Remembering the glamorous legacy of Alber Elbaz, fashion’s kindest designer
Alber Elbaz was one of fashion’s greatest designers. We take a look at his illustrious career and his lasting legacy.
Photo by Michel Dufour/WireImage via Getty Images
Over the weekend, the fashion world learned the sad news that designer Alber Elbaz – most known for his 14-year tenure at French fashion house Lanvin – had passed away aged 59, due to Covid-19. Like his peers and fellow design legends Karl Lagerfeld and Azzedine Alaïa, Elbaz leaves behind an incredible legacy – illustrated by the flood of tributes from celebrities and fashion insiders. His passing comes just as he embarked on his latest chapter, a new venture AZ Factory, which launched earlier this year.
Known for his couture-like craft and penchant for luxury, for years Elbaz
was a red carpet favourite and his humble and kind nature was a salve to fashion’s toxicity. With his mother’s words as guidance — “Alber, I wish you to be big and small. Be big in your job but remain small and modest in your person,” as he recounted to i-D in 2010 — he embarked on a career in fashion, and would become one of its greatest designers.
Born in Morocco, Albert (not Alber) Elbaz was surrounded by creativity growing up – his mother was a painter and father a hairdresser – and began sketching dresses at the tender age of seven. Years later, his family moved to Israel, where he studied fashion design at the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design. At 24, with only $800 in his pocket, his mother sent him to New York, where he would begin to pursue his dream. Stuck making what he described as “horrible mother-of-the-bride dresses” in the garment district, he was later discovered by Geoffrey Beene who trained him as his assistant designer for seven years. Soon after, he dropped the ‘t’ in his name to adopt what he saw as more fashion-appropriate: Alber.
In 1996, Alber snatched up his first fashion gig at Guy Laroche – impressing fashion exec Ralph Toledano with a personalised letter on bold, red paper with his name stamped at the top like you’d find on a fashion label. Soon after, the fledgeling designer excited the industry with his floral and feminine fashions that were seen as an antidote to the stark power dressing of the time. Drawing more and more of fashion’s high flyers in each season, Alber’s fourth collection was presented to the Yves Saint Laurent impressing him and the label’s late co-founder Pierre Bergé so much that they hired him with the intent of replacing the designer after he retired. After three seasons that took the feminine sensibilities he explored at Laroche and dialled up the sex factor, YSL was bought by Gucci and Elbaz was replaced in favour of Tom Ford.
Alber’s impact on Lanvin is undoubtedly unmatched – evident from the breakneck game of musical chairs that has been the rotation of designers since his departure in 2015. Back in 2001, when the designer was hired, he turned a dusty heritage house into one that became a highlights of Paris Fashion Week. During his 14-year tenure, every outing felt like New Year’s eve; unashamedly glamorous, with an infectious optimism and excitement for the road ahead. Strong silhouettes, ruffles, furs (when that was a thing), sequins, and signature hardware that would make an art teacher’s mouth water – models emerged season after season like daintily packaged luxury chocolates, which fashion editors, buyers and luxury shoppers ate up with glee.
Highly decorated, Alber was awarded the International Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America back in 2005, named as Time magazine’s Most Influential People in 2007, and was later honoured by the French government in 2016 with its highest honour. Unsurprisingly, it sent shockwaves through the industry when he was fired from Lanvin. Fashion was beginning to shift its perspective, and business-savvy designers were becoming more sought-after at global megabrands. However, one of Alber’s greatest legacies was that he was a true fashion designer — he designed dreamy clothes, not commercial merchandise.
While it’s a cliché in fashion to talk about male designers loving and celebrating women, there are few who adored them more than Alber. Likening himself to a hotel concierge who spent his days surrounded by glamorous people, but at the end of the day went back home to his simple life. “Women are very multifaceted,” he shared in a recent interview. “They want to be sexy, to be the mother, to be the lover, and to be the businesswoman. Women are much more pragmatic than men, because they can do many things all at the same minute and want to be the best at them.”
The designer’s cohort of celebrity fans who regularly wore his looks on the red carpet included the likes of Rihanna, Kim Kardashian, Natalie Portman, Harry Styles, Lupita Nyong’o and Rooney Mara. When Meryl Streep took home an Oscar in 2012 wearing a gold lamé number (made from recycled plastic bottles) by Alber, she sang his praises: “Alber’s dresses for Lanvin are the only ones that when I wear them, I feel like myself, or even a better version of her,” she gushed. After years of being the go-to for the stars, he later delivered his feel-good fashions to women everywhere with his 2010 H&M collaboration that somehow managed to pull off his signature glamour with T-shirts and dresses accessorised with ribbons and jewels.
Alber often spoke about his experience of being overweight and how the “fantasy of being skinny” informed his designs. On the runway, he often mixed newer faces like Edie Campbell and Lindsey Wixson with longtime muses like Amber Valletta and Kirsten Owen. While street-casting is now the norm for many, all the way back in 2012 the designer tapped what he dubbed as a ‘crazy family’ of ‘regular faces’ including a waiter, milliner, and an 82-year-old who finally achieved her dream of being a model.
After his tenure at Lanvin ended, the designer continued exploring what
‘diversity’ in fashion means. His musings amalgamated in the launch of AZ Factory back in January, a “solutions-based” label to make functional, fashionable, and affordable luxury garments from XXS up to XXXXL – a rare sight in fashion, even now with newer conversations around body positivity. “I took a subject that is taboo, that you almost don’t want to talk about,” he explained to Vogue of his new venture. “But I said: Yes I will. We’re not here to transform women; we’re here to hug them.
With an adorably round face that you just wanted to squeeze, and a French schoolboy-esque uniform of trousers that were too short, shoes without socks, signature oversized bowtie, and rectangular glasses that framed big bright eyes, the designer was delightfully unassuming and not jaded by the inner workings of the industry. He despised whatever was “cool” and refused to work with difficult or mean people, saying it turned off his creativity.
“To be good is important, I don't like bitches," the designer quipped in 2013. Even after he was sent packing by Lanvin and unfairly accused of “poor quality designs”, the meanest retort he could muster was that he hoped the label would “find the business vision it needs to engage in the right way forward”. Heartbreakingly, he shared the pain of losing a job that meant so much to him. “Since I left Lanvin I have a huge scar,” he shared months after his departure. “For the first couple of months, I walked around Paris and it was raining. I never knew if it was the rain or my tears.”
In recent years, the fun part of fashion has seemed sorely lacking. Alber’s sense of humour was never more evident than in his fashion campaigns. For SS11, models seemed to nod to the glamour and campy violence of Dynasty – faux fighting in an opulent mansion. The following season (AW11), a rhythmically challenged cohort of models including Raquel Zimmerman did their best at dancing to Pitbull in the house’s luxurious fashions. Never one to miss out on the joke, the designer himself makes a cameo at the end – quite easily the best dancer of the bunch.
“Is fashion important? Is it important to talk about luxury?” the designer mused in 2009. “You make people dream. You make people think. You have to give them stories. You have to introduce fantasy. Fashion is how we bring them into the world today. That is my job.”