It's Feb. 27, the day after Lanvin's fall 2014 runway show in Paris -- where Rihanna, Emma Roberts, Catherine Deneuve and a gaggle of Chinese actresses sat front row, hanging on every last black fringed look -- and reviews are coming in. Artistic director Alber Elbaz, 52, sits anxiously behind his desk in the original 1920s Lanvin building near Rue du Faubourg Saint Honore. It's the exact place where founder Jeanne Lanvin ran her business and resided on the fourth floor a hundred years before.
The much-revered Elbaz -- famed for fluid Grecian-style draping, black and blush colorations and Euro-style menswear (think Jean Dujardin) -- nervous?
Since joining Lanvin in 2001, he has turned the brand, celebrating its 125th anniversary, into a Hollywood must-have, with chain-handle bags, shoes (he made the scrunchy ballerina flat fashionable) and oversized crystal necklaces among the hottest accessories in the world. At the Oscars, Pharrell Williams wore tailored Lanvin shorts and Meryl Streep an off-shoulder white blouse with a flowing black skirt. "Alber has a special genius to know how a woman feels in a dress," says Streep, who never has looked so relaxed in high fashion. Cate Blanchett, Jared Leto and Sandra Bullock sported Lanvin throughout awards season. Elbaz is adored by such trend-starting fashionistas as Julianne Moore, Tilda Swinton, Emma Stone and Natalie Portman. This man simply never gets a bad review.
"But you're only as good as your last show," sighs the designer, known for his charm, black-framed glasses and rather teddy bear-like shape. "You have to be fashion-forward -- and you have to sell. In this business, it only takes one day to become irrelevant."
Not likely for the Morocco-born, Israel-raised designer, whose first job in fashion was working in New York on a mother-of-the-bride clothing line. He soon jumped to Geoffrey Beene and later the top spot at Yves Saint Laurent. Some call him the likely heir to Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel if King Karl ever retires. The reviews for this tough-meets-tender fall show -- full of subdued leathers, fringed coats, feather-edged hats and romantic slouchy blouses -- were raves.
"I like very good and very bad. Extremes. I decided to do extreme, eccentric and extravagant altogether. Nothing bores me more than mediocrity and formula," says Elbaz, whose life partner, Alex Koo, is Lanvin's director of marketing. According to the most recent estimates, the fashion house (privately held by Taiwanese media magnate Shaw-Lan Wang) had worldwide sales in 2011 of about $280 million.
Beyond the red carpet, it's a luxury go-to for Hollywood executive women, who match a blouse or skirt and shoes with more tailored pieces or don a chic black cocktail dress for a premiere. Young male agents gravitate toward Lanvin suits and white shirts, which range from French super skinny with skinny ties, to more fluid oversized jackets and trousers -- and what guy doesn't love those colorful $800 men's sneakers?
If there's a through line to Lanvin's history, it's a hands-on approach. Jeanne Lanvin did many fittings herself and dressed actresses of the '20s and '30s, including Mary Pickford, Marlene Dietrich and Rita Hayworth. Elbaz refers to Jeanne as "the first lifestyle designer," as she did women's clothes, men's, children's, bridal, bathing suits -- even furniture. Lanvin is in fact the oldest French fashion brand still in business. And it's quite rare that a brand is as relevant today as it was then, particularly after experiencing a lull from the '50s until Elbaz's tenure. The only other one that comes to mind is, of course, Chanel. Coco Chanel is the feminist icon who got women out of corsets, but Jeanne Lanvin, born in 1867, did too and predates her by nearly 25 years.
"Chanel was a marketing genius!" is Elbaz's explanation of the partial historical eclipse of Lanvin. "But there was something about Jeanne Lanvin's clothes," he muses, "that were very discreet. They were soft, draped and in quiet colors -- they didn't scream."
Like Jeanne, Elbaz is known for personally doing many red-carpet fittings. Says Moore, a longtime Lanvin devotee on and off the red carpet, "He'll fly to New York and come to my house to fit dresses on me."
Moore recalls her first meeting with Elbaz after she'd worn many a Lanvin to promote 2009's A Single Man. "I was so nervous because he's so talented. He turns out to be an incredibly warm person. He came running into this hotel room, telling me he'd forgotten a present -- and had to run to Barneys to buy me a Lanvin necklace!"
Streep had not met Elbaz when she sported a gold Lanvin gown to pick up her 2012 Oscar. But for 2014's gown, Streep did fittings with him in Paris. "One never doubts Alber's love for women and his consideration of how ease and fluidity make a woman feel lovely," says Streep.
In turn, he says he reveres not the fame or beauty of the stars, but them as artists. "When you meet actors and actresses," he says, "you see their vulnerability and fragility and that they are very sensitive. It's not being a diva -- it's being a bit childish; that's how they get into other personas and capture that. Only kids can do that."
But he is clearly not as fond of the red carpet for marketing's sake. "Fashion has become a factory. I would never make a dress for an actress that was all about a photo. She needs to look great in person and needs to feel great."
Above all, a red-carpet dress always needs to be comfortable. (A rare thought for a major designer.) Notes Elbaz: "If a woman is in heels and a corset all night, she can turn into such a bitch her husband will leave her! Even the Oscar won't make her happy after that."
Elbaz, like Jeanne Lanvin, is a creature of his times: high-minded but practical. "I embrace both high and low culture," he says. "I love the E! channel and Fashion Police. I love the Kardashians. I read the tabloids at the hairdresser -- am I supposed to read Tolstoy? I look at everything and everyone. I have to. I would not be able to do my work if I did not know what's going on in the street and in people's heads."
Part of his interest in junk TV is humor, part to alleviate stress. "Doing six collections a year -- four women's, two men's -- is almost worse for your health than being a heavy smoker," he says. "It's like being a heavy smoker and an alcoholic together! Half the time, when I'm done with a collection, I feel like going to Betty Ford!"
This story first appeared in the March 21-28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.