The Future Of Fashion, Part Six: Alber Elbaz
As we enter a new decade, the fashion business, like the rest of the world, is encountering significant economic and technological change. In this series, Style.com’s editor in chief, Dirk Standen, talks to a number of leading industry figures about the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.
When Alber Elbaz phoned me from Paris, it was 8 p.m. there. The end of a long workday? No, he said, he was planning on spending a couple more hours in the studio after we finished. The word poetic invariably attaches itself to descriptions of the clothes Elbaz designs for Lanvin, but you get the feeling that behind the famous floppy bow tie, there is a hard-won sense of resolve. During our conversation, somewhat condensed here, he spoke frankly about the problems the industry faces, his observations frequently punctuated by bursts of humor.
I’ve been asking everyone this question, but I’m particularly interested in your perspective as a designer. What role does a fashion show still play in delivering your message?
It’s almost like asking someone what is the role of a table if you want to serve dinner. Of course you can have some dinner in bed and you can have it also on a plate and just on the floor, but I think that when you put it on the table, it’s the most pragmatic. There are certain things that I guess are essential and this is one of them.
There’s been a lot of talk about doing shows on film, but it sounds like the live experience and a live audience are still very important to you.
Maybe I’m kind of an old fashioned guy, I don’t know. I think that if you want to pass emotion you have to write a letter. Emotions do not pass in SMS or in e-mail. I think that you have to be there, you have to feel it…I know that now with Facebook, some people tell me, “Oh, I have 700 friends.” Another person tells me, “I have 3,000 friends.” And I tell them I have only two friends. So now who has more friends? They do or I do? And how do you actually value it, by number or quality? I believe that we have to go forward and I believe that we have to go with change, but there are certain things that are beautiful to leave as they are. And fashion is not always about what’s new, it’s also about what’s good. And I think if you need to see what’s good, you have to be there.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been, but I’ve been surprised by how passionate people are about this. Buyers, critics, designers, they all still feel that, despite the overscheduling, live fashion shows are important.
I think the problem is that we all feel we have too many of those. I think this is the major problem that we are all feeling and experiencing. And I always say that doing a collection is almost like writing a book or making a movie, and I don’t know any other industry that can produce six movies a year by the same director. That’s the thing. You cannot write six books a year. You cannot produce six movies. You can’t do six collections a year. And I think this is actually what is making fashion be the way it is today. I know a lot of people complain that there is not enough change and that fashion in the past was much more creative than today, and I think a big part of this phenomenon is that we don’t have the time to think, we don’t have the time to project, we don’t have the time to digest. I’m not talking about, like, “Oh, we need to travel for inspiration,” because I do in fact believe that the best traveling you do is from your couch while you eat potato chips. But I think we just need the time to think and to look at it again and to have another perspective.
When I go out sometimes to this kind of fashion event and I see other designers, I see that one of them has a pain in the back and the other one has a migraine and the third one is exhausted, because we are going through this process that is endless. And I think that today editors are feeling the same way, because they have to travel the world season after season and just see and write the reviews in a taxi where they don’t have the time to think about it. Whatever you see today is maybe not what you really feel tomorrow. You just have to see and shoot. And I think buyers are going through the same thing, because there was a time when they used to be staying also in the store, not just looking at computers and numbers. When you go to the doctor, you don’t want the doctor to look only at the computer, you want the doctor to look at you. And I think the buyers used to be also on the floor, looking at the customer, seeing the merchandise and how it works on the floor or doesn’t. And today they are just traveling from one collection to another, from a pre-collection in New York to a pre-collection in Paris, and it’s endless. And I do feel there is this kind of extreme fatigue that everyone is talking about and there is a need for a change.
I hear everything you’re saying, but do you really think it’s possible that there could be a change?
I think it’s possible. The only way it will be possible is if we all work together…Somehow if we do work together with the magazines and with the stores, we can make changes. I would be totally pessimistic if I did not believe in change. We are in an industry that is the industry of change. I mean, we are changing from season to season, but we cannot change the system? We cannot change the formula? No, I think we can. It’s a matter of time, it’s a matter of initiative and courage, for that one person to reunite all of us and say, you know what, let’s do it differently, let’s go back to enjoying fashion. Almost every designer I know says, “Alber, this is the only thing I know how to do.” I feel myself I’m pretty clumsy. I don’t know how to do computers. I don’t drive. If I didn’t know how to do fashion, I think I would be homeless. So the fact is that I do know how to do it and I do love it. I just want to enjoy it a little bit more.
