Fashion rarely likes a nice guy – the competitive, bitchy and relentless world of couture and style has always favoured larger than life personalities. Dramatic gestures, loud fashion, crazy antics and demands have proliferated this world since day one and continues to intrigue all of us who watch, work and relish this world of finery and pizzazz. Not Mr Elbaz. The kind, disarmingly sweet and intelligent Israeli designer made his presence felt as the creative director of Lanvin for 14 glorious years from 2001 to 2015.
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I first saw his collection in 2002 (it was his second for the French house) and was blown away by the setting, incredible colours and feminine dresses that came down the runway. Most of all, it was his humble, sweet and smiling appearance at the end of the runways, always waving, always grateful for the opportunity to be among the best.
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His signature jewel-toned silk dresses — many one-shouldered, some bejewelled, others stark in monochromes — were always feminine and his shows pulse-pounding with incredibly simple sets but with strong models who strode down his runways with force and power. And who can forget the prelude to the start of the shows? The circus carnival-like atmosphere with handsome waiters carrying an endless stream of champagne, drinks, popcorn and snacks to feed us weary editors after a long day of endless shows and presentations whizzing around Paris.
Elbaz always ended his shows with powerful, sing-along anthems – “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” or “I’m Every Woman” – which had the audience singing, clapping and getting on their feet to cheer the sheer spectacle, brilliance and warmth that he brought to fashion.
During his reign at Lanvin, I had the pleasure of styling many of his collections on personalities, celebrities and models around the world. It started with me putting Hollywood actress Michelle Yeoh in one of his famous purple silk dresses on the February 2004 cover which Yeoh adored. I went on to put Lanvin twice more on covers – on Anna Watanabe (daughter of Ken Watanabe) in June 2007 and on supermodel Erin O’Connor in July 2008. They were all silk dresses, two were jewel-toned but they all lent a femininity and sensuality to the women and image which few designers could do so consistently and so effortlessly season after season. I eventually moved on to shoot more of his monochromatic collections – soft dove greys, fluid creams and edgy blacks. His collections became more varied, sometimes tinged with an edge of street, other times more urbane in denim or soft wools. One of my most memorable shots I created with Elbaz’s fall winter 2012 collection was with model Kristina Salinovic standing in front of a twinkling Eiffel tower at 2am in the morning. It was during couture fashion week and we had to race against the clock to shoot the top girls between shows – which meant many of my shoots were done after 10pm when the last show ended for the day. Kristina stood against a fence beaming a big wide happy smile encased in silky, shiny Lanvin – and what woman wouldn’t be happy standing in one of his everlasting creations?
I met Mr Elbaz at the Bazaar global conference in 2014 in Paris. He charmed each and every editor with his stories about his grandmother, brought tears of laughter to our eyes with his analogies of food and fashion and made us all think when he spoke about the friendships he forged with so many women in his life. He spoke of his teenage folly making doilies out of tin foil dresses. He was real and so personable. And when he hugged me to congratulate me on making Editor in Chief of Bazaar, it was full of warmth and sincerity.
And looking back, it was probably Elbaz collection for H&M in 2010 that brought the designer into the homes, the wardrobes and hearts of so many women globally. He brought couture into the mainstream – layers of tulle, lace, satins and silk – were priced affordably yet all given his special touch and love (a leitmotif that peppered so many of his collections).
I remember buying a signature red tulle gown for my mother in Seoul. I was there for a press trip and chanced upon racks of his collection in an H&M store. I wasted no time grabbing as many pieces I could get my hands on and this was the only gown in mum’s petite size. She wore it a few months later to my cousin’s wedding and nearly stole the limelight from the bride. But to see the joy the gown brought to my mum, to me and to many admirers who saw how beautiful his fashion could make women, look and feel, that sums up his Elbaz work at Lanvin. I was so excited to see what he was bringing to AZ Factory which was his democratic approach to fashion in making clothes beautiful and so easy to wear that anyone can pull them off with aplomb. His genius was only just starting at AZ Factory before he was cruelly taken away from us with the horrendous pandemic that’s sweeping the world.
Mr Elbaz, you are sorely missed by all and sundry, and your work and legacy will never leave us. Continue to bring fizz, pop and camp to the heavens and walk that happy walk down the runway. The gods wanted you back to dress the angels. Who could possibly blame them?