“It was a great privilege watching Alber in his last endeavor as he worked to realize his dream of ‘smart fashion that cares.’ His inclusive vision of fashion made women feel beautiful and comfortable by blending traditional craftsmanship with technology — highly innovative projects which sought to redefine the industry,” he added.
Born in Morocco and raised and educated in Israel, the designer moved to New York in the mid-1980s. After a stint at a bridal firm, he landed at Geoffrey Beene, working as his senior assistant for seven years.
Elbaz came onto the international radar when he was recruited by Ralph Toledano to helm Guy Laroche in Paris in 1996, a stint that won raves, media attention and the job offer of a lifetime: to succeed couture legend Yves Saint Laurent at the helm of Rive Gauche ready-to-wear.
After three seasons, Elbaz was fired in the wake of Gucci Group’s takeover of YSL, with Tom Ford picking up the design reins. Elbaz subsequently did one season with Krizia in Milan before sitting on the sidelines of the business for one year.
He eventually landed at Lanvin in 2001, and Elbaz embraced the coziness of a small, privately held company — and a brand that was under the radar.
Not for long: His elegant, feminine designs and pulse-pounding runway shows, which had a carnival spirit, catapulted Lanvin to become a top Paris fashion house.
His rejuvenation of the brand was built on a woman-first ethos and the cocktail dress, which ranked as one of the most important items of the Aughts, thanks partly to him. “I said, ‘It’s all about zip-in and zip-out,’” he said in an interview in 2014.
“It was just about giving ease to women,” he said of his dresses with industrial zips and raw edges, two of the design signatures he established for Lanvin. Dressy sneakers with grosgrain laces, ballet flats and chunky costume jewelry were among his other hit designs.
During his tenure, he transformed a business largely dependent on men’s wear into a leading designer brand for women, part of the vanguard in Paris that launched an enduring trend of couture-influenced French elegance — and gave the French capital new buzz.
Meryl Streep famously accepted her Oscar for best actress in 2012 for “The Iron Lady” wearing a draped, gold lame gown by Elbaz. Other celebrity fans included Demi Moore, Nicole Kidman, Catherine Deneuve, Kate Moss, Uma Thurman, Julianne Moore and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Fond of musings on fashion, Elbaz often returned to the word “desire,” something he felt instinctively when he first visited the archive of the founding couturier, whose dresses from the ’30s are marvels of delicate femininity.
“I said, ‘You know we are going to make collections for women, we are going to actually emphasize the desire, the desire in fashion, the desire in design,’” he said in a 2012 interview. “I was very much into design because I came from the house of Geoffrey Beene, which was all about design, and then we pushed it also to desire, to women, to reality, to be relevant. I think to be relevant is the story of my life.”
While Elbaz always talked a good talk, and was among the most quotable designers in the business, he also trusted his gut.
“I work mostly by intuition. Every time I think too much and try to rationalize every issue, it doesn’t work. I think that intuition is the essence of this métier,” he said in 2014.
He also never dabbled in men’s wear, appointing a deputy, Lucas Ossendrijver, when he was at Lanvin.
“Our job as designers is to listen, to understand. All my career I always worked with women and for women,” he said in 2019.
Indeed, Elbaz thought about women incessantly: their lifestyles, wardrobe needs, emotions. “I’m not here to make one look,” he explained in a 2007 interview. “You have to follow their needs. That’s the whole idea of design.”
Known for draping fabrics directly on the body and using them to their best advantage, Elbaz also frequently emphasized the human hand in fashion by leaving stray threads, a riposte to the flurry of Instagram posts and e-commerce sites that had given fashion a high-tech, impersonal sheen.
After being ousted from Lanvin in October 2015 and before partnering with Richemont, Elbaz busied himself with speaking engagements and small design projects at various price points, including a collaboration with Tod’s on shoes; a Converse sneaker; a limited-edition makeup line with Lancôme; a range of travel bags and accessories with LeSportsac, and a fragrance with French perfumer Frédéric Malle.
He returned to the fashion spotlight last January during couture week in Paris, though he was loathe to call it a comeback. Via a humorous mini movie, he unveiled three “projects,” the first of which — form-fitting dresses dubbed My Body — went on sale immediately on the AZ Factory website, Farfetch.com and Net-a-porter.com, the Richemont-owned e-tailer.
Key elements of the AZ Factory project were cutting-edge “smart” fabrics, a new business model hinged on projects rather than collections, and with storytelling, problem-solving and entertainment embedded in design, distribution and communications.