The Man Who Loves Women

Lanvin’s Alber Elbaz, a designer with a wonderfully one-track mind, advances his beauty agenda with a new collaboration with Lancôme.

Mikael Jansson

Early every day when he is home in Paris, Alber Elbaz, the designer of Lanvin since 2002, has lunch at the same corner table in the bar restaurant in the Hôtel Crillon. The wood-paneled room is small and dark, which lends a womblike intimacy to the dining experience, a mood that perfectly echoes Elbaz’s personality and style. Unlike most fashion designers who operate on a global scale, Elbaz is a kind of hands-on artisan who specializes in women. He has never been interested in trends or whether his creations—which are almost always beautifully constructed classic shapes with a twist—fit a particular age or demographic. Elbaz is committed to the idea that his clothes be timeless and, in a way, helpful: He wants to make it easier for women to dress for their complicated lives. A washed-silk-taffeta ballerina dress from his first collection, with its full skirt, fitted waist, and bejeweled neckline, is just as desirable today as it was more than a decade ago.

His clothes feel personal. Elbaz is an expert tailor, but he’ll leave an armhole unfinished; he’ll spend days adjusting the fullness of a ruffle so that it doesn’t add volume to the hip, yet he’ll intentionally fray the edges. “I am not interested in perfection, and neither are the women who wear my clothes,” he explained to me one afternoon in early March at the Crillon. It was dreary and cold in Paris, and he was bundled in his usual corner in a black cashmere coat over his uniform of a black suit jacket, black too-short trousers, and a white button-down shirt. A black silk scarf was knotted loosely at his throat, giving him a rogue quality that contrasted with his bookish rectangular glasses and close-cropped hair. Elbaz is small and round and can seem like a cuddly toy, but he is actually precise, aware, and highly observant. While his appearance may be intentionally disarming and a bit theatrical, Elbaz is unusually sincere and thoughtful, especially about the world in which he has chosen to live. At 51, he has worked in fashion for nearly 30 years, including two as the designer for the Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche women’s ­collection. He has, most significantly, revived Lanvin, a long-moribund French couture house, turning it into a multimillion-dollar brand with stores all over the world.

On models: All clothing, accessories, jewelry, and shoes Lanvin. Elbaz wears his own clothing.

Despite the growth of the company, the designer has stayed remarkably focused on his original agenda, which has always been to communicate with women through clothes. “I adore women, and the one thing I want to do more than anything is to see a transformation of personality when someone puts on one of my dresses,” Elbaz told me between bites of sole meunière and Caesar salad. “I’m not a plastic surgeon, and I cannot change the DNA of a person, but when I see a woman try on my clothes and she feels beautiful, I know I am doing my job.” He paused. “It is very hard to be a woman today. The media says you have to be really great in your work, you have to be a wonderful mother, you have to be a great wife, and you have to be skinny! Women try to be the best everywhere, and it’s impossible. I want my clothes to give women the freedom to just be—I want them to put on my dresses and shine.”

Elbaz’s illustration of Lancôme’s Youcef S. Nabi and himself.

Elbaz’s philosophy is contagious: His combination of empathy and talent is rare and hard to resist. Youcef S. Nabi, the president of Lancôme, fell under its spell when he met Elbaz for drinks at the Crillon in 2009. “It was a quick fit,” Nabi said. “I immediately thought of how we could be in business together; but we also became friends, and when you are friends, you are afraid of damaging the relationship with business. I knew that eventually Alber would work with a cosmetics company, and so I told him, ‘If you do something with someone else, I will kill you.’ ” Nabi laughed. “I really wasn’t kidding.”

Lancôme mascaras are international best-sellers, and together, Nabi and Elbaz decided that he should concentrate on those products. “Eyes are so important to me,” Elbaz explained. “When I think of cosmetics, I think of eyes. For Lancôme, I wanted to do something funny and a little hand-made.” Elbaz reimagined the packaging of the mascaras, covering the tubes with his own fanciful drawings: hearts for Hypnôse Doll Lashes, blue stars for Hypnôse Star; pink polka dots for Hypnôse Drama, and cartoonish eyes on the classic Définicils. “I’m hoping that women will collect all four,” Nabi said. While Elbaz will also do eye shadow boxes, for now he has no plans to further extend his relationship with Lancôme. “We’ll do this project and see how it works,” said Elbaz, who is cautious about expanding and diluting his brand. He doesn’t have a secondary, less expensive line, and he is not interested in partnerships unless they make creative sense. “I did do a collection with H&M,” he acknowledged. “But I did it my way. I said, ‘I want to do party clothes. Evening wear!’ I didn’t want to do my Top 10 looks—I wanted to turn H&M into a couture house.”

