Alber Elbaz: True Genius

Alber Elbaz

There’s no question that Alber Elbaz is a bonafide creative genius. His designs have always been the definition of ‘modern’ not only because of his couture like, technical mastery but his ability to infuse the feminine with a touch of the masculine, mix the high and the low, the romantic and the pragmatic, and downplay luxury with wit, whimsy, and a sense of humor. He also knew just when to do minimal vs. maximal (he often did both). Regardless, his clothes always look like Alber. They have his unmistakable signature.

Lanvin Fall 2012 ad campaign
Photos: Vogue.com

He was also at the forefront of the move to include and celebrate models and regular people of different ages and sizes. Three years before Phoebe Philo used Joan Didion in that now famous Celine ad campaign for sunglasses in 2015, Alber featured 80-year-old former Apollo showgirl Gracie Opulanza in his fall/winter 2012 ad campaign shot by Steven Meisel.

And then there’s his unfailing taste level and disdain of vulgarity. I have always felt there was a solid link between his work and the work of another true genius Geoffrey Beene, which should not be surprising given that he worked for Geoffrey for 7 years, ending in 1997. Alber always pours such passion and emotion into his designs and gives his all to his collections and to his customers. He once said that when his collections are successful, the first thing he thinks about is not how much money he will make, but how many hugs from his customers he will get.

Lanvin Spring/Summer 2016 Ready-to-Wear collection
photo courtesy The New York Times

There is no question he has been sorely missed. Not just from the fashion landscape but from the house of Lanvin since his unceremonious firing 4 years ago. Alber literally transformed Lanvin into one of the most sought after luxury labels in the world. It now has no identity as there has been a seemingly endless parade of designers, Bouchra Jarrar, Olivier Lapidus, and Bruno Sialelli, who have tried to fill his shoes. Ms. Jarrar, a French haute couture fashion designer with a similarly chic, design aesthetic, seemed promising but lasted only 16 months. Bruno Sialelli is the latest. Time will tell.

Alber Elbaz Avant Collection for Converse

Not that Elbaz has remained idle. Since exiting Lanvin, he has collaborated with Converse on a line of high-end sneakers, with Le Sportsac on a collection of whimsical travel and makeup bags, and with French perfumer, Frédéric Malle on a fragrance called Superstitious, which was released in 2017. And just last week, there was the announcement that he is partnering with Tod’s for their Factory project- a group of capsule collections conceived by some of the industry’s most talented designers.

Lanvin Fall/Winter 2015 collection

It was in the 70’s that Tod’s chairman Diego Della Valle transformed his grandfather’s shoe making business into the luxury lifestyle brand that it is today, known for its high quality and hand craftsmanship and specifically, for their luxurious yet sporty Italian made loafers and driving moccasins for men and women. While the exact details of the collaboration have not been disclosed, the line will consist primarily of footwear and some handbags. No doubt Alber, who is masterful with accessories, will put his inimitable spin on Tod’s cool, classic, iconic pieces.

But it’s not lost on me that there is something somewhat ironic about the fact that Alber was brought in to help Tod’s keep up with the increasingly quick paced, fast moving fashion market that is “hungry for newness”, given that the Israeli Moroccan designer has been such a staunch critic of that precise thing. In fact, this was basically the subject of the unforgettable, heartfelt 20-minute speech he gave at Fashion Group’s 2015 Night of Stars when he was awarded their Superstar Award and brought Meryl Streep as his guest. As it turns out, it was somewhat of a farewell to fashion (if only a temporary one) since his firing from Lanvin happened just weeks later. In any event, the wise points he verbalized on that night are right on the money and seem even more relevant today than they did then. Here are the highlights:

“A few weeks ago, we had fashion week in Paris, and I saw Marylou Luther, who is a good friend who has been with me for a long time. Right after the show, I told her that I have heard that we only have two minutes [for an acceptance speech]. I need some extensions, and she said, ‘You can have extensions.’ And I said, ‘I don’t mean hair extensions. I need more time.’ And I think everybody in fashion these days – needs just a little more time.”

“People who make a revolution are often called courageous and fearless. They are not afraid of changing the system when the system no longer works. I personally don’t like the word ‘revolution.’ I like the word ‘evolution.’ I always did. Evolution and not revolution. Evolution lives longer and looks better in history books. Revolution looks great, but only on TV. Revolution photographs look really well on the screen – drama, screaming, crying. Revolution is actually very photogenic. We live in a very photogenic time.”

“I feel sometimes that creative people and artists are just sensitive antennas that feel things that are in the air, things that are happening, and things that might happen. An antenna that feels the changes and then we translate them into music into art, theater, and fashion.”

