Alber Elbaz: 'I hate the word cool'

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...and yet, in just 10 years, Alber Elbaz transformed Lanvin into one of the world's most desirable fashion brands.

Following the final sequence of Alber Elbaz's 10th anniversary collection for Lanvin – all jewel-coloured, frilled, embroidered and over-embroidered cocktail dresses and mirrored tiger-head pendants the size of small dinner plates – the curtains at the end of the runway parted to reveal the designer, flanked by a band and with microphone in hand.

"This is a song to all these people from fashion who I adore and who helped me to realise my dream," he said. And then this diminutive figure, normally backwards in coming forwards and far from famed for posturing either on the catwalk or off it, sang.

"When I was just a little boy, I asked my mother, what will I be...? Que sera, sera..." he crooned, and if the sound of it was unlikely ("I'm a terrible singer," Elbaz admitted) it seemed all the more incongruous given his not entirely down-with-the-kids uniform of thick-lensed, black-framed glasses, black trouser suit with studiously just-a-little-too-short trousers and just-a-little-off-centre bow tie.

There are not many surprises left in fashion – you name it, someone, somewhere has done it – which perhaps accounts for the ovation that followed being more heartfelt than most. Let's face it, this is a world that boasts its fair share of these too. But then M Elbaz is a highly individual designer and easier to love than many for that. Over the past decade he has not only turned around the fortunes of Lanvin, which was languishing in obscurity when he took the helm in 2002, but has also come to represent a respect for craft, technique and talent over and above the usual obsession with marketing, merchandising and styling. This has earnt him many followers, both within the industry and outside it. Add to this the fact that Elbaz is open almost to the point of foolhardiness, warm to the point of brotherly, and, at the same time, clearly as strong as an ox, and the effect is as refreshing as it is potent. Make no mistake, behind this infinitely approachable exterior lurks a will of iron.

"There have been a lot of changes in fashion," he says when we meet in a quiet corner of the bar of the Hotel Crillon in Paris – Elbaz appears to feel very much at home amid the understated but unmistakeably grand, old-school ambience there. "And the question is how do you fit into it? Should you fit into it? ["Que Sera, Que Sera"] was a song, I thought, for the whole industry. You know how it is. One day people love you, you're in, the next day, you're out. One day you're fired, and one day you're hired. So it was a song for my colleagues. The future is not ours to see. What will be, will be. We are always trying to think who's going where, what will he do? Who is going to take over? What, when, why?"

Elbaz refuses to name names. He doesn't need to. Rumours abound on who will – and won't – be presiding over some of fashion's most prestigious houses. The question of who is "in" or "out", as Elbaz puts it, has never seemed so pertinent. Before John Galliano had even cleared his desk at Dior last spring, every one of his contemporaries worth mentioning had been named as a possible successor. At Yves Saint Laurent, it can't have been easy for Stefano Pilati to complete his last two collections all while speculation regarding his imminent departure and the appointment of Hedi Slimane to that label was rife. Only days before the Lanvin show in question took place, meanwhile, while he too was working on what turned out to be his swansong collection for Jil Sander, Raf Simons was unceremoniously let go. The designer was visibly shaken when he stepped out to take his final bows. It wasn't until last month that his appointment as artistic director of Dior was announced.

"I've been there," says Elbaz. And indeed he has. "All of a sudden, this divorce is being published everywhere and everybody knows who said what and how difficult it is." It is, by now, the stuff of fashion history that, in 1998, Elbaz was hand-picked by Yves Saint Laurent to design his women's ready-to-wear. Elbaz was designing Guy Laroche at the time. "I was fascinated by the idea of working for a man [Saint Laurent] who was more of a legend, and more the name of a company, than a real person," he told me when we first met not long after. "But then I talked to him, he was so human and so down-to-earth that you kind of forgot that you are sitting with... With Marilyn Monroe!"

Despite the fact that the critics applauded Elbaz's two-season tenure at Yves Saint Laurent, in 1999, the Gucci Group bought the name and self-proclaimed control freak and creative director, Tom Ford, was unable to resist the challenge of taking over himself. Elbaz was duly dismissed.

"It was hard," Elbaz has since said of that split. "Of course it was hard. There were times that I wondered whether I would ever be able to work in this business again. I was embarrassed to go out to fashion places, embarrassed to call people because I thought they would never call back."

