Remembering Alber Elbaz
Alexandra Marshall reflects on the life and legacy of one of contemporary fashion’s most influential designers
COVID-19 took Alber Elbaz from us on Saturday. I am not the only person writing through tears. Elbaz was 59, far too young, and still full of beautiful ideas and well-placed ambition. When he fell ill, he was only a few months into the launch of AZ Factory, his direct-to-consumer line of proprietary, forgiving knitwear that came in a massive range of sizes. He designed it like he did everything else, with ebullience and flair, whimsy and wisdom, and large doses of empathy – a terrain he commanded like few others in fashion. “I want to create solutions,” he told me when I interviewed him about the launch in late January for the Financial Times, the last of so many interviews with him I’ve lost track.
Each one was a joy. For a high-profile designer, with a lot at stake in his promotions, Elbaz was always exceptionally present and unguarded. To sit across from him at a table, or on a plane, or walking through a collection in a showroom or backstage at a show, was an emotional experience as much as an aesthetic or intellectual one. Whether the subject was accessories or dresses or inspirations or diets or lovers, he went to feelings first, because as intelligent and skilled a designer as he was, he led with a very big heart. Not everyone has the same capacity to love and not everyone can access that love and translate it into something beautiful. Elbaz could better than most, and the women who wear his clothes will always feel it.
As a designer, Elbaz did more than create solutions, he lifted women up. “He loved women” is one of the first things anyone says about him. That’s a phrase that should have no meaning. Why would someone not love women? And yet. In fashion, a multi-billion-dollar industry that mostly sells to women, so many designers push a look, a silhouette, a message, without connecting to vulnerability of their customers, their dignity and privacy and need to express themselves as themselves. Elbaz tapped into all of that intimately. There was the comfort factor: for clothes with such fierce and elegant silhouettes, there was always a forgiving waistband, a well-placed drape, an intelligent bit of glitz. We collected those comfortable Lanvin ballet slippers like other people do baseball cards: in satin, screaming yellow patent, python or ostrich with pillowy grosgrain bows. And there was the language Elbaz created around his designs: the cartoon hearts drawn in his own hand, the ad campaigns with 70-plus-year-old models dancing, the endearing behind the scenes Instagram confessions as AZ Factory was starting up. Elbaz came from a generation of designers who were encouraged to be self-serious, but he never succumbed.
AZ Factory was a new direction for Elbaz, who spent his previous career in luxury. He started in the New York atelier of Geoffrey Beene, then went to Guy Laroche, then Yves Saint Laurent, where he was handpicked by Pierre Bergé to succeed Saint Laurent himself, then Lanvin, a historic house he restored to iconicity for the first time in 80-odd years. AZ Factory was his first foray outside that high-budget, excessively demanding cocoon. Elbaz spoke out forcefully about the dysfunction and waste in the fashion system; AZ Factory was also an effort to do fashion that spoke to contemporary needs, on his own terms.
In the five years he spent after Lanvin developing it, Elbaz also gave generously his energy and time as a mentor. He advised students at Florence’s Polimoda and Shenkar in his native Israel, as well as the designers nominated for the FTA Prize in 2020, with whom he spent hours on Zoom. “It’s very easy to be a judge and just put on some sunglasses,” he told me in an interview for WSJ magazine in 2019. “I wanted to be a mentor, to help designers, because I do believe that without designers there are no bags, no stores.”