FROM THE MAGAZINE

Alber Elbaz Reflects on the Moments That Defined His Fashion Career


Courtesy of Alber Elbaz.
Courtesy of Alber Elbaz.

In October 2016, one year after he was abruptly fired as creative director of Lanvin, Alber Elbaz was awarded France’s highest honor, the Légion d’Honneur. “As it was while I was between jobs, I thought, God, who will come? Who will remember me? And we just invited 20 friends,” recalled the much beloved designer during an interview in February to promote a new business, just two months before his life would be shockingly cut short by Covid-19. “I mean, loyalty is not something that we’re known for in the fashion industry, right?” Elbaz said in his signature self-deprecating style, even though more than 450 people ultimately RSVP’d to see him receive that honor. “Ninety-nine percent of the people that I’ve met throughout my career and my life I really like,” he said. “Somehow, bad people don’t get glued to my side. They slide off.” Elbaz’s return to fashion five years later with a line called AZ Factory, which eschewed the old industry trappings of runway shows, seasons, and snobbery, was a triumph for the designer, but the tragedy of his sudden loss put into perspective the fact that his true gift was gracefulness. Elbaz’s ribbed knit dresses were made available in a broad range of sizes, designed to support and shape, and featured zipper pulls that made putting them on a cinch. “I just want to make a dress that hugs you,” he said, alluding to his observations of how real women dress while traveling on his extended hiatus. Reminiscing on the key moments in his life, seen here with comments that strike even more poignantly after his death, Elbaz added: “I think it’s good to be a bit of an immigrant, to travel, to see and experience things.”

Courtesy of Alber Elbaz.

“This is me on the first day of school, maybe age 6. You can tell I was a nerd,” said Elbaz, who was born in Morocco and moved to Israel as an infant. “My friends and classmates never shamed me for drawing women and clothes. On the contrary, they always told me, ‘One day, you’ll be a big designer in Paris.’ I don’t know if they meant a big designer or an oversize designer. But in Paris, I am.”

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“I recognize myself through my haircuts, so I know this is when I was at Saint Laurent. And that is the one and only Catherine Deneuve. There is this humbleness and simplicity and loyalty and kindness and friendship that this woman gives to everyone. So what is the quality of a star? That’s being a star.”

Courtesy of Alber Elbaz.

Elbaz started drawing at an early age. “I think I was 7 or 8 years old, and I was already a hypochondriac, as you can tell by the nurses,” he said. “It went from nurses to police ladies—women in charge, you see, is the story of my life. I was asthmatic as a little kid, so I always went with my mom to the doctor, and here is the result.”

Courtesy of Alber Elbaz.

After Elbaz moved to New York City, in the late 1980s, the legendary retailer Dawn Mello introduced him to Geoffrey Beene, who hired him as an assistant designer on the spot. “For seven and a half years, I sat next to him, and everything I do today is because of him. I belong to his school: There are a lot of clothes that look great on the hanger, because there is a front and a back, but Mr. Beene always said that in fashion, there is no front and back. There is what’s in between, which is the woman.”

Courtesy of Alber Elbaz.

“This was in Thailand, at Amanpuri, probably right after yoga and breakfast. So that was me, totally exhausted. This is what my vacations were usually like, because I’m such a workaholic. I would be working seven days a week, 14, 16 hours a day. And you have this dream of what you are going to do on vacation—you’re going to do this and that, and go here and there. Then you get there, and you just sleep for a week.”

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“After New York, I moved to Paris to work for Guy Laroche. A year later, Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent called to see me. I had always dreamt of working with Saint Laurent, but I never thought that he would ask me to replace part of his work. From 1998 to 2000, I did the ready-to-wear, and he did the couture. I don’t think that, at the time, I understood the importance of taking on a house like that—that it was not really a house but an institution, a symbol of France. It was very interesting, but it was not the easiest moment of my life, I have to be honest.” Above: Elbaz with models after his debut ready-to-wear collection for Yves Saint Laurent, for fall 1999.

Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images.

Elbaz in 1998, when he started at Yves Saint Laurent.

Courtesy of Alber Elbaz.

When Kevin Systrom, a cofounder of Instagram (above, with his wife, Nicole, and Elbaz), made the rounds at Paris Fashion Week, he asked the designer if he had an account. “I said no; I don’t take photos of food, and my friends are not photogenic,” Elbaz recalled. “But then, at one point, I got an account and started to receive so many love messages that my first post ever was dedicated to Kevin. I understood that it was also a tool to pass love. We have to use social media in a good way. I always said, if you have something bad to say, shut up. Everything is a boomerang, and it will come back to you.”

Courtesy of Alex Koo.

“The idea for the AZ Factory project started over many lunches and dinners, when I saw how women were challenged by the whole issue of food and body image. I realized it’s no longer about being a killer designer; maybe it’s about being a healer designer.”

Courtesy of Polimoda.

“After Lanvin, when I was outside of fashion, I started to do a lot of teaching and master classes. Here, I’m at Polimoda, in Italy. One of the girls did menswear, and all the guys she sketched were inside of a coffin. So I’m like, ‘What is this coffin?’ And she tells me, ‘I’m Sicilian.’ And I said, ‘And, and, and?’ And she’s like, ‘I told my boyfriend I was pregnant after eight years, and he left me. So I hit him with my car.’ I said to her, ‘You know what, let’s get rid of the coffin. Let’s make sure it’s amazing without the coffin, and that we make him so jealous that you don’t have to kill him.’ ”

Courtesy of Alber Elbaz.

“I fell in love with yoga during the year I was traveling,” said Elbaz, seen here in Thailand, of the period just after his dramatic departure from Lanvin, in 2015. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with myself, and I thought, Maybe I can become a yogi. But I’m so clumsy that I can’t even do the tree position.”

Anthony Ghnassia/WireImage/Getty Images.

“This was a party for my collaboration with Tod’s in 2019. I said, ‘Let’s do a shoe for dancing, a shoe for a bride, and a shoe for a birthday party.’ We called the project Happy Moments. The secret is not to do parties just for the photos, but to go with your intuition and say, What is it that is going to make you happy?”

Courtesy of Alex Koo.

“This was my card, and I asked someone from my team if she had a lipstick, because we didn’t have a marker. I thought there was something very edgy about this. Now that nobody’s wearing lipstick anymore, I think we can use lipsticks as markers and write messages.”

Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images.

“This was at Versailles, in 2019, at a big party to support some hospitals in Paris—once a hypochondriac, always a hypochondriac. Every time I go to any of these dinners, I’m like, Why did I say yes? It’s very tricky, because they always invite you six months in advance, and then you go, and you never know where you are going to sit. But when you end up next to someone really fabulous, it’s an amazing moment. Audrey [Marnay, above right] modeled for us, and I always loved her.”

Courtesy of Tim Walker.

“There is something funny about this photo, even though my expression is not funny. I didn’t know at the time why Tim asked me to hold the flower,” Elbaz said of this portrait taken by Tim Walker in 2009. “Now, when I see this image, I think it wouldn’t be the same without it. Sometimes we have to let go with artists, because intuition and instinct are much more important than data and algorithm.”

Courtesy of Nicolas Kuttler.

“I know that everybody likes stretch fabrics; they make you look skinny. But I thought, What is that obsession with skinny, skinny, skinny?” said Elbaz, whose AZ Factory collection offers a size range from XXS to 4X. “I thought, I’m going to hug women with my dresses. All those fish bones that we used to put on the corset, I moved them and put them in the back—so all of a sudden, instead of pushing, we support. We are building solutions for body positivity about aging and sizes. That is something that I’m going to continue. I would like to do not just collections, but one continuous story that is really meaningful.” Above and below (2): Looks from AZ Factory.

Courtesy of Nicolas Kuttler.

Courtesy of Nicolas Kuttler.