“During fashion week in Paris, I spoke with a few editors who I know, and I said to them, ‘Hey, how are you?’ And they said, ‘Exhausted.’ They said they used to have to see 50 shows a week, now they have to see 50 shows a day, but there are only 24 hours. I spoke with a few writers, and they said the same thing. They used to write the review in a taxi having an apple, and I’m not talking Apple computer, just a green apple in between two shows. That’s how they gave us their verdict. Now they have to do it during the show with no apple. Instead, it is long hours and no time to digest – and you know that fashion people don’t eat much.”

“The fashionistas are very, very busy during the show filming everything. When I came out after the show, I felt there was no clapping, and I asked, ‘What’s going on?’ and they said, ‘They’re filming. They don’t have two hands [to clap.]’ My friend Ronnie Newhouse suggested creating an app for clapping so that you can film, Instagram and clap all at the same time.”

“Retailers, they’re filming, but they don’t have time to go be in stores. They don’t have the time to meet the people on the floor — traveling and more traveling, going from one show to another and looking at numbers — numbers and open-to-buy. I say to retailers, ‘Look at people because people make numbers.’ Numbers don’t often mix the other way. And we designers, we started as couturiers, with dreams, with intuitions, with feelings, with spirit. What do women want? What do women need? What can I do for women to make her life better and easier? How can I make a woman more beautiful? That is what we used to do. Then we became creative directors, so we have to create but mostly direct. And now we have to become image-makers, creating a buzz, making sure it looks good in the pictures. The screen has to scream, baby — that’s the rule. And loudness is the new thing. Loudness is the new cool, and not only in fashion.”

“I prefer whispering. I think it goes deeper and I think it stays longer. It seems to be that sometimes it’s almost more important that the dress looks good in the photo than it looks good or feels good on the body. Sometimes when I see clients trying dresses, I see that before they even go to the mirror, they just take a selfie and look at themselves in the selfie. And tell me what they like about the belt. Maybe the selfie is becoming the new mirror. If that’s the case and we will not have mirrors in the world, who will tell us the truth?”

“We are living today in a smart world, a world of very smart design. Today it’s all about smart design, smart thinking, smart product, technology, rapidity….Adidas says, ‘The future is now.’ Today a 12-year-old girl living in the middle of nowhere with technology can see all the shows in Paris live — the show, the front row, the backstage, the celebrities — wow. Technology makes her dream come true. That girl, like many others, is living in a dream. But can we imagine a world without dreams? A world without dreams is not always a beautiful world. Dreams make us go forward. Dreams make me run forward. And people who know me, know that I don’t like to run in the park.”

“I’m not against technology. I’m embracing technology. I love what it is. I respect smart design. I love smart people. I love most good people with heart. I believe that the biggest change in fashion will come because of technology and with technology. But the real evolution, not the revolution, will happen when tradition, and know-how, and human touch, and beauty, and newness and technology become one.”

“Tonight the Fashion Group International made me a Superstar, but it’s only for tonight because Cinderella is going home before midnight. I thank you Fashion Group International for this award. In my family, we have a tradition that when we receive a present, we have to give one back. So I brought you, Meryl since you gave me one, a few stars from Paris that we made in the studio. And maybe as I said before, I am the superstar tonight, but you, and you, and you are the real stars. And all it takes to make someone a star is to give him or her love — a lot of love.”

“Two more seconds and I’m done. We are here tonight, and it’s just after 10:16 p.m. and I was told we need to leave by 10:16. But I always feel that this fashion industry is not like a planned event, but it is more like a wedding banquet where there is not much glamour, but more of a feeling of family, sometimes a little bit of a dysfunctional family but still a family. I will end with a little family story. Two days before my mother left and went to live with a star herself, my two sisters sat with her in the room and asked, ‘Mom, why didn’t you say, I love you a little bit more often?’ And my mother said she was raised in a generation that was trained to show love but not to say, ‘I love you.’ So I hope that we will start a new life where we can show love, but also say ‘I love you’ to each other. So we will be a little bit, and we will have a little bit more of a beautiful world. Thank you very much.”

Lanvin Fall/Winter 2013 Ready-to-Wear collection

I for one, am ‘Happy’ Alber is back in the limelight but I can’t help but feel that it is such a waste that he is not designing a complete collection, under his own label. Hopefully, one day he will. Designers of his ilk don’t come along very often.

Marilyn Kirschner

I AM A LONG TIME FASHION EDITOR WITH 45 YEARS PLUS EXPERIENCE. AS SENIOR MARKET EDITOR OF HARPER'S BAZAAR FOR 21 YEARS I MET AND WORKED WITH EVERY MAJOR FASHION DESIGNER IN THE WORLD AND COVERED ALL THE MAJOR COLLECTIONS (INCLUDING HAUTE COUTURE) IN NEW YORK, PARIS, MILAN, AND LONDON. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories. AS EDITOR-IN-CHIEF OF LOOKONLINE, I HAVE BEEN ABLE TO USE MY TRAINED EYE, MY WRITING SKILLS, AND PHOTOGRAPHY.

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