“Without Passion there is Nothing”
As we learn of the tragic passing of fashion designer Alber Elbaz, we pay tribute to his legacy and revisit his last interview where he discussed, happiness, passion and the future
French-Moroccan fashion designer Alber Elbaz sadly passed away in Paris on 25th April 2021 after a battle with COVID-19. Throughout his career, the designer has become an icon in the industry and his mission to make all women feel beautiful, happy and confident through his designs is something that will touch women around the world forever as his legacy continues to live on.
Most widely known for his revival of French fashion House Lanvin, Elbaz took the brand from a relatively known fashion house to a global fashion giant in his reign as Creative Director. Born in Morocco Elbaz began his career in fashion after moving to New York in the 1980s but he had long been sketching fashion designs, drawing dresses from the age of seven in his own iconic style. In New York, Elbaz worked alongside American designer Geoffrey Beene for seven years as his senior assistant, before moving to Paris to work for French fashion house Guy Laroche. His first big break came when he was appointed Creative Director of Yves Saint Laurent in 1998 where he worked for three seasons until he began designing for Lanvin in 2001.
Over a 14-year period, Elbaz became synonymous with the elegance and femininity he put into his designs, and off the catwalk, he was known for his infectious personality and desire to make every woman feel beautiful. In October 2015, Elbaz announced that he had been let go from Lanvin after an internal disagreement. It was a major blow for the designer and the industry but there was one guarantee – Alber would be back bigger and better than ever. His first return to fashion was through a collaboration with Italian luxury brand Tod’s. Alber worked on a limited-edition collaboration of bags and loafers for the House in 2019.
Later that year it was announced that Alber would join forces with Richemont group to launch a new fashion house that would change the way women purchase and understand fashion. It was just this year that Alber returned to our screens as he presented the first collection for AZ Factory in February. Set to be one of the most game-changing projects the industry has seen, Elbaz wanted to create a new way of purchasing and a brand that catered to the needs of all women, no matter their shape or size, combining technology fashion and entertainment in one concept.
While Alber may be gone, his legacy will live on in the hearts of all that knew him and many who didn’t. From his family and friends to those in the fashion industry, to all the women around the world that were touched by his magic and made to feel beautiful in his designs.
After his return to the industry, Alber has only given a few interviews and A&E was pleased to talk to the designer on happiness, the future and his passion for design as he launched his collaboration collection with Tod’s.
We revisit the beautiful interview below as his memory continues to live on through his words that will never be forgotten.
Tell us how this project came to life and what are the common codes that you share with a brand like Tod’s?
I actually turned down working with them for two years. I was taking time out and I wasn’t sure I could do it, as it’s not my comfort zone. I’m not a shoe designer. So I asked: ‘why me? There are so many better people than me.’ But Diego Della Valle (Chairman of Tod’s group) insisted and so I did it.
At first, I thought to myself ‘I have no idea what I’m going to do’, and then there’s a moment where you become very humble because you are almost lost in the forest and there and you don’t know which route to take. This is the moment when God helps you. All of a sudden you start asking questions and talking to people and you realise what you should be doing. In Paris and all over the world, so many roads are becoming pedestrianized, you see more and more people are walking and you see how shoes are becoming the new cars – everyone is using their feet again.
So I started working on the collection. First, I took the sneaker that is the most important and fashionable of styles because it is a very pragmatic piece in the wardrobe. It has almost become more vital than the ‘It’ bag. Comfort is so important to women and in a moment when women are also fighting for equal rights and freedom it is even more crucial. When I was at Lanvin, we were the first ones to introduce ballerina shoes many years ago and we were the first ones to introduce sneakers because I have always believed in comfort. I think also as an oversized designer, comfort is something that I’m very aware of. Because I’m larger, I try to wear and design pieces that are very light because it creates a fantasy. If you see a designer that loses weight, they go from chiffon to heavy fabrics!
Personally, I don’t work with focus groups or marketing people, I work with what I love and I have a great team. There was one girl helping me in the factory – she ordered the fabrics, she helped me to choose the colours, she was there the whole time and I don’t want people like that to be forgotten. So I invited her here for the launch in Paris.
Once I do a collection I don’t like to look at it because all I see is mistakes. And that’s a good thing because once you don’t like it anymore you know that you are ready to go to another project. If you like it too much then you’re stuck. I think mistakes are beautiful – I like people who make mistakes and have opinions.
You have spoken of how we are all seeking happiness – can you elaborate on this?
I meet a lot of people and they tell me that things are so hard – and I question – ‘how are we, an industry that has to make everyone happy not happy?’ That kind of gave me the idea for this collection that was called “ HappY moments”.
What makes you happy?
Moments and people.
What state of mind are you in when you are designing?
