Lanvin's Alber Elbaz - Simply Divine

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There are dresses, and there are Lanvin sequined goddess dresses. Susannah Frankel asks Alber Elbaz, the label's brilliant designer, how he does it

The dress pictured here is certainly a beautiful thing to behold. A mere slip of a thing, it has a fine tulle base and is covered with small but perfectly formed silver sequins. If it looks simple, it is, in fact, far from it. A body-conscious sequined dress is one thing, as Shirley Bassey, Tina Turner and any number of cabaret artists – female or, indeed, male – all know only too well. A draped, sequined goddess dress, though, is quite another. The £5,000-plus price tag may, then, be at least partly explained by the dedication and sophisticated technique that went into the garment's execution. And while there are few who would ever be able to justify such an expense – they are out there, however, and they know who they are – there are many more who can and do spend a good percentage of their monthly salary on similarly lovely designs courtesy of this quietly influential label.

"For lightness, technical brilliance, and sheer heart-racing excitement, Alber Elbaz's spring collection was one of the most uplifting shows of the entire season," writes Sarah Mower on the all-powerful US Vogue website, style.com. "On a breeze ... he captured fluidity, colour, practicality, and a soaring kind of simplicity that caused a visceral response in every woman watching. When he came out to take his bow, there was a roar of applause from the audience – recognition that this triumph was Elbaz's best Lanvin collection to date, and a celebration that, at long last, someone had come up with the insight to make a collection that is about enhancing the quality of women's lives today."

Mower is by no means the only fashion follower to bow at the altar of Lanvin, the label over which Elbaz has presided since 2001, and which is today a favourite with the fashion insider alongside more obviously grand European houses, from Balenciaga to Yves Saint Laurent.

"I remember a woman telling me that every time she wore a Lanvin dress, men wanted to sleep with her," Elbaz said when we first met. "Later, I thought that I'd rather she fell in love."

Founded in 1889 by the Brittany-born Jeanne Lanvin, the French couture house was bought in 2001 by Mesdames Wong, Yong and Mérieux, who had the temerity to employ Elbaz following his infamously short-but-sweet two-season tenure at Yves Saint Laurent prior to Tom Ford's arrival at the creative helm of the brand. That was in 1999 and it caused a critical stir that was almost too subtle for such loud, proud and designer superstar-driven times.

In retrospect, it is all too easy to see that the designer was ahead of his time. Like Ford, Elbaz had trained in New York, where women's needs are the focus of clothing, over and above any designer histrionics. Unlike Ford, Elbaz, who is Moroccan by origin and was brought up and studied fashion in Tel Aviv, chose to apprentice himself to one designer only, and for no less than seven years. In a world that prides itself on constant renewal, this is an inordinately long time, but then, that is not quite so surprising given that the designer in question was Geoffrey Beene.

Elbaz was introduced to Beene by the retail specialist Dawn Mello (who, coincidentally, is best known today for putting Ford in touch with Gucci). Elbaz says: "That had always been my dream." It did make perfect sense. Beene was a famously modest man, never proclaiming his status, of fashion-deity to stylish American socialites, from the rooftops. Nonetheless, he was one of the most respected fashion designers of the 20th century, an unparalleled creator of women's fashion that was the height of understated luxury and elegance. A much-anticipated retrospective of Beene's work opens in New York later this year.

"It was an amazing place to work, the best school," Elbaz says. "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, because he was all about design, and because he was a wonderful man."

More than a decade on, this would not seem an inaccurate description of Elbaz himself. The designer made his mark at Lanvin right from the start with an outstanding debut collection of tweedy designs shot through with antique-gold thread, which were as dignified as they were beautiful, and as feminine as they were bold. There followed little black dresses with crystal necklaces trapped in double-layered silk-tulle bodices; taffeta trench coats trimmed with diamanté-studded ribbon; black-silk cocktail dresses that transformed into floor-length gowns at the mere loosening of a tie; and more.

While other designers were almost deliberately impenetrable, meanwhile, Elbaz made a point of attending trunk- shows the world over to find out what his customer was looking for, meeting and talking to her in person. He has always said that he loves women and that his vocation is dressing them to perfection. Small wonder, then, that women love him in return.

For the current season, Elbaz says: "I was thinking of birds of paradise. I wanted the dresses, but also the trousers and coats, to enable flight. I wanted simplicity and fluidity, and to make women beautiful. Nothing else."

Goddess dresses, lightweight trench coats (a Lanvin signature by now), and ruffled gowns in tropical colours are totally desirable, not to mention suited to a less narrow view of age, shape and size than much of today's designer fashion. Most importantly, this was a collection that celebrated Elbaz's love affair with technique. "We are working with ateliers all over the world that, in five years, will no longer exist because all the people working in them will retire," he says. "So now is the time to focus on technology and technique."

It is not a pyrotechnic viewpoint. Neither is it trend-led, although Elbaz is always in tune with the prevailing mood. These are clothes created with thought and emotion, and designed to provoke a thoughtful and emotional response. They are precious but never ostentatiously so, and far more than one-season wonders.

"The whole idea of instant fashion that you wear for one day and then throw out the next is no longer relevant," Elbaz says. "When I work, I always think about the women that I know, the women that I want to know, and the people that I love. I'm very romantic and, if we open a dictionary, romanticism is a desire to go back to the past.

"Why do we want to go back to the past? Because it's a bit more protective. At the same time, the result is more twisted than that, more nervous. It's about missing perfection, in a way."

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