Gorgeous, moi?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am


Alber Elbaz is in tears. It's 9am and we are sitting in a quiet corner of the lobby in the Raffles Hotel in Beijing, where he will be hosting a party to celebrate his 10-year tenure as creative director of French fashion house Lanvin.

It will be the brand's second celebration of the milestone, following an anniversary show at Paris Fashion Week in March, and marks an incredible achievement for a designer: he has survived 10 years at a fashion house without being tarnished by so much as a scandal or vicious rumour (although we're not counting the whispers that he could be Karl Lagerfeld's successor at Chanel). In light of this, perhaps he can be forgiven for shedding a tear or two.

'No, no, I am allergic to the pollen outside,' Elbaz says, dabbing his eyes with a polka-dot handkerchief. 'I feel we have so much more to achieve. We are far from perfect.

'That said, when we started, we only had three stores that [bought] Lanvin, and one flagship boutique. [Success] wasn't something that happened overnight - we didn't use the fat chequebook of a rich owner to buy more stores or advertising. We did things very slowly and organically, with hard work,' he says.

The fairy-tale transformation of this sleepy French house into one of the world's most desirable luxury brands is made all the more magical by the fact Elbaz, the self-professed 'dream-maker', has been its central character. With his portly figure, sweet smile, geeky glasses and signature tuxedo and floppy bow tie, Elbaz is arguably the industry's most loved designer, thanks to his affable charm and self-deprecating sense of humour.

'Do what you like, as long as you make me look thin, I am happy,' he jokes with the photographer while striking a pose.

While other designers keep fashion editors waiting for hours at their runway shows, Elbaz placates them with delicious confections from Pierre Herme, flutes of champagne and heart-warming renditions of classic songs such as Que Sera Sera. While his peers criticise each other in the press, he finds something positive to say. (During this interview, he prefers to point out Tom Ford's good looks rather than address the fact that the American cruelly ousted him from his dream job at Yves Saint Laurent in the 1990s). He is the first to admit that he loves McDonald's food. If you think all fashion designers are elitist and superficial, think again - one meeting with Elbaz will relieve you of any such notions.

'We don't like bitches, they kill me,' he says with a sweet smile.

Then there are his clothes: gorgeous, draped, jewel-coloured gowns with unfinished hems; show-stopping embellished suits; and burnished voluminous coats that all leave us wanting more.

Elbaz is clearly in the business of making everyone feel happy, which could be why he once contemplated a career as a doctor.

'Both professions deal with the spirit and body together. A doctor might give you Tylenol and we give you a red dress, but the sensation is quite the same. It has the same amazing effect,' he says.

Elbaz was born in Casablanca, Morocco, in 1961 and moved to Tel Aviv, Israel, when he was 10 years old. He says he loved sketching from a young age, although his decision to study fashion at Shenkar College of Textile Technology and Fashion was based on gut instinct.

'When I was in third or fourth grade, I remember sketching my teacher every morning - she had a white car, was blond and beautiful. That being said I can't put a label on when I wanted to get into fashion - it's one of those things that was just there, that was in me,' he says.

In 1987, at the age of 26, he took a chance and headed to New York, determined to live the American dream. Unable to speak English and with no experience, he managed to bag a job with designer Geoffrey Beene, where he learned the importance of hard work.

'Everything I know today comes from [Beene's] school, because he formed me. I realised my dream with him. I came to America as a fat immigrant with two suitcases - one filled with clothes, the other with dreams. When you look like me, you don't get your way on just being gorgeous.

'Even today, when people tell me it's so difficult to get anywhere in fashion if you don't know anyone, I say connections can only get you to the door - that's all. Maybe to the roof, but never to the sky,' he says.

In 1996, having moved to Paris, France, he landed the top job at Guy Laroche. In 1998, his dreams were realised when he was brought on to design the ready-to-wear collections for Yves Saint Laurent after Saint Laurent's retirement. His happiness was short-lived, however, when he was unceremoniously dumped by Ford after only three collections.

'After Saint Laurent it was very tough, I was ready to give up. I took a long break and was in India for a while, which changed my view on things. There was something very real about India. I saw poverty but somehow it didn't seem like poverty because money didn't matter. There was a sophistication and elegance in the people because of their humbleness. It was not just about looking good but feeling good.

'Fashion for me then became important because it made people feel better. Besides, I couldn't be a taxi driver,' he jokes.

In 2001, he heard Lanvin had been bought by Taiwanese magnate Shaw-lan Wang (or Madame Wang, as he affectionately calls her), so he took a chance, made a phone call and offered himself up for the role of creative director. Wang agreed to meet the designer, and the rest, as they say, is fashion history.

