Designers Dish

Designers Dish With Lanvin Artistic Director Alber Elbaz

On the occasion of Lanvin's 125th anniversary, we traveled to the City of Light to chat with Elbaz, who's responsible for the Parisian label that's lighting up Hollywood these days.

On the occasion of the 125th anniversary of Lanvin — the world's oldest luxury brand and couture fashion house — The Hollywood Reporter had the great privilege of attending Lanvin's fall 2014 collection presentation at L'Ecoles des Beaux Arts on Rue Bonaparte on Paris's Left Bank. The building itself, a famed art school dating back to 1648, is impressive enough, but add Lanvin's fall feathers and leathers and a front row featuring Rihanna, Emma Roberts and Catherine Deneuve and you've got a French fashion cultural extravaganza.

The following day, we sat down with revered Lanvin artistic director Alber Elbaz, holder of the brand's top job since 2002, who was such a warm wordsmith and delicious presence during our sitdown at 17 Rue Boissy d'Anglas, right off Paris's Rue Faubourg St. Honore fashion district.

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Alber, why do you have a photograph of an Orthodox Jewish wedding on your wall?

If you see the faces behind me you'll see nobody's happy! (Laughs.) Nobody! They're all wearing shiny clothes, but happiness is not there. I always remember when I first signed the contract to design for St. Laurent and I said, "Mom, I'm getting the contract, la la la la," and she was like, "There is only one thing to make me happy and that's for you to get married!" Here is the bride — and see how unhappy she looks! So here we are! Traditional routes don't always lead to where you want to be.

I remember that Chloe Sevigny was the first celebrity to wear your clothes from YSL to the Oscars.

I remember that dress with Chloe; it was a black dress, I think even in cotton. I was told we could not do a cotton dress for the Oscars, and we could not do black for Hollywood. When they tell me what to do, I can't, and I do the opposite. And it's not out of rebellion — it's that I don't like formula, I don't like uniform — even though I was in the Israeli army three years.

And now you've dressed so many actors and actresses since, and have been to Los Angeles so many times. What a difference a decade can make.

It's true, I've been to L.A. so many times, and the first time I came, I thought, that will be the place I will not like. It has all the things that give it the potential for me not to like it. And it's actually one of my favorite places in the world.

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Surprising!

You know why? It's the one place in the world that people invite you to their homes. It's the one place where you can also meet their children. And you expect their children to be little rock 'n' roll kids, and they come down, and they're shy and a bit awkward and authentic — and it's so beautiful to see that part of L.A. I met so many actresses — more actresses than actors, actually — I meet them on their off time, before the red carpet, not when they're working on a movie. I think that when you meet them and see their vulnerability and fragility — and they are very, very sensitive — the sensitivity of those people, that's what I like about L.A. At another time, we might call them "divas"— but it's not about being a diva, it's about being a bit childish — and that's how they can capture characters and get into some else's persona, because only kids can do that.

You're absolutely right. Actors have very thin skin. That's their job.

And that is the best part about it. That is why I love L.A. And there is such an individuality — there are so many crazy people. And I love crazy people. There is nothing that bores me more than mediocrity. You see, I like very good and I like very bad. Extremes. In L.A. you see this kind of individuality; New York is not like that; everyone looks the same. I like this colorful quality in people — L.A. is a very inspiring place. It's all about the people — not about art deco, or architecture, or that hotel or that restaurant — it's just about the people. And I think L.A. has — and I am not a kiss-ass, it's not my forte to be politically correct! — I think L.A. has some of the best people in the world, and that's why I like being there.

You don't strike me as someone who's obsessed with the red carpet, despite the fact that 2013 was such a major year for Lanvin. The 2013-14 awards season saw so many Lanvin gowns and suits.

About the red carpet: It started as a fun event, and I mean, it was great and fun. And today, it's all about business. It puts so much pressure on everybody. I see it on E!.

You watch E?

Are you kidding? I love E! Love! When you come from work, 16 hours of work a day, you either watch National Geographic Channel — some tigers running after some hyenas — or you watch L.A. stories! I watch Downton Abbey as well, but on the weekend, when I'm more focused. To relax, I just want to have half an hour of images to clear my mind, almost like a meditation — I watch the Kardashians, I love it!

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Have you met Kim Kardashian?

Yes, and I love her. She is a loyal girl. Going back to the red carpet, because I think that we are part of the business, fashion has become a factory — but we need to go back and become the factory of dreams, not just a factory of needs. We need to attach emotion, intuition and fun — joy. Using fashion as joy, and not just as an obligation. When you are being paid to wear that, your job is promoting — but your job is supposed to be acting. We are also producers now — of shows, of videos — and we are not trained to be producers, we're just designers. And it will be good if a cook will cook, and a designer will design, and a singer will sing. Life is chaotic enough. And I feel sometime that some of the red-carpet people think their career depends on it.

This can be true for the ones who aren't established actors.