The H&M-Lanvin collaboration was a massive success—the clothes sold out worldwide within six days. “H&M made me think about where fashion is going and why it is going there,” Elbaz said. “I had to decide: Do I want to do straight skirts and simple things? No. I want to make it special: If you have a straight black skirt, you don’t need another one. But if I make you a big-volume skirt in a butterfly print, you’ll say, ‘I never had a butterfly in my closet!’ ” Elbaz paused. “Business is important to me—I always remember what Pierre Bergé said when I was at YSL: ‘The best businesspeople are the ones who think like artists. And the best artists are the true businesspeople.’ Making women beautiful is a difficult business. And I take it seriously.”

Another Elbaz self-portrait.

Two days before our lunch, Elbaz was upstairs at the Crillon, in the enormous Salon des Batailles, a majestic, heavily gilded reception room that had been taken over by German generals during World War II. Although his large office is one block away, he is attached to that space: He used to hold his biannual pre-collection presentations for magazine editors and buyers there, and it’s where he conducts fittings with models. Three racks of clothes were lined up to the right of a long desk, which had been set with two computers, five Lanvin handbags that might or might not be used as accessories, plates of fruit, various cell phones, tissues, mints, tiny cans of Coca-Cola Light, and an array of digital photos chronicling the finished looks. The Lanvin fall 2013 show was to be held the following evening at 8 o’clock, and Elbaz had decided on 52 looks. It was the second day of fittings, and a model was standing in front of Elbaz in a pale gray strapless dress made of duchesse satin. She had on two different shoes: a flat, refined pointy brogue and a sky-high glitter-encrusted platform maryjane. Three assistants hovered, adjusting the chains around the model’s neck and making sure she didn’t tip over as she balanced on her mismatched shoes.

“Do you see the contradiction between yesterday and today?” Elbaz asked, looking for a metaphor in the footwear. He seemed very calm—he had been working on this collection for months, and it represented both a return to earlier ones and a breakthrough. In recent years, the style of Lanvin had become looser, more relaxed; this collection was more restrained and fitted. “I had begun to question what I was doing,” Elbaz explained. “I saw all these editors who were posing in their clothes for photographers outside the shows, and the designers were fighting with each other and I wasn’t happy. I started wondering if I wanted to continue being a designer.” Around this time, Elbaz went to see a performance at the Palais de Tokyo called The Impossible Wardrobe, starring Tilda Swinton. Dressed in a traditional white lab coat once worn by couture models, Swinton displayed various historic, classic garments, highlighting a particular aspect of each, like a skirt or a sleeve. “It was the sleeve that struck me,” Elbaz continued. “I started to think about craft and beauty. ‘Beautiful’ suddenly seemed like a modern idea to me. In the fashion world, something that is a little bit ugly, they call it ‘modern.’ But beautiful lasts. And I want to last. That seems modern to me.”

Elbaz turned his attention back to the model and her mismatched shoes. He studied her legs for a moment, questioning the proportions. “How should I call it?” he asked. “I am looking at this high heel and I feel an overdose of everything. I’m liking the flat man’s shoe with the dress. There’s some sort of contrast there: between feminine and masculine.”

The assistants changed the shoe, and the model walked toward Elbaz. A photo was taken, and it was added to the grid posted on a board: Look No. 42 for tomorrow’s show had been determined. The model retreated behind a makeshift white wall that shielded a dressing area. There were beautiful Lanvin clothes everywhere—piles of shoes arranged by size, boxes filled with rhinestone tiaras, more racks of heavenly dresses in pale shades of pink and blue. The collection had a bug motif—there was a pantsuit made out of a dung-beetle silk print, jeweled butterfly brooches flying over an evening gown, and what looked like a mosquito, which Elbaz pinned to everything from a simple strapless dress to the side of an A-line skirt.