What’s the balance between refining the signature of the house each season and doing something new? It seems to me there’s tremendous pressure now to do something completely new every time.
You know I [said to] my partner a few months ago, “I have a question.” He said, “What is it?” I said, “Do you think we’re still cool.” And he said, “Alber, we were never cool.” And you know what? I prefer being relevant to being cool, because if you’re cool, you’re also cold the next day. So it’s more about being relevant. The one thing that always scares me is to be like the Miss America of the moment, because next year there is a new Miss America.
You worked for Geoffrey Beene for a number of years. Could a designer like that, who worked a little bit outside the system, refining his signatures, exist today?
I think a good designer can exist everywhere and anywhere and all the time. It’s all about being good, and I think that our job basically is to make women and men look good. That’s all. It’s a job. I’m not coming in the morning and trying to be hype and cool and to go to parties to promote myself. If someone invites me to a party and I end up going, it’s not because I’m trying to do PR for my clothes. I want to go and enjoy myself and I want to have great food and I want to have good company. That’s what I’m looking for in those parties. I’m not looking for promotion for a dress because the dress can promote herself. So working also for all these years with Geoffrey Beene and working with Yves Saint Laurent, I had two of the best designers of the twentieth century that were my teachers, my mentors. And what I learned from both of them is that it’s not just about being cool, it’s about coming to work day after day. You come in the morning and you stay late at night and you come weekends and you work. You just come to work. It’s a job. It’s a major job to help men and women look beautiful.
The Yves Saint Laurent job didn’t end that happily for you, and you’ve been at other fashion houses before you had this wonderful run at Lanvin. Is there anything you’ve learned from your past experiences?
From every place or everything you do, you learn what to do and also you learn what not to do…I would not change anything if you would ask me. I would still go through the experience I went through. I learned a lot from it. I went through a certain experience that wasn’t easy, but guess what? Nothing is easy anyway, so I’m fine with that.
You’re very involved in fabric research, using new fabrics. Is that an area where developments in technology have made things more interesting than in the past?
When I started at Lanvin eight years ago, I remember going to Lyons and asking to see some of the fabrics, and I saw these amazing, amazing failles and duchesse satins, but they were very rigid…So I asked the owner if he could maybe stonewash them or do some different treatment to make them less [rigid], and he told me that I’m actually destroying his industry, that I’m not respecting the tradition. But at the same time he did take a few yards of fabric and made a try, and I made the piece. And a few months later, when he saw the order, he didn’t accuse me of destroying the industry; he was actually thanking me for keeping the industry alive.
By the same token some companies tell you, “Oh my God, this is such a modern fabric.” And I’m for modernity, I’m feeling more like someone who works in a laboratory than an atelier, so I say, “OK, let me see what a modern fabric is.” But if that modern fabric cannot be cut because the fabric is so nervous, if the fibers are so sharp that you cannot cut it and you have to sew a paper on every piece of fabric, this is not modern…The whole idea is to find this kind of harmony between newness and tradition, between yesterday and today. It’s not just about being modern and high-tech and going forward. In order to go forward you have to have some base, you have to come from somewhere.
You know, we do fabrics four times a year. We finish the show on Friday, and I am in the showroom on Saturday and Sunday, and Monday morning I start with the fabrics, because it takes the fabric manufacturer about two to three months to deliver. So in order for me to have them ready for my new pre-collection, I have to do it the day after the show. And you know what? The last thing I want to do the day after the show is to look at fabrics, but I have to do it.
Everyone I’ve spoken to says the designer has the hardest job.
I think so. And Miss America.
Presumably you have to have a successful accessories business to survive these days.
Definitely. But you have to have everything successful. You know, we are an independent company, so we’re not part of a group. We’re not in this luxury [conglomerate] where we can say, “Daddy, help us and move us forward.” We have to produce in order to have a salary for the people who work for us. This is the pressure I feel season after season when I sketch. When I have this one week I take to sketch, I sit in my apartment and I try to sketch, and all I think about is the people that are working there, that I have to do a good job in order for them to have a salary. And that’s a huge pressure, season after season. And in a way I think that a big part of my work is for the people who work with me. These are the people who are realizing my dream. These are the people who are there in good days and bad days. And I feel sometimes like a conductor with a troupe, but sometimes I feel like the pianist, and sometimes I’m also the piano. But this is what the designer’s life is all about.
