—her macho son—to be drawing all the time instead of playing football.”

As a young man, Elbaz completed a mandatory stint in the Israeli Defense Forces, but his poor health resulted in an army job arranging cultural events for troops and at retirement homes for senior citizens. Following his discharge, he spent four years at the Shenkar College of Textile Technology and Fashion in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv, and after graduating in the mid1980s moved to New York City with $800 his mother had given him. He found work for a Garment District company that made eveningwear and bridal dresses, which he realized was a rather humble way to begin his career in fashion. “Coming from the country I came from, I had no choice,” he told Frankel in the Independent. “There was no glamour, no wow; you just got there, did the patterns, checked the prices. It was more like doing a jigsaw puzzle than an act of creation. That taught me about fashion as a business.”

After two years there, Elbaz came to the attention of Dawn Mello, who was at the time an executive vice president at Gucci, the luxury-goods label. Mello was searching for a new designer to help revamp Gucci’s less-than-stylish image at the time, and though she felt the sketches Elbaz submitted were not in the right direction she wanted for Gucci, she recognized his budding talent and introduced him to American designer Geoffrey Beene, who hired him as a design assistant. Beene ran a highly successful atelier and was considered one of the leading American fashion visionaries, respected for his technical skills as well as a habit of turning out well-made collections that rejected prevailing trends in favor of a cool classicism. Elbaz would spend seven formative years at Beene, later telling Sunday Times journalist Colin McDowell, “I learnt everything from Mr. Beene.”

In 1996, Elbaz moved to Paris to take a job as creative director for Guy Laroche, a French fashion house whose eponymous designer had died a few years earlier. Elbaz designed four collections for Laroche over the next two years which were deemed a hit at the biannual Paris Fashion Week previews, where designers present their newest wares for store buyers and journalists. Reviewing this debut in the New York Times, Constance C. R. White noted that “Elbaz worked for Geoffrey Beene for seven years, so his [new] employers no doubt thought him up to the task of mastering the precise cut that is in part responsible for the definitive French look.” Of his fall/winter 1997 line, White judged it a success, asserting that “Elbaz has a nice touch on the whole. He has brought a breath of fresh air to a house about to die of asphyxiation.”

In June of 1998, Elbaz won one of the most coveted titles in French—and international—couture when designer Yves Saint Laurent hired him to revive the company’s ready-to-wear line, sold under the Rive Gauche label. Both the reclusive Saint Laurent and his business partner Pierre Berge believed Elbaz to be gifted enough to take on the job at the company, which had been breaking new ground in women’s fashions since the early 1960s, having popularized first the pant suit for women later that decade and then ethnic-inspired clothing in the 1970s. The new designer’s highly anticipated collections presented on Paris runways throughout 1999 were met with mixed reviews. Living up to the standards of a living legend was impossible, Elbaz later reflected in an interview with Sally Singer for Vogue. “I felt like the son-in-law in that house. I got into a family, a royal family, and I had to perform. Everything I did I questioned myself: Is it too Saint Laurent or not enough Saint Laurent? That is wrong in design. It should be fluid.”

Elbaz retreated from view for most of 2000, avoiding the gossipy hotbed of the fashion world by traveling across India and the Far East; he even contemplated a return to school to fulfill his parents’ career dream for him—to become a doctor. He returned, however, when he was offered a post with the Italian sportswear and accessories-maker Krizia to create a new line for the label called Krizia Top, but he lasted just three months and left after creative disagreements with Mariuccia Mandelli, the label’s founder. In the fall of 2001, he was hired as creative director for women’s ready-to-wear and accessories at the House of Lanvin, an even more venerable French house whose 1889 origins made it the country’s oldest house of couture still in operation.

Founded by dressmaker and milliner Jeanne Lan-vin, the house was now owned by a Taiwanese publishing tycoon, Shaw-Lan Wang, who promised El-baz full creative freedom. Elbaz’s first Lanvin collection debuted in March of 2002 in Paris, and earned accolades from the fashion press, with Cathy Horyn of the New York Times assessing the clothes as “handsome, with distinctive details, like silver sequins scattered over a scissored chiffon evening dress. The day clothes had an uncomplicated chic missing from fashion . Elbaz obviously did his homework. The clothes have enough identifying references to the style of Jeanne Lanvin, but he left room to add his own perspective. It was a great debut.”

