Prestige issue 260, March 2015
We Love You!
A true visionary, an influential fashion icon, a silhouette alchemist… a true artist. At the helm of Lanvin since 2001, Alber Elbaz revived the world’s oldest couture fashion house, a sleeping beauty until his arrival. His down-to-earth creations ooze timeless elegance… with a touch of fun, the Alber way. Lanvin knows no age barrier and translates easily across the generations. Meryl Streep, Charlize Theron, Emma Stone, Natalie Portman, Jessica Alba, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Kardashian, Helen Mirren… The French fashion house has become a red-carpet favorite. How can it not? Lanvin stirs emotions, from its logo, a mother and daughter holding hands, to its designs crafted in the ateliers of brand in the heart of Paris. In his Parisian office clad in black, Alber Elbaz talks to Prestige about his idea of happiness, the essence of design, industrial couture and the importance of having an atelier in-house. His piercing eyes, his sense of humor and his candidness are as compelling as his love for women. These same women he wants to protect and empower with his impeccably tailored suits and dresses.
Lanvin celebrated 125 years… And yourself are celebrating 12 years at the helm of the oldest fashion house in the industry. What would you like people to wish you? More happiness! I think happiness is a very important word, it can take us to good places. I always believe that unhappy people are creating unhappy products, and happy people are creating happy products. My mother used to say that love brings love and I think that she’s right… I think that happiness brings happiness.
Happiness or the mood in general can affect perception and creation? We were working on this project of an exhibition in Palais Galliera (Jeanne Lanvin exhibition from March 8th till August 23rd 2015, ed.). So we sent some things by email and the return was «we don’t like it at all»… And today we saw the people, and they loved it. So what made the difference between I love and I don’t love? What made the difference between not liking it yesterday and adoring it today? I think it’s the human touch. We are living in a society where the internet is changing the world, almost as much as the wheel changed the world at a time and the industrial revolution changed the world a hundred years ago… The internet was invented to help people communicate… But more and more we see that it’s not really helping communication because it’s just one way, and everything you say, no matter what you say, always has a bit of a harsh feel to it. But the moment you look at the person, and you see their eyes, and you touch and you smile and you hear the voice, everything passes through different channels and it’s so much easier…
So are you «connected»? I don’t really have an email address, I don’t send 150 emails a day, I don’t receive them. I don’t communicate that way. I’m still using a pen and a paper. I think it’s important to keep the intuition and the feeling towards things. A lot of things are very formula oriented. In other words, if you have a store, you have to do this, if you’re doing a collection it has to be that. If you’re doing a red carpet dress it should be like this, etc… I think that in luxury, in our domain, the one thing that is most important is to keep the intuition, to keep that moment that has no reason and you cannot explain why but it’s there. This is what made creativity go on. Because the moment you put creativity and you put it into a formula, and into a system, it can make creativity lose its individuality… For me, a big part of the luxury industry is individuality, is to be unique, to be different, to buy one bag that you are the one person that has it, to have that dress that was done for you. That’s for me the essence.
But we have seen a lot of this individuality disappear with the globalization of luxury. The same items are available anywhere in the world. Jeanne Lanvin used to create specific collections to a country… The moment our client will see another client, and will say «I know this dress, I know what season it is from, I have the same…», then I know that I didn’t do a good job. The collections we do are almost if they are industrial couture. Almost everything we do is like one of a kind. The way we put it together, all the workmanship, the atelier, the finishing, the fabric… it all comes from the couture tradition, but we industrialize it. So in order to make it relevant to women of today, you don’t need to go with five fittings, you just come one time and you buy couture of the rack. I love that, I think this is what makes life easier for women.
Lanvin still uses its own atelier, a rarity in the industry today. How important is it to keep the atelier in-house? It’s more than important. Imagine a conductor without his orchestra… I will not be able to do my music if I don’t have my orchestra! A lot of our work process is the essence of design. We start with an idea, then we see it on a toile, then we try one color, then we change, etc… until we know that this is it! the piece is done. It’s like a painter who just knows when to stop… I used to think that all those changes mean that I’m not very stable in my head (laughs), because one day I love it, one day I hate it… So I thought where’s the loyalty? But I realized it’s not about the changes, it’s all about the process. What you see today you might not see tomorrow, and vice versa. So we have to let go, we have to use time as an important tool of creation… You cannot do all this without an atelier.
You were saying we could wish you more happiness… What is the idea of happiness for Alber Elbaz? I would say happiness is to be free… and I’m a free man! Doing what I love, doing what I believe in, working with people that I enjoy, are a real source of happiness. It is such a luxury to work with people you like. I will not work with people I don’t like, people that are difficult. When interviewing people, I look first for smart, then for good, and talent comes in third. I’m not looking for talented nasty people… and I’m not looking for nice people that are untalented!
