Fashion: `I'm not going there for the career. I'm going for the dream'

Alber Elbaz is to take over the reins of Yves Saint Laurent's ready-to-wear. By Ian Phillips
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The Independent Culture
DAWN MELLO, the president of the American department store Bergdorf Goodman, could well have clairvoyant powers. Last year, she said that designer Alber Elbaz was "destined for stardom". Last Friday, Elbaz was appointed designer of Yves Saint Laurent's ready-to-wear - a move set to make him an overnight star. On 31 October, he will leave his present position at Guy Laroche and present his first collection for Saint Laurent next March.

His new post is one of the most coveted in fashion. Saint Laurent was the first to understand the power of ready-to-wear and opened his first Rive Gauche boutique in September 1966. Today, there are 50 free-standing boutiques throughout the world and 100 in-store shops.

Elbaz may be the first ever outside designer to be entrusted with the creation of the women's ready-to-wear, but it is an open secret that Saint Laurent has not personally designed the line for a number of years. Instead, the house's studios have churned out the old classics and, though beautiful, the collections have long failed to be innovative.

"The fashion system has changed and M Saint Laurent has realised that he will never adapt to it," said a spokesman for the house. "So, he feels that it is better to dedicate himself to his art: haute couture."

The house has apparently been looking for a replacement for the past two years, but it was difficult to see just who they would find. While young designers almost unanimously express their admiration for Saint Laurent, the master himself is rather disparaging of the younger generation.

In the Fifties, Christian Dior took the young Saint Laurent under his wing and primed him as his successor. Saint Laurent himself has rather disappointingly not shown the same altruism. He has never really helped to promote any of his assistants and has not even issued a personal statement about Elbaz. It is rumoured that he has not even met the Morocco-born designer and the appointment is most certainly the decision of the Saint Laurent president, Pierre Berge.

Berge was on the front row of Elbaz's most recent show for Guy Laroche in March and says that he chose him for a number of reasons. First, he wanted somebody who would design exclusively for Saint Laurent and "Alber is the only designer of his level and talent who does not have his own label". Second, he wanted someone who would bring a bit of American commercial know-how with him. Elbaz worked as assistant to Geoffrey Beene in New York for eight years and has proclaimed that "a designer should not be embarrassed to admit wanting to sell". Apparently, there was also a "sentimental" reason for the appointment: "Alber was born in North Africa like Yves. He has the light and colours of Africa in his eyes."

Elbaz was born in Casablanca on 12 June 1961, but was brought up in Tel Aviv. He started sketching at the age of four ("I would do clothes for the Queen of England") and started to make a mark in Israel during his days as a student. After graduation, he went to New York with $800 and worked for a downmarket design company for a couple of years before hooking up with Beene.

In June 1996, he was appointed design director of the flagging Guy Laroche label and his three collections to date have been huge successes with both press and buyers alike. He has been praised for his perfect tailoring, his beautiful sense of colour and his "well-made, sophisticated, sexy clothes with a minimum of fussiness". He has also managed to update Laroche classics and it will be exciting to see his modern take on the Saint Laurent smoking and safari suit. A new studio will be set up for him in a town mansion adjacent to Saint Laurent's Parisian couture house.

Taking over from the master will not be an easy task, but Elbaz does not seem to be too daunted. In the past he has claimed that "I don't want to be a star ... I just want to make beautiful clothes". About his move to Saint Laurent, he says: "I'm not going there for the career. I'm going for the dream."