You’re not shielded from the commercial side? You look at the sales figures.
I check the sales every morning, every morning, every morning. It’s not that I work on commission and I want to see how much I’m going to get tonight. It’s not about that. But I need to know if I’m doing something right. When I came back to fashion after thinking that I’m going to [give it up] after Saint Laurent, I decided at the time that I’m only going to work with people I love and I only want to do things I love. Because in my past, some of the pieces that I thought were the worst turned out to be the best sellers. And these are those moments that you ask yourself, “Are you losing it, Alber? Or is it bizarre that everything you hate is a best seller?” So I decided that I’m not going to do it anymore. I’m only going to do clothes that I love and I’m going to do that with people that I enjoy working with. And that changed in a way the strategy of my way of working at Lanvin. I worked it differently. I made it differently. And I think that for me commercial is not a bad word. Commercial is not the word that has to be said only by CEOs. It has to be something that is maybe the essence of design, because design has some sort of art in it and creation, but it’s also some object that you have to use. There is also this pragmatic end to it. It has be something that you kind of dream about but also think about, so in a way it has to come from your heart and your brain at the same time. You know, a dress without a zipper, even if it’s gorgeous, if there is no zip, you cannot get in.
Lanvin’s collaboration with [Swedish denim company] Acne was well received. Would you consider a collaboration with one of the fast-fashion retailers?
Not for the moment. I haven’t thought of it.
Is there anything luxury fashion can learn from fast fashion?
The interesting thing is that luxury houses, a lot of the time, are companies that have this heritage. And the high street companies are almost working like start-ups. The one thing I find quite fascinating is that in art, in music, all this, if you, God forbid, copy a line from a book or you use some sort of ideas from a video clip of a musician, you are going to be sued for the rest of your life. In fashion I have the feeling that everything goes, that everybody can take it and use it like it’s theirs. And sometimes I have to tell you that I sit and work in the studio days and nights and weekends on an idea, and then a week or a month or two months after the show I see it everywhere, and I don’t know if I have to be happy about it or sad. I guess I decided not to look and wear, like, thick sunglasses in purple and red, so when people ask me, did you see, I say I don’t speak English.
You don’t tweet or blog yourself. In general, have those new forms of expression affected fashion in a good or bad way?
I think it’s part of life. You cannot critique it. It’s not about me sitting here and complaining about things. It’s not. I see it and it’s great…It’s part of this generation. It’s almost like asking if all these reality shows like American Idol are good or bad. Of course there is a great element there. It brings the dream to a part of society that could never have it…At the same time, I feel that the star system is not the reality, so even if you call it a reality show, in a way it’s not at all the reality. Because it’s not overnight that you become a singer. It’s not overnight that you become a star fashion designer. It’s a lot of time, of devotion, of hard work. You know, you can buy silicone, you can buy plastic, you can buy surgery. The only thing you cannot buy is muscles, because in order to have muscles you have to work hard, devote your life to it. This is the one thing that people still cannot buy. I think also in our own métier, it’s not about finishing school and starting your own business, running to become the new thing. I think you have to give the time to learn, to understand, to do some work, and then you move forward.
Talking about instant successes, have you followed the rise of the fashion bloggers?
I have to tell you, I love bloggers. And I’m not telling you that because I’m [trying to] bribe them. Every morning I wake up and I see the blogs. There is something very innocent. There is something very honest. You can say, OK, they didn’t have the experience of seeing things. But again it’s another medium. That’s their opinion and it’s interesting to see how politically incorrect they are. Of course, when they say, “Oh my God, I love it,” I’m extremely happy. And when they say, “Oh my God, it’s a piece of shit,” I hate it…We are living in an instant society, so everything has to be quick and everything has to be big and everything has to be now. And I think this is also a reflection of society, so it’s not something that we can sit and judge and say, well, I think it’s right or I think it’s wrong. It’s the reflection, the mirror of our society, and [the same applies] to what we are doing. We are being accused that some models are anorexic, but we as fashion designers cannot be blamed, because you know, when I talk to women around the world, rich and poor and young and old and intellectual and not, what they want to be is skinny. You ask them, what is your dream? It’s to be skinny. That’s all they want, so this is something that’s happening in the world. And you know what? Me, as a designer that is not exactly skinny, all I want is comfortable clothes. All I want is beautiful. I mean, I like gray hair, I love wrinkles. But this is me. That’s why our logo is the mother and the daughter. I always feel that I have the ability or I have the luxury to design for younger and for older and for skinnier and less skinny. I feel more versatile about it.
