After a long 12-hour flight, it takes a cheerful man to smile. The irrepressible Alber Elbaz gives his signature beam as we sit down for a chat, and Lanvin's artistic director shows few signs of jetlag as he dives headlong into a discussion on the brand's DNA, his autumn/winter 2013 collection, his thoughts on women and the difficulties designers face.
"One of the biggest problems we have today is the lack of time - we are all struggling with time," says the busy designer, who nevertheless managed to launch not only his autumn/winter collection earlier this year, but also a new retail concept store in Hong Kong soon after. The 5,380 sq ft boutique opened in New Henry House, revealing Elbaz's new design conceived in collaboration with MR Architecture & Décor. Hong Kong is the fourth city to feature this concept, after New York, Chicago and Beirut, and the new interior was created to seamlessly blend the streamlined, methodical world of retail with Lanvin's whimsical DNA.
When it comes to brand identity, Elbaz is careful to strike a precise balance. While many designers are eager to make their mark on a fashion house's history, he took a more cautious approach when he joined Lanvin in 2001. "When I first started working here, I let the place be," he recalls. "When a new designer comes to a new company, we need to have the time to understand, to breathe, to know the people and get into the DNA of the house. It's not something that can be planned ahead of time, but something that happens only once you're inside."
Given time to learn about the brand and its history, Elbaz was able to create designs that stayed true to Lanvin's heritage. It was a subtle and organic process, and he emphasises that his aim was always to keep the brand's know-how and its tradition of handmade workmanship. "I want to keep that DNA. This is what makes any business work - the importance of newness, mixed with tradition. Sometimes in order to make more noise, designers make the mistake of destroying everything," he explains. "What we should do is make small changes, and these changes should be more like whispering, not screaming. When you scream, everybody may hear you, but not everybody listens."
Judging by the positive reception of his autumn/winter 2013 collection, it's clear that Elbaz has successfully crafted an aesthetic that speaks to not only the brand's history of soft, feminine designs, but also his own quirky imagination. The ethereal, dreamy collection, which he describes as an "antimarketing" project, underlines Elbaz's belief that designers need to go back to authenticity.
"We are all living in a time when business has become more important than anything. Designers around the world are being told what to do, how much it should be, what colours to use. I wanted to show that there is another way of working - going back to intuition, to something more authentic," he says. "I always have to work with what I'm feeling, things that I believe in. I know this is what contributed to the success of Lanvin."
With this collection, for example, Elbaz started with a story in mind, what he calls "the fantasy, the starting point", and the hues and butterfly motif that featured so strongly in this concept materialised as surreal, even whimsical, touching on the resulting designs. He also wanted to incorporate wording into the collection through the use of jewellery, starting the show with a diamond-studded necklace spelling out HELP - "because it's something nice to get and even nicer to give", he explains - and ending with LOVE.
For inspiration, Elbaz says he doesn't have one tried-and-true method. "Wherever life takes us, it influences us. Sometimes we [designers] start a collection, we think we need to go for an inspiration trip, but sometimes I think that the best trips are the ones you do in your head. You don't have to travel anywhere. You start there, in your mind. You start thinking, dreaming. That is what it's all about," he says.
Nevertheless, it's not all intuition and dreams. There is a highly technical side to the creativity, and Elbaz is quick to credit his early mentor, American fashion designer Geoffrey Beene, as the one responsible for much of what he knows today. "There are many things I give him credit for - the skills, the know-how, but also the idea that it's not just a sketch, that between the front and the back of the dress there is also a woman."
Elbaz points out that this is the underlying purpose of what he does, offering women today a mix between fantasy and comfort, designs that are contemporary and pragmatic. "It's always about thinking of the woman," he states, adding that someone once asked him whether he thought women dressed for men or if they dressed for women. "My first thought was that they dressed for women. Then I thought, it's not about whether you dress for women or men. The most beautiful women are the ones who dress for themselves, not for anyone else."
He also says he doesn't differentiate between cultures when it comes to his work. "Women are women. I don't find any differences between Asian women and French women - they all love chocolate, they're all on a diet," he jokes.
As with any superstitious designer, Elbaz remains mum on the topic of his next collection, believing it would be bad luck to reveal too much. The same goes for his future plans, although he's happy to hypothesise on possible travels. "I love Asia. Who knows, maybe my next move will be to Asia," he quips. "Wherever life takes me ... you don't go on vacation and think: I'm going to fall in love tomorrow at 5. You have to let it happen, and it's always a nice surprise when it does. It's one of those things that you don't plan. It's a love affair."
Born in Casablanca, Morocco
Moved to New York
Started working for American fashion designer Geoffrey Beene
Took over as head prêt-a-porter designer for Guy Laroche
Designed Rive Gauche collections for Yves Saint Laurent
Joined Lanvin as artistic director
Designed new packaging for Lanvin
Published a book of 3,000 photographs on the brand’s history and work
Launched a new retail concept store in Hong Kong