Alber Elbaz will be remembered for his heart. Emotion was at the core of every dress he designed. The signature that ran through every one of his catwalk shows was not a hemline or a logo, but a feeling of joyfulness. His jewel-coloured, goddess-draped dresses made women feel happy and confident – and because they felt happy and confident, they looked beautiful.
Elbaz, who has died from Covid-19 aged 59, was at the centre of the fashion industry for over three decades, riding both its highs and its lows as he transformed the fortunes of the dormant house of Lanvin before being unceremoniously dropped in 2015.
Through three turbulent decades, no one in the industry had a bad word to say about him – quite an achievement in the fickle world of thousand-pound frocks. Warm and funny with a shy, neurotic charm, he was a confidant and therapist to his movie-star clients and his loyal seamstresses alike. When he appeared at the end of a catwalk for his brief bow, looking like a bespectacled teddy bear in a bow tie, the applause was always thunderous. His death has sent shockwaves through the industry, not just for being sudden and unexpected, but because Elbaz was loved.
Elbaz redefined the party dress. He showed how glamour could be sensual rather than overtly sexy. He used interesting, unusual colours – emerald green, soft gold – rather than an endless procession of flattering black. Asymmetric necklines and elegant folds of fabric gave his clothes character, making the wearer look interesting to talk to, rather than just easy on the eye. Visible zippers inlaid in grosgrain, puffed sleeves, the ballerina flat as chic daywear, and an unstuffy way of wearing pearls were just a few ideas that began in Elbaz’s collections and became part of the modern style vernacular.
Elbaz, who was never happy with his own weight, was passionate about including women of different ages, shapes and sizes in his glamorous world, rather than only dressing the young and slender. Tilda Swinton, Kristin Scott Thomas and Meryl Streep, who wore a gold Lanvin dress to receive her best actor Oscar for The Iron Lady in 2012, were all fans.
“Your dresses can transform an event that could have been an ordeal into an event that is a joy and a pleasure, because I feel so good wearing them,” Scott Thomas said in an online interview with Elbaz earlier this year.
With his latest brand, AZ Factory, launched just three months ago, Elbaz was embracing the new age of body positivity, investing in a high-tech stretch knit fabric to combine glamour with comfort.
“The dress that creates a perfect shape – that was yesterday,” he said at the launch. “I don’t want to make clothes that bring more stress to women. I want my dresses to be like hugs.”