Do you think that our obsession with beauty and celebrity might change?
I think it’s two different things. There is an obsession with beauty, and if there’s an obsession with beauty, I want to be there, because I’m obsessed with beauty, but beauty in my own eye…But now when you talk about celebrity, that’s another issue. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t read all those celebrity magazines on airplanes. I mean, everyone I know does that, so we’re all fascinated with that. It’s kind of like the dream of the twenty-first or the twentieth century…But there I have another issue. I feel that some celebrities think that because they are famous, they can do fashion. Imagine if I want to be now a dancer. Trust me, I can’t. I can’t jump. I can’t even limp from one point to another. I feel that there is this kind of confusion. Everybody wants to do everything, everybody needs to do everything, and everybody feels that he can. And I’m still feeling that a dancer should dance and a chef should cook and a singer should sing and a designer of clothes should do clothes. Because the moment we try to do everything for ourselves, we’re becoming very mediocre in what we do, and we don’t go to extremes and we don’t touch excellence. And I prefer to touch excellence.
How important is it for a celebrity to wear one of your dresses, from a business point of view?
Listen, it’s great. Also, it’s a very narcissistic issue. It’s almost like a good review. You wake up in the morning the day after the show, you’re half dead, and there is someone somewhere who likes your work, and you’re like, oh my God, so I’m not that bad. When you see a celebrity that looks good wearing your clothes? To tell you that it doesn’t affect me, I would be a liar. Of course it’s good, and when they look great, it’s fabulous, and when they don’t, then you want to kill yourself…But we never went into the system of celebrities, of turning it into a business and paying people to wear our clothes. I always told our PR department, don’t you ever call people and ask them to come. Let’s wait and see who wants to come to us.
All in all, are you feeling optimistic or pessimistic right now?
Definitely optimistic. Definitely optimistic. But maybe you caught me on a good evening. Maybe if you called me tomorrow I would tell you that, Dirk, it is the worst day, I am so pessimistic. There are days when I’m feeling very pessimistic, I have to be honest. There are good days and bad days. There are easy ones and there are difficult ones…I mean, it’s our choice to be pessimistic or optimistic, and I want to believe I can be optimistic in order to make a change and a positive one, rather than just sit here and nag and complain and get crazy. No, that’s not my story…I think changes are OK, changes are part of life. I think that things that are perfect are dead. I don’t believe in that sense in perfection, because whenever it’s perfect, it means that it’s not moving and it’s not going anywhere. The fact that you wake up the day after the show and you look at all you have done the day before and you’re like, oh my God, this was bad—this is the one thing that drives you to start a new day and to start all over again. Because if you think that it’s all great, you’ll be maybe in the Bahamas with a martini or whatever.
It’s very rare that you get a bad review.
Oh, don’t worry, Dirk, I get my share.
I have to ask you this. I’m sure you’ve seen all the rumors that you were taking over for Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel…
Oh, let’s not even go there. Let’s not even go there. It didn’t happen. It’s not happening. I mean, I respect Karl and I love his work and think he is doing a fabulous job, and I adore him as a person and as a designer. He’s there and I’m at Lanvin and this is it. You see, this is the bad thing about the newness, this kind of industry of rumors.
Fair enough. Is there anything we didn’t cover that you’d like to talk about?
Let’s talk about Barbara Walters.
We might have to be on the phone for another couple of hours if we do that, and I know you have to get back to work.
The Future of Fashion, Part One: Robert Duffy >
The Future of Fashion, Part Two: Cathy Horyn >
The Future of Fashion, Part Three: Hedi Slimane >
The Future of Fashion, Part Four: Olivier Zahm >
The Future of Fashion, Part Five: Julie Gilhart >