Alber Elbaz was a unicorn of the fashion world. He squandered the idea that the industry was brimming with spite and snobbery and posed an antithesis. He preached the fairytale – that the tall poppy home of style, creators and ethereal glamour was actually rich with collaboration, support and unstoppable dreams.
“I think we are one of the nicest industries in the world…I can tell you that fashion – even though we always sound fake and affected and ignorant…I have to tell you that in fashion I met a lot of great friends, good people.”
For this and so much more, he was cherished by his comrades. An enigmatic renegade that both revelled in fashion’s splendour and vouched to improve its inclusivity.
The news of his passing last night has spurned shock and sadness around the globe. The celebrated designer wielded a career serendipitously deserved. In particular, a famed 14 years as creative director of French fashion house, Lanvin. Unlike many others, Elbaz wore his heart on his superbly cuffed sleeve. He was known for his cheeky quips and romantic observations, his quotes often charmingly served in interviews and post shows. “If it’s not edible, it’s not food. If it’s not wearable, it’s not fashion.” – for example.
The Moroccan-born and Israeli-raised designer learned his craft under the precision of atelier Geoffrey Beene before taking up senior positions at Guy Laroche and Yves Saint Laurent. But it was his appointment at Lanvin in 2001 that distinguished his professional name. Credited with reigniting the then ailing brand, under his direction Lanvin became an It-label for high-fashion notables, well-dressed customers and the celebrity A-list. People like Meryl Streep, Natalie Portman and Michelle Obama loyal to his exquisite, relaxed sophistication.
Portman told TIME magazine in 2007 (when Elbaz was listed as part of their world’s 100 most influential people) “He says things to me like: ‘Wear flats. You’re short. It’s much cooler not to pretend.’” Elbaz designed with precision and talent but more so with earnestness, heart and large dose of humour. He loved the female form and celebrating women was foremost in his design process.
His shows at Lanvin became one of the most sort after tickets at fashion weeks and his collections rapturously received. He fused the label’s historical sensual silhouette with his own vision, inviting moments of tactility and detail while introducing the practical.
“For instance, dresses in the first collection, a lot of people said they were very romantic, I didn’t see the romantic side of the dresses; I saw the easiness, the simplicity. I saw waking up in the morning and having your kids, and your husband and your mother on the phone, and your work calling you, that was before the SMS, like 10 years ago, now they do that as well. Women need something a little bit more easy in their wardrobe, instead of thinking every morning what goes with what, they just zip it in and at night zip it out.”
In 2015 Elbaz was famously ousted from the label, after a rumoured disagreement with its key investors. It was a dramatic end to what was still a furiously successful pairing. From then, Elbaz took five years away from the spotlight, telling journalists he needed “to fall in love with fashion again.” Then, last year he announced his next step – his own venture under parent company Richemont named AZ Factory. The brand was to focus on seasonless classic design and size-inclusivity. Factors both close to Elbaz’s heart.
But it wasn’t just about the fashion. Elbaz conjured a joy that could never be designed. Beauty, and the desire to create a fashion dreamscape was at the core of his soul. He was friend to all, and the tributes have been testament.
Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli posted “When I moved my first step as creative director he welcomed me as no other did…I will miss him but I will relief by admiring the legacy of his work.” Stella McCartney said “He was a light like no other in the world. In fashion, his immense talent shone so bright that it tore up the conventions and wrapped a million souls in happiness.” And Dior’s Maria Grazia Chiuri recalled “He was the first person who made me feel at home in the fashion industry. His favourite word was love and it’s with this word I will always remember him.”
There was an interview some years ago where Elbaz talked about his love for hospitals, how he always like to stay close to one, given he was something of a hypochondriac. It was a warm, personal admission from someone whom held such an esteemed position. One rarely got such raw expression from someone of his ilk. Then, last year, in an interview with Numéro magazine, he iterated his health consciousness again. They discussed his global outlook, particularly in the wake of the pandemic. He lamented his fears, his short-term pessimism, but was resolute that in the long term things would turn for the best. The interview is hauntingly hard to read now.
It’s true that Elbaz will be remembered for his fine art fashion prowess, for his phenomenal knack for designing lusty, glamorous womenswear that made beauty and utility synchronistic, but he’ll too be celebrated for his personal affect. At his shows, Elbaz was known for providing tailored treats like intricately wrapped, custom cookies, after shoots he’d often gift the talent the couture (Kim Kardashian attested this in her Instagram tribute today) and he offered advice and comfort to industry newcomers.
This might be the most poignant part of his legacy – that niceness goes a long way, no matter what you’re wearing.
Elbaz, iconic in his oversized bow-tie, and rounded specs will be sorely missed. And never forgotten.