Of all the designers who resuscitated a Paris label during 40 years of fashion necromancy, none was better than Alber Elbaz at the house of Lanvin, where he was creative director from 2001 to 2015.
Even Karl Lagerfeld channelling Gabrielle Chanel never had the rapport with or respect for his foundress that Elbaz, who has died aged 59 of Covid-19, did with Jeanne Lanvin. Founding her company in 1889, she had had initial success when clients wanted for their own children the dresses she confected for her daughter before the first world war; after the war, adult women wore similar easy garments, and Lanvin’s were the prettiest and kindest.
Elbaz’s own tenderness came out of his confessed vulnerability. He was rotund in an environment of thinness, unconfident among the brash, preferring to listen and whisper as the fashion market shouted louder. What he offered women was not flattery, just friendly clothes as the protection he could understand they desired, especially those facing hostility on red carpets. “How can I make women feel they are being hugged in our dresses?” he asked, dresses being the house speciality, especially cocktail dresses, an extension of Madame Lanvin’s dressed-up but informal robes de style.
He was so convinced of his compatibility with Lanvin (its label showed Madame playing with her daughter) that when a conglomerate headed by a Chinese businesswoman, Shaw-Lan Wang, bought it from L’Oréal in 2001, he phoned her asking to be its creative director. She answered, “I would love you to wake up this Sleeping Beauty.”
Elbaz made the house a success over 14 years while retaining its modest, dressmaker-like, nature. Dresses were draped on the body, with few seams and much hand-sewing for softness and flexibility. Jeanne Lanvin had believed frocks should be simple enough to put on without a maid’s help, and Elbaz modernised that to “zip on, zip off”; he had learned about creativity with zips, and clothes to move not parade in, from his first mentor, the American designer Geoffrey Beene. Elbaz’s movie-star gowns (including for Meryl Streep collecting an Oscar, Tilda Swinton presenting one, Helen Mirren and Nicole Kidman) did not have armoured bodices or presume flawless bodies beneath.
He enhanced the house’s international reputation while keeping up Madame Lanvin-era behaviours. He personally arranged store windows, naming dummies and imagining their stories; he chose his own booming playlist and devised lighting cues for each show, culminating in finales of models in his dresses like a bouquet of flowers on slender stalks. Elbaz said he related to the high life like a concierge in a grand apartment block – happy to facilitate residents’ good times, but taking part in them would spoil his dreaming. Life in a couture atelier was his pleasure.
He took a long route to reach his own salon and to become the couturier for whom the fashion world had unaffected affection: adorable Alber (he knocked the “t” off the end of his name to clarify pronunciation). His Sephardic Jewish family left Casablanca, Morocco, for Holon in Israel when he was 10 – and already drawing dresses; there, his father, Meyer, worked as a colourist in a hair salon, while his mother, Alegria, was a painter. After obligatory army service, and studying design at Shenkar College in Tel Aviv, he moved in 1984 to New York, with $800 safety money from his mother in his pocket.
He worked there in a bridal company before his sympathy with women as well as technical gifts persuaded a store executive to matchmake him with Beene as a design assistant, a seven-year education. Elbaz migrated again, in 1996, invited to Paris to design pret-a-porter for Guy Laroche. Yves Saint Laurent appointed him heir-apparent for the Rive Gauche brand in 1998; Elbaz’s Saint Laurents were larkier than the originals but he had no proper chance to develop there, as the Gucci group took over the company the following year and replaced him with Tom Ford’s hard sexiness.
For Elbaz, the promise of Lanvin, that he could make what women liked, was such fulfilment that he might have ignored the acceleration of contemporary fashion and stayed there for life, with new generations of women eager for his empathy. There, he recruited non-models of all ages for campaigns and did an affordable collection, fragile dress included, for H&M in 2010. But in 2015, after rows, which he abhorred, with Wang over the house’s future, he was dismissed.
That shook fashion, downgraded the house and crushed him. He described himself as homeless – Lanvin had been his home, its staff his family. Quality companies, notably the shoemaker Tod’s, invited him to guest-design special collections; he also costumed Natalie Portman for a 2016 period movie, A Tale of Love and Darkness (his clothes are kinder to her than the film).
He visited tech companies in Silicon Valley and production houses, taught in fashion schools and listened to how differently fashion for real people was now being made and sold – online, and based around events with a narrative drive, such as high street/designer collaborations, or his own with Acne Studios in 2008, where he did their denim in shades of Madame Lanvin’s heavenly blue.
The result of the research was a new label, AZ Factory, launched this year – company motto “fashion that cares”– with the first output being My Body dresses using stretch and knits for close fit, made in all sizes from XXS to 4XL and available online. No shows, no stores and not couture prices, but comfortable and comforting like his Lanvin creations. The company seemed a possible post-pandemic fashion future.
Elbaz was made a chevalier of the Légion d’honneur in 2007 and an officer in 2016.
He is survived by his partner, the merchandising executive Alex Koo, a brother and two sisters.