We were talking earlier about the creative process and the importance of being able to let go… A designer once told me that you never design for yourself, and, like a mother you have to nurture your creation, then you have to let it have a life of its own. Is that an easy process? It’s a beautiful process! As a male designer and with my size, you know I am not creating for myself, I’m not exactly size 6! (laughs)… Most of the designs always start from a fantasy, then it shifts to a need. This is also the essence of design, the mix between the rational and the emotional. You have to understand a need, the price point, the season, the country, the tradition and the culture and then you have to bring in the dream. It becomes interesting when you have the two together. The most beautiful thing is to see the interpretation of the person wearing my dress. For me, one of the most beautiful moments is when we have the fashion show. I arrive early in the morning to the venue and see all the people from Lanvin, from all around the world, from different ages, with different body types, with different personalities… They’re all wearing Lanvin but each one wears it her own way. I don’t want to be a dictator telling women what’s in or out, what’s fashionable or not, etc… Today women are independent.
«I’m more inspired by stories and words then by a vintage skirt from London…»
How do you see the woman of today? I think it’s much more difficult to be a woman today than a man. Women have much tougher lives than men. They have to be on all fronts: be great in their job and be there for their family… They are so pragmatic, while men are more linear. Women are more rounded, not only in the shape but in their way of thinking. I’m big fan of women. I like the woman that takes charge of her life, it doesn’t mean that she has to be a career woman. One time a friend of mine left me a message saying she’s getting a divorce… She was going to court, wearing a Lanvin suit that made her feel so protected… I felt good that I could give her a little bit of protection, because the only form of protection I can give women is in the form of beauty. Beauty never goes out of style, no matter what you do and no matter where you are from…
If you didn’t love women, would you have been able to be a women’s designer? My biggest dream was to be a doctor! That’s what I would have loved to do. But again it’s about working and helping people. I see what I do now as trying to make women feel good without any side effects. It’s not in the form of medication but in the form of beauty, and comfort. I do it my way, without following a trend… I never did, I do what I feel. I have to go with my emotion, I have to go with myself, with my own truth. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose…
There is a lot of emotion linked to Lanvin: whether the love of Jeanne Lanvin for her daughter, the love you have for women, the love women have for the brand and you or the feeling you have when you wear a Lanvin dress… This is something very specific to Lanvin. Yes, it is very specific to the house. As you know, our logo is not a lion, or a tiger or a horse. I don’t know if fortunately or unfortunately. It’s just a mother and a daughter and that relationship between the two. I try to take the logo forward also in the work I do. When I started here, I didn’t want to do clothes just for the cool and edgy discotheque generation. I also created for younger girls, and I felt perfectly ok if the same clothes were worn by elder women. It’s not about «let’s make it young or let’s make it old». It’s about making it the way you believe, and making it beautiful. I do not design for a specific target customer who has to be really fashionable and really rich. You know there are a lot of other people around that are not that rich and not that young, and they will still love it because for them it will be a dream and not a lifestyle. So there you have two customers, one that is living it and one that is dreaming of it… I think it’s ok not to be that specific.
You like to pamper your guests and journalists at your shows with food and drinks… First of all I love to eat. I’m also very Mediterranean, so it’s part of our culture! (laughs). You know the journalists come to Paris after Milan, London and New York fashion weeks. They are tired, they saw 20 shows a day… They want to see an edited collection, they want to see one story otherwise they get confused. I like journalists, they are smart people in our industry. They are thinkers, they are people that can intrigue me, that can question me. They are the judge of fashion, now a bit less. I want to challenge a journalist. I want them to look at things and ask questions. I think when they finish the show and they write the review in the taxi between the two shows, it’s almost unfair to the whole industry because they’re on the deadline. On several occasions, journalists came up to me saying «Alber, I gave you a bad review, but I saw the collection again a week later and I loved it! I am so sorry.» But it’s too late (laughs)!
Lanvin keeps its shows very simple: no overwhelming decor… We don’t want to trick people. Provocation like in history doesn’t work. Rebellion only works for that specific moment, not on the longer term. It makes a lot of noise but fades with time. So you have to do it progressively.
Is Lanvin where you envisioned it to be thirteen years ago when you started? It will be! My mom has always pushed me forward because she always said that nothing is ever enough… You have to work harder. If I feel that everything is perfect, I would leave. But there are so many things to do! And the more you do, the more you find things that have to be done.
What’s in the future for Lanvin? It is open… We have to feel the moment and move forward. Of course certain things have to actually be projected… Once I met a group of MBA students from Stanford University. I asked what’s your dream? And one of them said: to be serene and content. It surprised me at first. I said content and happiness in our business means that you’re losing the hunger, that you don’t need anything because you’re content so you become more passive than active. After a while I realized that maybe he’s right. When you’re content, you do not work on emotions like when you are hungry. You don’t have to jump, you have to think and this is the essence of business.