If you're good and talented and blessed, it's really not about the dress you wear. You know, for us, we're being judged by who we're dressing — like the "it" girl of the second — and I have no problem with not doing that. Of course I would love it, but if it didn't happen, I don't think I'd be totally depressed. I see people for who they are and what they are. I love talent. I'm obsessed with talented people. I love movies. Not that I saw a lot, because doing these collections is almost worse for your health than being a heavy smoker — it's like being a heavy smoker and an alcoholic together! Half the time, when I'm done designing a collection, I feel like I should go to Betty Ford.

It's a lot: four women's collections and two men's collections every year.

Yes. Every collection has the fashion part, the knitwear, the fur, the embroidery, the long, the short, the jewelry, the accessories — all of that in six weeks. That means 30 days multiplied by 10 hours a day means 300 hours per collection. So in 300 hours you have to do that.

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And you don't seem like someone who's looking at trend reports.

I do look, trust me. I look at everything. That's the one thing that is always interesting — on one hand, we have to go forward with design, and at the same time I also have to make sure it sells. It's like making an artistic movie that's sort of a blockbuster. How do you do that? How do you make an action movie and be introspective? That is so hard. To make a total blockbuster, not that hard. To go totally artistic, not that hard. But to make the two touch each other — it's one of the hardest things ever.

Just then, a PR assistant comes in with reviews of last night's show. They speak mostly French.

Elber: The New York Times... So far they're good...

What do you expect?

The worst! You should see me the day before the show. Every show. You're as good as your next show. From one day to another, you can be no longer relevant. You work and put all your time and emotion and life and everything in there — and you don't know how it's going to look. We have no library in fashion to learn from yesterday — like lawyers and doctors. There's only tomorrow.

Is it true you don't own or use a computer?

Only iPad, and I just learned iPad recently — and I'm obsessed. But I don't do email, no Instagram. I don't drive, I don't bike. I hear some people get 350 emails a day and they answer email all day long. So I don't do that. So I still can come and dream. But it's important for the others. They are my orchestra. I am the conductor.

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Since it's the brand's 125th anniversary, let's talk about the legend of the great Jeanne Lanvin.

You know, reading about Jeanne Lanvin, it being our 125th anniversary, I realize more and more about the lady who founded the place — that she had so many people here but she was so family oriented she used to live in the building on the fourth floor. I think if I capture something of that spirit, it's not the dress from 1911 or the jacket of 1914 — it's the spirit of family. With family, it's sometime about high and it's sometime about low. You never go on vacation without family right? I think there is a loyalty with family that stays forever. Even through high and low.

Where is your family, Alber?

My family, part is in Tel Aviv, part in New York, and part all over the world. And my family is also the family I created in Paris. It's also my partner, Alex. My work is my family. I have to say, my family is here.

Looking at the Jeanne Lanvin sketches in her private office from the 1920s, I was shocked about the years — trousers and drop waists in the early 1920s — all we ever hear is that Chanel freed women from the corset. Jeanne Lanvin was very modern and apparently preceded Chanel.

I was doing thinking about all those women designers of the time — [Jeanne Lanvin], Elsa Schiapparelli, Madame Vionnet, Madame Gres and Chanel. First of all, I think it's amazing the couturier were all women. There was chauvinism — but it's women who turned fashion into business. Each one of them was very different: Vionnet was all about cuts and conceptual forms, Gres was about technique and Chanel was such a marketing genius! Jeanne Lanvin was maybe the smartest. She was the one who created the word "lifestyle." She actually designed furniture, men's clothes, women's clothes, children's, hats, wedding dresses, bathing suits — she did four collections a year. And each collection had about 250 pieces in each. Now collections are about 50 pieces each show.

And she was sending sketch lookbooks to customers in South America!

And thanking customers for coming by. I think there was something very intelligent about the whole thing. There was something also about the clothes that are very discreet. They don't scream. And we're living in an era today that if you don't scream, you're not going to be heard. For our fall 2014 show, I went to a place of extreme extravagance — but I didn't want the extravagance to be over the top. I wanted it to be kind of discreet. I like whispering more than the screaming.

Yes I hear you do as many personal fittings as you can when you make gowns for actresses.

If you see our clothes from the original sketches to the actual pieces, they will not be the same. Because all the time I do fittings, and then I change everything. It's one thing to design on one dimension — it's another on the body. It's one thing when you take a red color and put it on — and it's another if you take it into deep purple. Then it's totally another garment in black leather — a totally different thing. Some colors do not work well in certain fabrics. Then we find the right fabric somewhere in the world in the right color — and then I photograph the fabric with three different cameras to make sure the color is good. So if she wears it, we will be happy. If she doesn't wear it, we will be a little bit sad, but we will have a good feeling knowing we did the best thing.

An assistant walks in with more reviews.

Elber: Ca va?

Assistant: C'est genius! Suzy Menkes!

Elber: You know the day after, I look at everything and I'm like, "Ah! What does Suzy say?" (He starts to read and appears pleased.)

You created Meryl Streep's gold dress for the Oscars when she won for The Iron Lady (2012) and then this year as well.