Elbaz credits his close relationship with Wang as one of the main reasons for his longevity in the business. She is his proudest supporter and most ardent cheerleader, sitting in the front row of all of his shows. During our interview, she calls several times to check on her adopted son. (That night she waltzed down the catwalk in his arms.)

'I love her. After all these years I have had offers to go to many places but it's the people of Lanvin and my attachment to her that make me stay. She's not bothering anyone on a daily basis, she lets me create. At the end of the day she is a special one,' he says, tearing up again.

While Elbaz's artistic freedom has allowed him to excel (and the brand to profit), he also has an uncanny ability to understand what women really want to wear. Since his first collection for the label, in 2002, he has won women over with luxe styles that balance French elegance without being too fussy or overdone, all the while capturing an untouchable fragility in frayed edges, hammered silks, exposed zippers and airy volumes. That's not to say that his woman is weak - on the contrary, she embodies delicateness and strength, making the Lanvin woman as complex as she is alluring.

'Let me tell you a story,' he says. 'One day a friend of mine sent me an SMS while she was sitting in the back of a taxi on the way to court, to meet her husband's divorce lawyer. She said, 'I am wearing Lanvin and I feel beautiful and protected.' I was so happy to hear this because I was never about power women. I prefer to give them strength and not power. That's how I would like to be remembered.'

His relationships with the women around him have provided a foundation on which to build an empire. While he has stayed true to Lanvin's heritage - founded in 1889, it is one of France's oldest couture houses - he has continually adapted to the ever-changing needs and desires of the modern woman. His bridal line came about because an older friend was getting married and wanted to wear something chic. His children's collection, which was launched last year, was the result of several women in his atelier falling pregnant.

'I always say, 'If it's not edible, it's not food, and if it's not wearable, its not fashion.' For me I see fashion like Californian cuisine - you take the history and tradition but you cut the butter and replace it with olive oil, which is more modern.

'Of course, you can do clothes made out of paper that editors love and want to photograph, but I think the true test of every piece you are doing is to see if it works in reality. I need to translate fantasy into the real world, without being ridiculous. At the same time, it's being able to push boundaries season after season.

'To do crazy clothes is easy; to do really simple clothes is easy. But to achieve what is in the middle - something that is made without any cuts from one piece of fabric, or that has a special volume that you can only see when you wear it thanks to a drape rather than a corset - that's hard. This freedom in clothes is the little thing I always try to bring to my work,' he says.

Given such a personal and emotional approach to his craft, it came as a surprise to many when Elbaz launched a more affordable, mass-produced collection with fast-fashion retailer H&M in 2010, which, incidentally, sold out in Hong Kong within an hour of its launch.

'I thought I would never do it, but only idiots get stuck and don't move forward. When you see something happening in the world that is very democratic, how can you not explore it? Especially when it means that more women can afford my clothes and enjoy them. The H&M people said we'd probably meet three times but we met 30 times, because I wanted to make sure the prototype was as close as possible to our main line.

'I believe if you do something, you need time to do it right,' he says.

Is that why it's taken so long to seriously tackle the Chinese market? Although the brand has been available on the mainland for many years, it only recently opened a flagship boutique in Beijing. Another is planned for Shanghai. Elbaz has made many personal visits to the country but his last public appearance was back in 2004.

'We came years ago and then the brands with logos followed. There was a hunger for glamour and we let the logo pass. I feel it's time to enter China through the back door. I have no problem with back doors.

'Chinese women who have tasted the logo now want something different,' he says.

So what do the next 10 years hold for Elbaz and Lanvin?

Aside from expanding the brand's accessories collections, Elbaz says he is open to suggestions, whether they concern the launch of a more democratic line or designing elsewhere for Madame Wang: 'If she buys another brand and needs a designer and asks me, I would do it with pleasure,' he says, ever the gentlemen.

One thing he is unlikely to be doing is going on holiday.

'My greatest challenge is to wake up every morning and start it all again. Stress is the electricity that pushes you to move forward. If you think you are fabulous and amazing, you don't go anywhere.

'It was intuition that attracted me to Lanvin and that's how I will continue to work. When I work with intuition, I win. When I work with my mind too much and try to speculate and rationalise, it doesn't work. I have to go with a gut feeling.'

To celebrate his 10th year at the fashion house, Elbaz has launched Alber Elbaz, Lanvin, which documents the journey of a collection, from the first sketch to the final runway show. The limited-edition hardback is available at Lanvin boutiques and Lane Crawford for HK$4,110.