He promptly disappeared, leaving Paris to travel around the world. Thankfully for fashion, 12 months later, he returned and accepted the position at Lanvin, a French couture house founded, in 1909, by Jeanne Lanvin and bought by the Chinese-born entrepeneur, Shaw-Lan Wang in 2001. His first show for the label – a gentle mix of subtly-deconstructed tweeds shot through with barely-visible threads of gold and all worn with paper-thin ballerina pumps long before they were ubiquitous – immediately identified him as having something new, something lovely and something refreshingly woman-friendly to offer the world.

That was then. Ten years later, we are looking at a hefty book published this month – a celebration of the achievement of Elbaz and his team at this still comparatively small but influential house. "I didn't want to do a very, very big book," Elbaz says, over a plate of magret de canard. "The book is small and fat. It's me." Also him, is the contrast between "the rich and the poor"; the plain cloth cover stamped unobtrusively with the Lanvin signature offset against gleaming gilded edges and the copious white space that belies the personal, even intimate, nature of the imagery shot by photographer But-Sou Lai, who has been working behind the scenes for some time.

If it is the intention with most fashion books to blind readers with glamour and gloss, here we see instead the workings of the fashion process exposed. There are close-ups of pin cushions and loose threads, of floral-print fabrics and notoriously hard-to-handle gazars. Elbaz's cute drawings, often accompanied by words ("Nice dress," says one coquettish Parisienne to another) are seen alongside flat patterns, Stockman dummies and lasts. Models are photographed on the catwalk but more often in fittings, so too are seamstresses, secretaries and PRs at work. There are pictures of show running orders, seating plans, great dustbins full of Nespresso capsules, half-eaten food. This is about Lanvin as a team, and Elbaz is often present but, significantly, rarely centre stage.

"I thought that at a time like now, when the whole industry is about the six minutes of the show and a review that is being written in a taxi because then there is the next one, I thought, I'm going to show everyone how much effort goes into making a single dress," he says. "I wanted to show how many threads you have to put together to make one rose; how much thought goes into a button. I wanted to show a shoe in the factory in Italy being held like a baby by an old man and then attached to a machine as if it was going to the dentist. I wanted to show the jewellery. And I wanted to show the people. All the people. We had 3,000 pictures in total and we picked the ones we liked, of course, and then we went back to make sure that every single person involved is in the book, that nobody had been missed out. They are all part of it."

The book opens with 100 white pages. "I was worried that people would think that was gimmick-y," Elbaz says. "But it's not about being cool. I hate the word cool. It gives me a rash. If you take something out of the freezer it's cold, but what happens when it melts? It's a cool party, a cool person, a cool collection. What does that mean? I'm more interested in things that are uncool, things that have a certain individuality, a certain soul, a certain longevity, emotion, fragility..."

True to his word, each leaf is printed with decidedly uncool one-line Elbaz-isms: "If it's not edible, it's not food. If it's not wearable, it's not fashion." "In the winter we sell bathing suits, in the summer, coats. Go figure". "Day after day, season after season, we start with a dream."

Alber Elbaz was born in Casablanca on 12 June, 1961 and grew up in the suburbs of Tel Aviv. His father was a hairdresser who died when he was 15, at which point his mother went to work as a waitress to support her four children: two sons, two daughters. Elbaz studied fashion at Shenkar College in that city. His teacher was Shelly Verthine, who co-edited the new book and remains Elbaz's close friend and creative collaborator. "Shelly was my teacher and is still my teacher," he says of a woman who remains integral to his work and is often seen by his side. "The mythological teacher who brings things out of you." Despite the fact that Elbaz oversees a Lanvin menswear collection too, his team is predominantly female.

Following graduation, aged 24, Elbaz moved to New York and designed "mother-of-the-bride dresses for $150 – and that was expensive" before moving to Geoffrey Beene. It wasn't long before he was that elusive and revered designer's right-hand man. He remained there from 1989 to 1996, a lifetime in terms of fashion.

"It was an amazing place to work, the best school. I stayed there because I was happy working a little bit outside the circuit, because he had his vision about fashion, because he had the best style." The brilliant forefather of today's more minimally-minded designers, Beene was also entirely focused on design as opposed to the brouhaha that, to a greater or lesser extent, appears to spring up around it. He was also, Elbaz has said – and he is one of few who might claim truly to have known him – "a wonderful man". Elbaz then moved to Paris.

"Stay big in your work and small in your life," Alber Elbaz's mother always told him. "Be modest," is how he explains the words now. "I'm not a religious person in the regular sense but in the Bible you're not allowed to steal, you're not allowed to lie and you're not allowed to feel you're above other people."