You know what with Meryl Streep? It doesn't matter what she wears. There is so much talent there, there is so much respect that I have for her as a professional and a person, and the humbleness — so much complicity. And beautiful, just beautiful. It's her and it doesn't matter. Pharrell, whom I've gotten to know, is the most beautiful person inside and out. The same with Julianne Moore, whom I love love love. You know, if you give good you get good. I think it's time to be nicer to each other. I feel that the Internet can be an atomic bomb. People have no life anymore. It's an addiction. Everybody's hooked to the messages. We have to give these actors space to live. They need a moment of privacy. And yet I read all these tabloid magazines — I read them at the hairdresser! What do you want me to read at the hairdresser? Tolstoy? Not at the hairdresser!

You're paying attention to high culture and low culture.

That's my life. I would not be able to do my job if I did not know what is going on in the street. I think this collection was mostly because of the street. I personally don't like to walk too much — so I'm in the car, taxi. I look all the time, looking and looking — there is this kind of voyeurism that is part of my job. The day of the show you pass from being a voyeur to an exhibitionist. It's always like this kind of drama, when you pass from one to another. You pass from black to white. From a dark room into a sunny space — sunny because of the flashes. I deal with it the best I can because there are a lot of people there who need to do their job

You said last night you feel like everyone all over the world is starting to dress in the same exact way.

It's true. You know, walking in the street and seeing everybody — black and gray, and gray and gray, and black and white and gray, and khaki and beige and beige — they all look the same. The bomber jackets, the military coats, the leggings in stretch leather — Madison Avenue, everywhere. It's the same jacket and the same bag and the same hair! Why? Why? Where did we lose our individuality? You know what we are missing in the street? Eccentric. That's why I did eccentric. You see it everywhere — China, Japan, New York, uptown, downtown — all the same. They all eat the same thing, they stay in the same hotel. Sushi and sashimi was the food of the moment — now it's granola and quinoa. This is why I did a lamé metallic collection for spring 2014. I wanted to see shine — to see people with shine in their eyes.

And Jeanne Lavin worked lamé as well.

In five years nobody will make these fabrics — brocade, lamé — those machines are so old, and people going into synthetics. This is a thing the world cannot continue. And it's good to show that lamé can be for everyday and not just for Marie Antoinette and her waiting ladies. I love lamé.

Tilda Swinton was one of the first celebs to wear Lanvin, wasn't she? She helped put your designs for Lanvin on the map — at Cannes, at the Oscars.

When you say Tilda Swinton, what I think is: a lot of respect. Talk about individuality. A lot of admiration for her as an actress and her versatility and the person with the courage to be her. She's so fashion, but she's so her. She's not faking anything. The way she decides to act, and what she chooses to do, and the risks she takes — she goes totally with her intuition. Amazing woman. The women who are wearing our clothes — you see who they are? They are all connected somehow — I feel this.

Emma Stone is quite the Lanvin girl, isn't she?

Wow. She is cool and so good as a person and so amazing in her movies — adore. Adore. Adore. I am lucky to meet these amazing people that have so much talent — but they are also good. I've met talented people and I've met good people — to have that rare combination! And not losing the ground that you step on. It's very, very easy to do. I asked out Emma Stone to go to the Met Ball with me one year. She was my date. I think my mother was so proud! And she was so gorgeous! We made her a red plastic dress. I just love her. Her energy is floating. And she has a great eye. She knows exactly what's right on her.

How do you like working with the Hollywood stylists like Elizabeth Stewart and Petra Flannery? (No. 1 and 2, respectively, on THR's 2014 Power Stylist List)

I know some of these stylists — when I was in L.A., I met Arianne Phillips, Petra Flannery, Elizabeth Stewart. They have a difficult job because they are in between us designers, the press and the actress. They need to make sure that [their clients] look good, that the girls feel good, the designer is not frustrated — it is a very tough job. They are very close to our press team. We have a very good relationship with them. And at the end of the day, it's all about relationships, whatever you do. It's all about that kind of dialogue. We're living a life that is all about monologue. It needs to be a dialogue.

Oscar dresses and tuxes — how do you make these in the middle of the fall collection?

Sometimes it's easier to have a whole collection rather than one red-carpet dress. You know why? With the collection, I know what I like. But with red-carpet dresses, I get one instruction sometimes — and sometimes the feeling I have is the opposite of the instruction. We have to go through so many people and the time to complete the dress is short. Then I go upstairs and work with three seamstresses who are above 60-years-old. And they have to stay the whole night to put the dress together. Sometimes we send sewers with the pieces out to L.A. I want to make sure the actress looks good and happy and comfortable — more than the dress. And when you do red-carpet dresses, it's one thing with how the dresses look in pictures — it's another with how it looks and feels in real life. I always think of how it looks and feels on the body. And how they sit. A soft bias-cut dress — there is nothing more sensual than that. But it doesn't always photograph well. So what is most important? Are we producing a party that looks good only on TV? Is fun dead? Can you imagine? Eight hours in a corset and high heels — at the end of the night, your husband might leave you, you turn into such a bitch! Then, the Oscar isn't much good to you!