Back when attending Fashion Week in Paris was as exciting (the talent, the parties, the shopping) as it was irritating (the citizenry who obviously dislike each other even more than they dislike you), almost every editor and merchant had to hit particular Parisian touchstones, without which a visit would not be complete. Some quickly headed to Zimmerli to buy more of what may be the world’s most comfortable T-shirt. Others bested a February chill with a cup of Angelina’s dense, velvety hot chocolate. But there was one stop I coveted more than even these, and that was having a coffee, a drink, lunch, tea or anytime when I was able to sit across from and enjoy the company of Alber Elbaz.
Despite his thousands-cheer talent and unlike many of his contemporaries, Alber—who died today at 59 from Covid-19—wasn’t larger than life. Rather, he was exactly the way you wanted life to be—radiating serenity, graced with wit, grounded in purpose, driven somewhere between passionately and impishly to celebrate beauty, eager to share delight, and always with an infallible sense of when it was time to go home.
Out of the spotlight, Alber never wore label on his sleeve. He was confident enough to translate whatever he needed to say in that department on the catwalk. Instead, Alber wanted to talk about what smelled fresh in the air, all that was new in America, any gossip you had heard, which new actress or woman you admired, what books had you read, how was your love life. He didn’t take ‘quick’ calls or acknowledge frantic texts from assistants. Whatever was waiting for him at the office could wait. Alber believed friends deserve attention just like art.
Alber Elbaz so radiated kindness that he threatened to give fashion a good name.
Fashion has a big heart when it goes to bat for charities, but the industry hasn’t always been as convivial when it came to intramural games, which may be why this curly-mopped, round-shouldered, self-effacing though never falsely modest dumpling of a man always seemed to leave all who met him with such a towering impression. Alber Elbaz so radiated kindness that he threatened to give fashion a good name.
He didn’t just love to dress women. He loved the women he dressed; always listening to them, questioning them, seducing them into revealing their dreams, listening to their insecurities, imagining what they’d crave though they didn’t know it yet. Then he would gather all this confidential information, sift it through his spellbinding talent that had reignited Lanvin’s near dormant atelier after training with Geoffrey Beene, Guy LaRoche and St. Laurent, and with one eye trained on the glamour of Hollywood’s Golden Age and another on admiring a woman hailing a cab from The Seagram Building, he would create wardrobes that delivered such joy, self-assurance, pride and sass to those he dressed, that he would get mobbed and hugged backstage and at public appearances not as a sartorial genius, but as the nephew everybody always loved the most.
To those he would yet to meet, Elbaz might have appeared shy, almost reticent. But it was a calculated stance that worked quite handily for him, because, though he knew enough of his worth to split with Lanvin when his instincts were being ignored, he would never spread his feathers in the spotlight the way Versace, Valentino or Karl Lagerfeld would. He claimed that his mission as a designer was to stay in the shadow. In fact, he hoped he and work would be rendered invisible. As he wrote in the foreword of my book, 100 Unforgettable Dresses, a dress “has to do more than merely look amazing…Into that dress you have to weave enough allure and mystery to excite and transform the most integral factor in making a dress unforgettable: the woman who is wearing it.”
Because he never forgot his customer, it is doubtful thousands of women will ever forget how dazzling they looked and felt when dressed by Alber Elbaz. What I will take with me is the one of the parting lines he offered me one afternoon as we parted ways in the lobby of the Hotel Crillon. “In the end, it’s all about love, isn’t it?” I never argue with a genius.
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