The designer's quieter way is surely an inspiration for a new generation less likely to rely on the notion of the superstar designer, as spearheaded by Tom Ford, ironically enough, and to concentrate on the clothes themselves. It is a position he continues to uphold without compromise to the point of being evangelical.

"I never met Sarah Burton in the past, for example," Elbaz says of the Alexander McQueen designer, "but when I saw a picture of her at the [royal] wedding and, while everybody was there with their pretty hats seated, she was the only one who didn't have a hat on and she was on the floor fixing the dress; I thought it was so beautiful I wrote her a note. And to see Phoebe [Philo, of Celine] who is doing such an amazing job and because she's having a baby she decides to do a smaller show and to care for that baby... I mean that is amazing. And, you know what, it will do her business no harm whatsoever. Quite the opposite. These are the moments that are important to me." It goes without saying that such kind words directed towards other designers – those who might be seen as competitors in an over-crowded market to boot – is unprecedented.

Of the nature of fame, he says: "You ask people what they want to do and they say, 'I want to be famous' but I always say that fame is something that works perfectly if you want to get a good table at a restaurant in a hurry or you need a doctor and his secretary is into fashion. I want to go back to the real thing though, to actresses who act, painters who paint and designers who design. I was in Russia recently and I went to a department store. You know, you see the fashion, one rack here, one rack there, but then you go to the bag department and it's the size of Monaco, you go to the shoe department and it's like Arizona. It's enormous. And I'm thinking, maybe we should make women wear bags. But I was trained to do textiles, to do fabrics, and to dress women."

And dress them he does, in traditional couture silks and satins alongside more technologically advanced materials and always, for the sake of modernity, with a vaguely industrial edge – a visible metal zip here, a neckline edged with brass there. For the forthcoming season, Elbaz thought nothing of designing jewellery so oversized that the only way to make it a practical reality was to use plastic in place of real stones.

"The sapphires, the emeralds the rubies, they're all plastic," he says happily of the great baubles and beads that will no doubt sell out within hours of arriving in store. He's equally pleased with a sequence of dresses made in the type of foam that is normally the preserve of underwear and, specifically, bras. "There's no fabric that is more intimate. It just holds you," Elbaz muses. It is testimony to the very personal nature of his work that Elbaz has, both for the forthcoming season and in the past, also adorned it with his own sketches: a rounded, bespectacled caricature of his own face has been known to appear. A light-hearted quality in no way detracts from his status as a serious technician, however. Elbaz's understanding of volume, drape and proportion and his respect for workmanship is second to none. In 2005, Elbaz won the Council of Fashion Designers (CFDA) International Award. In 2007 he was named Chevalier of the French Légion d'Honneur for his work.

At the end of the soon-to-be published book, Elbaz writes: "Love and respect to Madame Wang, who asked me to wake up the Sleeping Beauty and allowed me to fly".

"They are very good to me at Lanvin," he explains. "They give me my liberty. If we were part of a group it might be easier for me in some ways. We live on what we sell. We don't have anyone who says: 'Don't worry, we'll inject another 100 million and do a big publicity campaign'. So I always say that we're like a small yacht, not the Titanic, and that means we make our own decisions. Sometimes, when you work for big organisations, there are so many committees that you have to go through..."

To say that Elbaz adopts a hands-on approach would be an understatement.

"That's how I spend my life," he says. "I start with drawings but I don't give the sketches to the atelier and then say, 'OK, I'll see you, I'll be in the Caribbean on the 17th and on the 18th I leave for Santa Fé'. No, I'm always in fittings, I'm always perfecting things. I'm always there. In the end, I don't think our industry is particularly scary. It's as scary as any mess and it seems to me that every industry is a mess. If you put 10 people together and they have power and they have strength, it's kind of dangerous.

"But I'm not afraid of the system. I'm part of it. Sometimes the system helps you. Sometimes it chokes you. You know, if you send me on vacation, I'm clueless, I can't even climb from a dinghy to a yacht. Can you imagine me on the beach? Maybe if I was a skinny, handsome man my career would have been different. Maybe then I would have been more, like, 'Hellooo, look at my dresses'." Instead, Alber Elbaz works tirelessly making others more beautiful. "I'm hiding in my studio somehow," he says. "And in my studio I feel loved and I love."

'Alber Elbaz – Lanvin' is published by Steidl/Dangin, £250, and is available from Lanvin, 183 Mount Street, London W1, and via steidlville.com

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