What is your greatest fear? Everything scares me! Walking in the street, being hit by a car, not being able to create… I’m also a hypochondriac beyond believe.
Do you let this fear paralyze you? Some people will tell you that fear is actually a motor. It depends from what angle and what perspective you look at it. Love can make or break you. Power can enforce you or kill you. The issue is to find the middle without being mediocre. Because being mediocre is the worse! In design this is one of the most difficult things, because it is very easy to be totally commercial, it’s not difficult at all to be totally crazy, but to find that kind of middle, this kind of simple with a twist. This takes a lot of energy.
You are one of the rare designers who dress the windows by himself. You published with Rizzoli the book «Lanvin: I love you» about the windows of the boutique. You use a lot of mannequins that remind me of dolls… Initially, I wanted to do a book about our windows. But little by little, as we worked on it with Rizzoli, all of a sudden, I didn’t see windows anymore, I just saw women. The window was not important. It was more about characters, about the women. So we started giving names to those mannequins and making stories about them. In the end, it was no longer a window book but as a book about women and stories. This is something I really enjoyed.
You love telling stories… And I also love to hear stories! Stories for me are such an inspiration. I’m more inspired by stories and words then by a vintage skirt from London. The visual inspires me less but a story is so much more abstract and deep.
Do you get inspired by the women you meet? Everything can inspire you: a moment, a conversation, a music, a painting, a piece of fabric, a shape, even a mistake. Sometimes I hear people saying we don’t have time to design because we are so busy… I say you don’t need time to design. It’s like you don’t have to ask for time to be a good parent, you are a good parent or you are not. Sometimes you don’t have to give, you have to be and the kids learn by watching. And the same is with design and creation. You don’t have to take the time to dream, it just comes and goes…
Who inspired you in your professional life? Geoffrey Beene whom I worked for, for so many years. Saint Laurent, with his talent and aura from the time I worked with him. I learn from people I work with, even here from my assistant. I also learn a lot from my mistakes, this is always a good school for me.
And in your personal life? I have so much inspiration in my professional life, I don’t need more of that in my personal life. I just need a reality show and Star Academy, and Pizza Hut and I’m happy! (laughs)
So you’re a TV person? You know, I start at 9am and finish at 10pm… In the end of the day, I meet so many people, deal with so many problems that I don’t really need to go out to a café and have a glass of wine, especially that I don’t like to drink… I just want to go home, put some music, read a book, or watch a movie, or catch up on some TV shows. You can even find me watching Keeping up with the Kardashian! I love Kim and I didn’t really know her until she called me after she read an interview where I talked about her. We became good friends… We live in a time where everybody is saying bad things about everyone, and I learn, day after day, that it’s better to say good things about people, if it’s the truth.
What are your favorite colors? I don’t have a favorite color, or a favorite movie, or a favorite book, etc. I like to dress in black because I work with mirrors and I need to disappear in them… It all depends on the mood of the day.
What’s your definition of elegance? Personnal style.
And of luxury? Rarity.
What is your relationship with time? Time is a notion of luxury that we do not have anymore. It is such an issue today, because we are always rushing… We are in an endless marathon, running for the highest, the best…
Lanvin SS15 collection ©Lanvin
«I would love to come to Lebanon, I hear it’s a dream country combining tradition and newness…»
Do you judge a book by its cover? Yes, I’m in the design business. It’s the same thing with music, with movies and sometimes with an exhibition. We are trapped with façade and with packaging. This is life, we cannot fight it. It’s normal.
You never go out without? Shoes! (laughs)
If you could walk in someone else’s shoes for one day, who would that be? Georges Clooney. (laughs)
You were born in Morocco, do you still have memories of your time there? I was born in Morocco but I left really early afterwards. It’s only at the age of 35 or 36 that I came back. And now it’s a place I go to twice a year. My parents used to talk a lot about Morocco so when I came back so many years later, for a moment it didn’t feel new to me or strange… I feel very comfortable there, it’s like India, there is a certain energy, a certain light. You are emerged in a new world, with new values. I love the generosity of Morocco, its people. I love the food, I love the smell. Even though I was not there for many years, I feel that I own Morocco and Morocco owns me and I love it. It’s very much my culture. When I travel, I either like it or don’t like it… It only takes a minute, I feel it or I don’t. And I adore Morocco. I’ve never been to Lebanon yet unfortunately.
You have to come and visit Lebanon. You would love it. I would love to come! I hear so many good things about Lebanon. I hear it’s fantastic, a dream country that is full of tradition, full of culture, newness and energy. You know, my first job ever when I moved to New York was with a company that designed mother-of-the-bride clothing. It was owned by a Lebanese-American family…So my first experience in the US was actually lebanese!
Conducted in Paris by MARIA NADIM