“When I saw the collection the first time, I started to cry,” said Hania Destelle, Elbaz’s head of communications, as she walked among the racks. Destelle, like many of the women around Elbaz, is his prototypical customer: A successful, attractive professional woman with two grown children, she is the ideal audience for his clothes. Destelle fondled a houndstooth suit that was cut on the bias so that the fabric hugged the body. It was easy to imagine her wearing it for years to come.

In front of the white wall, a new model was standing before Elbaz in a long-sleeve brocade dress with a tight bodice that exploded into a circle skirt. Something about the dress was bothering Elbaz. “I think we need to remove the sleeves,” he said to an assistant named Isabella Pedralva, a tall blonde dressed in black with a pincushion secured around her wrist like a prom corsage. “For a month and a half I worked on that dress with a fit model,” Elbaz said, as the changes were made. “And then I see the dress on the model, and it changes again. I feel like a doctor in an emergency room and they’ve brought me a sick dress, and I have to find the cure.”

Sans sleeves, the dress took on a new sprightliness: The dark pink brocade flowers no longer seemed so heavy. Elbaz was pleased, but he wasn’t done. He belted the dress, shortened the length, and added a necklace emblazoned with the word you. Bold, rapperlike word necklaces, along with the flat men’s shoes, are two of the hallmarks of this collection. “When I told my team that I wanted to do jewelry with words, their faces looked strange, and I could tell they thought, Alber is going nuts! They asked, ‘What kind of words?’ And I said, ‘help’ and ‘cool,’ and their faces became even more sour.” Elbaz laughed. It is his nature to be amused—but not dissuaded. “They asked, ‘Why?’ And I didn’t really have an answer. Until I saw it on the models, I didn’t know if the words were really horrible or really amazing.”

Most designers would not admit to that kind of indecision on the eve of their biggest presentation of the year, but Elbaz was not concerned. His main objective, which has, more or less, been his main objective since he started designing Lanvin, was to present a collection that would make women feel pretty. “That sounds easy, but it isn’t,” Elbaz said as a model in a black lace sheath with a puff at the hem emerged from the backstage area. “Everyone wants to slash pretty!” he said, attaching a flower to the left side of the waistband of the lace dress. “Maybe beautiful is the cure today.” Elbaz said something in Hebrew to himself. “I think we should put a necklace on her that says love,” he continued, possibly translating. “We need a story, a dream. And the word ‘love’ will give them something to dream about.”

The next evening at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, on the Left Bank, Elbaz was leaning against a whitewashed plaster wall. It was two hours before the show, and he had changed the model lineup, questioned the shoes for the last time, and altered the accessories. He was dressed in his usual suit, but he wasn’t sure about his white shirt. Should he change into black? “Putting on a show is like getting the flu,” Elbaz told me. “You could have it one hundred times and you don’t get used to it. And the moment I feel I’m getting used to giving a show and I can do a show with my eyes shut, that will be the time to get down from the stage.”

It is nearly impossible to believe that Elbaz will ever give up designing clothes. When he was 7, growing up in Holon, south of Tel Aviv, Elbaz began sketching dresses and went on to study fashion at the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, near Tel Aviv. His father was a hair colorist, and his mother, who died five years ago, always encouraged her son, but Albert, as he was known then, knew he had to leave Israel and his family to prosper in the fashion world. He changed his name and flew to New York with $800 from his mother and eventually landed a job with Geoffrey Beene, the innovative American designer. “When I dropped the ‘t’ from my first name, I found my way.” Elbaz said. “In Judaism, if you change your name, you change your destiny.”

In 1996, after seven years with Mr. Beene, Elbaz moved to Paris, where he became the creative director of Guy Laroche. After only four shows, he was offered the chance of a lifetime—succeeding the legendary Yves Saint Laurent as designer of the house’s ready-to-wear line for women. It was a poor fit: At YSL, he says, he was told to do a “French version of Prada,” and Elbaz, being young, was intimidated. “Everyone at YSL was so glamorous, and I was not,” he told me. “I was afraid of the secretaries.”