You know sometimes when you wake up in the morning and you just have this feeling! My process starts with having an idea that is one-dimensional, making it three-dimensional and then adjusting it to real life. Then you have to look at it with your eyes, in a mirror and in a photo and ask yourself what is more important – that it’s going to look good in a photo or on the body? There are some things that look great on a woman’s body but in a photo, they don’t look good. A corset can look good – but try to move in that, try to sit on 50 metres of tulle. Imagine when women wear gowns to the Oscars – they have to come in buses because they can’t fit in cars and they cannot sit! So you have to know what you are designing for.
The media have always loved you for your honesty – what is your relationship with them now and your take on what is happening in the industry?
When it comes to the media I don’t work on commission and I’m not selling anything. I believe that we have this kind of triumph of marketing and communication. Everything is everywhere all the time so as a journalist, you are being bombarded by everyone and it’s too much. A lot of journalists are women who are sensitive but also smart. So they know who is a key success and who pushes them and I think they are sensitive to that, so that’s what I’m doing. I’m not reading articles about what I do – unless it’s a bad review. Because I don’t want to believe in it, so I don’t want to see. I only read the bad ones!
It’s almost like you want to learn from what didn’t sell. You ask yourself why? Sometimes it can depress you because you think ‘maybe I haven’t done a good job’. We’re living in a time of followers where people want to see what they know, almost like a DJ can design a collection today – he just has to express himself and say ‘this is me’. But sometimes, we have to have new ideas. We have to come up with innovations and statements and really change something and for me, this is the difference between a DJ and a composer. A composer has to start from scratch and come up with something completely new and different. This is the part that’s very difficult and that takes all the energy.
What is next for you?
It’s a good question! I think that fashion today is moving very fast but the system is not very fast. So everything is new every season – six times a year now – but the system is not new. There are so many clothes and collections that women cannot digest it. Before you arrive at the store it’s already on sale and there’s already the next collection. I think women are confused because there is so much.
Also, you’re not going to go in December to try a bikini. But all the bikinis are there. If you go in summer to buy a summer dress, they’re all on sale. Why would you want to buy a summer dress in January? How can people not see this? I am starting to see changes. The department stores are living a hard moment, digital is affecting stores and also print magazines. So I see that there are changes and I’m very optimistic about it.
That brings me to myself and to my future. For me, I have to really fall in love with the people in order to say ‘I do’. I cannot fake a relationship – if I don’t like the people I cannot work with them. This can be a problem because I don’t know how to separate work from my emotions. I like to be very involved and I’m very much a people person. I met with some people recently that I used to work with at Lanvin – they are all working at different brands in high positions and I asked them how they are and they all said ‘we’re OK but it’s not the same’.
I think that what I bring, because of my personality, is that people first like me, then they hate me, then they don’t like me, then they love me forever! Because at first, I’m nice and easy-going so they like me, then they see that I’m to the point and I like perfection in work so it is tough, but then they see that I’m direct and will never do anything behind anyone’s back. If I have something to say I will say it to you, and this is something that I bring to a company. I bring energy. This is what the people at Tod’s have said to me – that I bring great energy and it makes them feel really happy. I’m happy that I make other people happy.
Is there anything in life you would have done differently or still want to achieve?
There are two things. Firstly, I want to be happy with myself. I think it took me some time to find myself again. I took some time to miss fashion; I was burned by fashion so I didn’t want to touch it for a while. I have a scar inside and I believed I didn’t want to come back. But when I recovered, I remembered that I love fashion people, I love the industry and I love women. I am a Gemini so I’m always about contradiction. On one hand, I love to make beautiful clothes, really exquisite clothes – not for a photo but for women to really wear, for their bodies and for their needs but not like a couturier – I want to make them dream because what I sell is a dream, but I don’t want to do it too many times a year because then you lose the joy.
Secondly, I always wanted to do some kind of project with technology because that’s what is changing the world. I think that if you take a piano you have just a piano, but when you bring a pianist with emotion and know-how then you can create music. I have been offered many jobs and I have said no. Some jobs I wanted and they didn’t offer them to me, but many were very hard to say no to, but I did. Because as Nelson Mandela said ‘winners are dreamers that don’t give up’. I have my dream and I want to be able to help women with solutions. That’s my project and where the technology will come in, but it’s very hard for me to find people that understand what I’m doing because people only want to do what they’ve done.
I’m meeting so many people around the world and I want to pioneer something that will be different for women but it’s very hard to find people who understand my vision. I think the biggest problem of fashion today is the lack of taking risks. People do not want to take risks. That is probably why I took on this project with Tod’s as it was not like I had to answer to a board of directors – I asked Diego if he liked it, he said yes, I said ‘okay, we can do it’. I didn’t have to meet a board and a marketing team and a focus group. I respect people, I always have. When I went to Saint Laurent they loved me because I didn’t destroy what had been done for forty years, I did the same at Lanvin. I am a very respectful person to what has already been created.
How important is passion in what you do?
For me, without passion there is nothing. Without passion, there is no relationship, no innovation, no project, no fashion. Passion is a very important thing. Sometimes over-passion can kill something but you need to know how to find the middle ground.