Sitting down with A&E, designer Alber Elbaz talks through finding his creative inspiration, falling in and out of love with the fashion industry and spreading joy through his work.
There’s no doubt he’s one of the most recognizable faces in fashion, but since parting ways with Lanvin in 2015, Alber Elbaz has been taking some time out of the limelight. Or so it seemed. It was recently announced that the outspoken designer has been working with Italian house Tod’s on a collection that would combine the timelessness of the brand with his own unique style. And so the “Happy Moments” project was born.
Tod’s and Elbaz realised that shoes are there at every happy moment in your life. Whether it’s your wedding day, the first day at a new job or your birthday, you never do anything without the perfect pair of shoes. Elbaz set out to create shoes for such moments, illustrating the joy Tod’s can bring to the life of the wearer. The starting point was the iconic Tod’s driving shoe, capturing and transforming its true spirit for the next generation and from this Elbaz put his own twist on the designs.
He imagined new contexts for driving shoes, making them aerodynamic, bright, unstructured or mounted on sneaker soles either with logos or without. He also looked to new fabrics including neoprene that added a modern twist to the designs, and a metallic finish for a sprinkle of shine.
As the collection recently launched in Paris, Elbaz was there to spread his own contagious happiness and energy. The designer has openly spoken of his turbulent time in the industry over the last few years but it seems he is back to doing what he does best and enjoying the moment. Here we discuss with him the collaboration with Tod’s and what other projects may be on the horizon.
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.
What can you tell us about the choice of materials in the products?
First of all, I thought of neoprene – it reminds me of Spanx – so I thought since everyone wears Spanx and complains that they aren’t comfortable, I wanted to make Spanx for the feet! So I shared this with Diego Della Valle and he said ‘Oh it’s like eco-leather’. So in a time when we are thinking about sustainability, I was asking a leather company to have an open mind – and that’s what I like.
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.
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 you 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 of 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 that 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 knowhow 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 would you describe the collection in one sentence?
Changing the sole of the shoe without changing the soul of the company.
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.