His second YSL collection was inspired by the kinds of flowers that produce poison. It was a fraught collection that spotlighted Elbaz’s feelings of vulnerability. At that moment, the Gucci Group, led by Tom Ford, was negotiating to buy Yves Saint Laurent, and Ford planned to take Elbaz’s job for himself. Ford was, in many ways, Elbaz’s antithesis: While Ford was about overt sexual seduction, Elbaz was about the struggles of the working woman; when Ford thought about design, he usually began by thinking about a woman’s backside. Elbaz, meanwhile, has always been drawn to the waist, which is a less obvious erogenous zone. “I don’t ever use the word ‘sexy,’ ” Elbaz said backstage at the Beaux-Arts. “My clothes may be sexy, but I am more interested in what is beautiful—and that has nothing to do with age or size. Or…sexy. I don’t even know what that word means.”

After leaving YSL, Elbaz did one collection for Krizia and then took a year off to travel throughout India and the Far East. He has told me he had thought about becoming a doctor, but it seems doubtful that he ever seriously considered anything other than returning to the fashion world. Since his triumph at Lanvin, he has been offered other plum jobs: LVMH tried to woo him to both Givenchy and its crown jewel brand, Christian Dior. He declined. “It’s much more difficult to say no than yes,” Elbaz said. “I said no to Dior because it wasn’t right for the moment. The people at Lanvin depend on me. I feel an obligation to these women.” He paused and surveyed the chaos backstage. Models were stripped to their underwear, camera crews were setting up, assistants sorted through necklaces. “My oxygen is freedom,” Elbaz said finally. “And all this is freedom for me. I’m not sure another house would feel the same.”

A few moments later, Elbaz suddenly seemed overwhelmed. “Is the collection terrible?” he almost-whispered to Alex Koo, his longtime boyfriend and the director of marketing of Lanvin. “Is it bad?” Koo, who is both calm and honest, studied Elbaz for a moment. “It is a great collection,” he said definitively. Elbaz seemed to ­relax—there was, after all, no time to be insecure or neurotic. The show was about to begin.

Everything worked. From the first look, an effortlessly appealing fitted black party dress that would solve anyone’s fashion woes, to the last, a gray strapless sheath accessorized with a tiara and a necklace emblazoned with the word cool, the show was glamorous but wearable, exciting but accessible. The flat lace-up shoes gave the dresses an unfussy, fresh boost, as if they were reborn on a different sort of Lanvin girl. As Suzy Menkes wrote in the International Herald Tribune, “Mr. Elbaz has an extraordinary ability to make any woman in the audience feel it is ‘all about you.’ ”

After his bow, Elbaz ducked out briefly to greet Emmanuelle Riva, the 86-year-old Academy Award–nominated star of Amour, who had come to his show. Elbaz dressed her in an elegant caftan for the Oscar ceremony. When he returned to face the fashion reporters and cameras, they broke into spontaneous applause. After three hours of interviews, he went back to the showroom in his office near the Hôtel Crillon and arranged the collection so that buyers could see his favorite pieces. “I want to inspire the staff,” he explained. “Everyone needs motivation.”

At 11 p.m., he joined Koo, Destelle, and other members of his team at the Park Hyatt hotel for a celebratory dinner. “I felt empty,” Elbaz told me the next day over our lunch at the Crillon. “When I’m done, I hate all the clothes, and I feel completely vacant.” He paused. “It’s done. I don’t like to look back. All I’ll see now is mistakes. I need the motor of going forward. That’s the nature of this business: You have to keep finding a new story to tell.”

Hair by Anthony Turner at Art Partner; makeup by Mark Carrasquillo; manicures by Hiro at Jed Root. Models: Noemie Lenoir at DNA Model Management; Janice Alida and Jamie Bochert at Elite Model Management; Amanda Murphy and Kiara Kabukuru at IMG Models; Catherine McNeil and Josephine Skriver at Marilyn Agency; Grace Bol at Muse Model Management; Olga Sherer and Sui He at New York Model Management; Caroline de Maigret at Next Model Management. Illustrations: Lancome and Alber Elbaz ©2013