After it was announced in January that Alber Elbaz would be collaborating with Lancôme on a limited-edition makeup collection, representing his first-ever foray into the challenging domain of powders, pigments, and polish, the world of beauty fandom effectively stopped turning. There's a certain level of excitement that accompanies any big designer-beauty collaboration, but this one had a unique level of frenzy. This wasn't just any designer we were talking about. It was Alber Elbaz.
"I spend my time backstage at the Lanvin shows, and when I come out at the end, all I see are people's eyes," Elbaz explained, while showing me a colorful pop-up-book-turned-press-release full of his iconic sketches during a meeting with Lancôme president Youcef S. Nabi at Hôtel Le Bristol in Paris last month. "It all stems from the curvaceous mascara bottles. The moment I saw them, I thought of women's bodies," he continued, flipping the pages of the heavy card stock that depicted renderings of four of Lancôme's best-selling mascaras—Hypnôse Drama, Hypnôse Doll Lashes, Hypnôse Star, and Définicils—as front-row regulars. "This is where I'm looking today. Less generic and more handmade, more colorful," he continued.
Due out in limited quantities come June, the nine-piece range also includes one set of false lashes and four different Color Design Eye Shadow Palettes, each bearing the same four motifs scrawled onto the mascara tubes in blue stars, red hearts, pink polka dots, and green heavily lashed lids. An animated video bringing Elbaz's pop-up book to life will go viral in anticipation of their launch. "The idea was, either Alber invents something totally new or we build on something. So we decided to go with the best sellers of Lancôme," essentially letting Alber "dress" them, Nabi explained. There are few who do it better. Here, Elbaz discusses the essence of luxury, his desire to bring authenticity back into beauty, and why, as far as he's concerned, "eyes are the new fashion accessory."
CE: How did this collaboration come about?
AE: The whole thing started really many years ago. Right after school, I was working in New York and once a year would go back home, and when I stopped at the duty-free, my feet would take me to the stand of Lancôme. I didn't have much money, and I had to decide what I'd buy for my mom: Would it be a night or day product? Would it be for the eyes or for the lips? Would it be a big one or a small one? Should I buy two small or one big? For me, Lancôme was more than just a brand. There was something very nostalgic about the name, about the whole story. Then about four years ago, I met Youcef.
So the two of you were friends before you started working together. Did that make the creative process easier or more difficult?
Because we were friends, there was always some sort of a danger, like because as a friend it's better not to work together. But somehow I discovered the depth of Youcef and [Youcef's] way of working. At Lancôme, they have a table like this [motions to the room's conference table], but fifteen times bigger, a round table. There was something very right about sitting at a table that was not square. Because when you sit at a round table, your work is based on a dialogue. We have to understand the need and how you transfer need into desire. This is maybe the essence of design, because you actually need nothing, but maybe you desire something. So how do we change that? We're living also in a time that is quite different. I think that the world is changing, the Internet is changing.
Has the technological shift affected the way you design, both in your fashion and now in your beauty pursuits?
I always work with mirrors, but now I also say that I work with a screen. Many, many times I find that whatever is looking good on the screen doesn't always look or feel good on the body. So who do we design for—do we design for the screen, or do we design for women? This is a major question. Does it have to only photograph well, but it doesn't matter how it looks in real life? It's like some of those parties that are being filmed, they're the most boring parties, because it's all about how it looks on the screen. I felt that there was a need for something different. When I'm entering some of the stores, I'm scared of the sales ladies, I'm scared to touch—god forbid! [With this collection] I was in the mood for something that was more authentic and more personal—to go and to create almost like a fairy tale, to go to the essence of luxury, which is happiness. Because you know what? When you're scared, you may buy for $1,000, but when you're happy, you might buy for $10,000!
What makes a launch—this one specifically—more authentic and personal?
That it's not just about marketing, but it's maybe about a story—a story of a woman. It can be any woman. Not like a muse—she doesn't have to be a blonde or brunette, or tall or short. The question I'm being asked today many times, almost by everyone, is, "Is there a difference between Asian women and American women, between Japanese and Chinese?" I think that there isn't, because every woman I know loves to wear a dress in red, and they all cry for the same reason. It's just about humanity. Even with the press kits we do, usually we have formulas. It has to be with a dossier, we have to have photos, we have to have this. [Lancôme] allowed me, with the support of [Youcef] and the team, to think and to say, "Let's go with what we really envy." And this was like the beginning of the project. When I saw [the press kit], I understood the project. It wasn't about something that you just delete. It's a handmade book, it's handmade sketches. Everything was less generic.