Elbaz’s next effort, the spring ready-to-wear line shown later in 2002 in Paris, also earned rave reviews, especially the bejeweled or beribboned black dresses. “The fashion press quickly fell in love with this image of sweet gentility and Lanvin, a label that had been pretty much forgotten, has become one of the highlights of Paris fashion week,” declared Guardian writer Hadley Freeman. Elbaz’s collections that followed scored equally impressive plaudits for their originality and cohesive re-interpretation of Lanvin’s long, illustrious legacy. Vogue lauded his spring/summer 2005 collection as the pace-setter for that season, singling out his belted trench coats and ballerina skirts as “classical, elegant, and modern . These were alluring clothes with those special details that make a woman want to feast on their chic.”

Two years after Elbaz took over at Lanvin, sales for its ready-to-wear collections had increased tenfold, and the company was on firm financial footing thanks to its cautionary spending on advertising dollars—unlike many top fashion houses, which have marketing budgets in the millions range. Instead, word of mouth and a well-heeled roster of fashionista clients had landed Elbaz’s designs at Lanvin on the habitual must-have lists for scores of well-dressed trendsetters on both sides of the Atlantic. Noting his infamous ouster by the high-profile Tom Ford at Yves Saint Laurent, the New York Times’s fashion critic Horyn asserted that “Elbaz’s success at Lanvin serves as a kind of vindication for talent over the cult of personality.” In 2005, he was honored with the international designer of the year award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, one of the industry’s highest honors.

Elbaz’s dresses have graced the red-carpet appearances of a long list of international stylesetters, from actresses Nicole Kidman and Gwyneth Paltrow to fashion icons like the model Kate Moss and film director Sofia Coppola. He has made pointed remarks in the press about the latter-day practice of licensing designer labels for mass-produced luxury goods, as many top design houses have done to increase brand visibility and boost profit. “When I work with my customers, I see the comfort, happiness, and even safety that a woman gains from putting on a beautiful dress,” he told the Sunday Times’ McDowell. “You can’t achieve that with the overproduction that comes from a commercial ambition to fill five floors of a designer tower with merchandise.” His sole concession to commerce has been the development of a fragrance, Rumeur, launched in 2006.

Elbaz has also stated on several occasions that he has no higher ambitions than to stay on at Lanvin for a few more years then retire permanently, noting that his boss, Madame Wang, took a risk in hiring him after the Yves Saint Laurent debacle, and that he feels a strong sense of gratitude to her. Loyalty was a value he learned to prize from his stint in the Israeli Defense Forces, he told New York Times writer Elizabeth Hayt. “In the army, you know someone is behind you. You depend on him. Fashion is a business, but not a Swiss watch business. It’s very personal. As a designer, sometimes they like you, and other times they throw you to the dogs. Loyalty impresses me.”

Elbaz is an avowed workaholic who considers a vacation an unnecessary stress-inducing event. Instead he works 12hour days, and then retires to his Paris home to read or watch television. Even his relatively long stint at Lanvin, and the resounding praise for his designs, has not inured him to the vagaries of the fickle fashion world. “The big difference between now and five years ago is that it’s more neurotic,” he told Lisa Armstrong in a Harper’s Bazaar interview in 2005. “More scary, I’m just waiting for tragedy. You can’t imagine the agony after each show.”

Sources

Guardian (London, England), October 2, 2004, p. 58.

Harper’s Bazaar, September 2005, p. 382.

Independent (London, England), September 16, 2006, p. 14.

New York Times, March 17, 1997; November 8, 1998; March 11, 2002; October 5, 2004.

New York Times Magazine, September 25, 2005, p. 32.

Sunday Times (London, England), January 14, 2007, p. 20.

Times (London, England), May 17, 2004, p. 11.

Vogue, December 2004, p. 88; March 2005, p. 512.

WWD, March 8, 1999, p. 12. .

—Carol Brennan

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