What evokes the fairy tale to make something an object of desire versus just, say, a piece of makeup?
It's never just a piece of makeup. It's something a bit deeper than that. I think that sometimes when you work on design, you work on reflection. If it's ugly, you create ugly, or because it's ugly, you try to bring back beauty. I think that we're in a time today that we're turning into an industry of power. Power creates fear. I feel it—the time and stress. Everybody I speak with today, they're all telling me the same thing, that it's an endless amount of shows around the world, endless things to cover, and everybody wants to have a part of you. I think that here [with this collection]—and I'll give the credit to Youcef, because it was [Youcef's] idea, [Youcef] wanted to go back to something that is totally happy and cheerful and colorful. I got into it, and the more I got into it, the more I enjoyed doing it. It's not the reflection of the times, but it's maybe the remedy of the times.
Was designing this product range for Lancôme a different experience than when you've worked on collections for Lanvin, or even your collaboration with H&M?
Not at all. We're living in the world of delete, of who's next—whether there's a designer leaving or the Pope is leaving—and [at Lancôme] Youcef decided to take the best of yesterday and to make them remain, make them stay. Maybe, because I work with women and I work for women, we will actually introduce something that is part of their wardrobe.
Alber, I just noticed that you yourself happen to have lovely, long lashes.
I always say, "From here up, I'm gorgeous!"
Is that another reason you focused on the eyes? Lancôme has some beautiful lipsticks, too, you know.
Eyes are the new fashion accessory. People are obsessed with eye makeup. It's the most complicated, and it's the one thing that really can transform you the most. For lipsticks, if you like pinks, you'll always wear pinks, and if you like foundation, you'll always wear the foundation you love. But the eye, if you work on your brows, the eyeliner, the mascara—you can truly transform yourself, in the good sense of the term. For me, there is a kind of superficiality in lipstick. I'm sorry to say that. It's like having a fashion accessory that you will have and then put away. The eye is there to last. It's also a symbol of authenticity. People say the mirror of the soul is the eyes. I think eyes are really deep. I remember once being in a very fancy place for vacation one weekend with this group of people—their watches were shining, their nails were shining, their hair was shining, their skin and clothes were shining, and their cars were more than shining. But their eyes did not shine. I understood they were not happy. I think that this project is somehow like "happy eyes."
You often start your designs with words. Was that the case here?
We started the project, I think, with words, but the [result] of the first meeting we had was almost the animation story. What inspires me more than anything are stories. My last collection—you saw all the jewelry—I started the show with [the word] Help. When I started, the people on my team thought I was losing my mind. At the end of the day, I think you have to go with your intuition, and I think that if we are afraid, and if we are scared, we let the intuition sink. I want to maintain the intuition and the authenticity, and I want stories. I want to do something else. My dream was to be a doctor, and for me it's more about helping women look beautiful. I always tell my team, "You don't have to sell at the stores. Just help women to be beautiful, and trust me, they will buy. Just help." [This] whole thing was less about the glossy world of cosmetics, and going back to something that is almost handmade.
Speaking of the glossy world of cosmetics, has your appetite been whetted for more adventures in beauty?
Trust me, I'm hungry but for sandwiches.
Would you ever want to add cosmetics to your oeuvre at Lanvin?
I never know where tomorrow will take me. When I started working in fashion, I would have an idea, and then I'd sketch it, and the whole job would be to realize the sketch. But the realization of this sketch is one of the most difficult things in our lives. How does an idea become real? That passage between the surreal and real is one of the most difficult things—I get goose bumps even thinking about it! The place where I'm feeling the most comfortable is at work. When I leave work, I feel so uncomfortable, I don't know how to do anything. So this project was a joy. I think that it was a great experience, and I hope women will love it, and I hope men will buy it for their girlfriends, and I hope that it will be a success. I never [measure] success by how much money [something makes] but by how many women will use it. I'm not a businessman.
Photos: Courtesy of Lancôme