'Now is the time to be optimistic': Why Alber Elbaz believes creativity will flourish after pandemic

The beloved French designer outlines his new vision for the industry, as he reveals plans for his upcoming label are under way

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 09:  Artistic Director of Lanvin Alber Elbaz attends Day 1 of the International Herald Tribune Heritage Luxury Conference at theInterContinental Hotel on November 9, 2010 in London, England  (Photo by Samir Hussein/Getty Images for International Herald Tribune)
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In October 2019, luxury group Richemont announced that it was partnering with fashion designer Alber Elbaz on a new venture called AZ Fashion.

Although the new company is yet to launch and all preparations have been put on hold due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the designer has revealed that he started putting a team together before the global crisis.

"I had put the new team together and we started to work for a few weeks and then we had to go on quarantine, so it's only a beginning," he said in an online talk with The Business of Fashion  founder Imran Amed this week.

“I realised that this is one of the times to whisper, to say it right, and to wait. There is nothing wrong with giving time and taking time and slowing down the system. I am trying to create a story with a company that is made-to-measure to what I believe in.”

This new label marks Elbaz’s first real venture back into the industry since 2015, when after 14 years at the helm of Lanvin, he was unceremoniously pushed out by owner Shaw-Lan Wang.

A handout photo of "Backstage at Lanvin Winter 2012, ten
years anniversary show" for Alber Elbaz / Lanvin Manifesto photo exhibition which will take place at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris (Photo by But Sou Lai) *** Local Caption ***  BLOG24jl-lanvin-exhibit01.jpg
Models backstage at Lanvin autumn / winter 2012, wearing looks designed by Alber Elbaz. Photo by But Sou Lai

Despite achieving huge critical and financial success, the brutal nature of his exit rankled many, not least because Elbaz is widely regarded as one of the nicest people in the industry. This new partnership now marks something of a coup for Richemont, which also owns the Yoox Net-A-Porter group, Chloe, Cartier and Van Cleef and Arpels, among other brands.

Elbaz said he was "excited" about working with the luxury group, because "they are not only fashion".

"They are a company that produces watches – time itself – and jewellery. It’s all about long-term, not short-term. They whisper, they don’t shout.”

Deeply wounded by his treatment at Lanvin, Elbaz famously refused to join another house, preferring instead to stay low-key, with a few collaborations, biding his time until the right opportunity came about.

“One of the reasons why I didn’t feel comfortable to go back [into a fashion house] is that I didn’t want to just replace someone in his own work. It isn’t that I didn’t want to be the second wife, but it’s just about doing things from A to Z. Now this is a reset, a restart, a start-up. It has to be small, for me to start small.”

A handout photo of "Work in progress on a tulle dress made specially for the exhibition by the Lanvin ateliers" for Alber Elbaz / Lanvin Manifesto photo exhibition which will take place at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris (Photo by But Sou Lai) *** Local Caption ***  BLOG24jl-lanvin-exhibit02.jpg
Designed by Elbaz while still at Lanvin, this dress was created for an exhibition about the label's ateliers. Photo by But Sou Lai

The new project may be a better fit with Elbaz’s ideas, however, he will be attempting to launch in the midst of a global pandemic. Though faced with a gloomy fiscal outlook, the designer is engagingly optimistic, preferring to see this as a moment of opportunity.

“During quarantine, I have been reading articles and history books and it shows that after every pandemic, every big war, there is a peak of economy and art, so now is the time to be optimistic about a better future,” he explained.

“We are now all thinking and observing about what is next. We are all looking for something different. It’s like the moment of truth."

A veteran of the industry, Elbaz lamented the failure of huge American stores such as Neiman Marcus and Barneys.

“For my new project, I thought it would be only online, but then I realised that part of being sustainable is supporting these stores. We need to work together.”

Part of that relationship, Elbaz insists, is helping get customers offline and back into brick-and mortar-stores. "What if we take online and do it on the shop floor?" he suggests. "Imagine if we take one of the big department stores and divide it not by designer, but divide it by category. All the white shirts are together, and all the coats. It's organised like an online store."

The optimistic designer is aware that this moment offers a unique opportunity to shift away from mindless excess and towards something more thoughtful and considered.

A handout photo of "Alber Elbaz’ sketch for Lanvin Summer 2014 collection" for Alber Elbaz / Lanvin Manifesto photo exhibition which will take place at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris (Photo Katy Reiss) *** Local Caption ***  BLOG24jl-lanvin-exhibit04.jpg
One of Elbaz's distinctive sketches for Lanvin's summer 2014 collection. Photo Katy Reiss

“People should not buy nothing, because part of what we do [as designers] is give joy to people. This is what fashion, art and design is all about," he said.

“Yes, I think there were too many shows, too many collections, we were travelling like there is no tomorrow, with no time to rest and think. For a long time, designers were pushed away from the driver’s seat and marketing was more important. But I have always said that what people want is not necessary what they would love to have.”

Despite the frustration of starting on a new venture only to have it put on hold, Elbaz has not stopped working. Citing endless Zoom conference calls with his new team, he is adamant that AZ Fashion in now, finally, under way.

“After 52 days, I have finished all the ideas I was working on, and this morning, I sent an email with all the things we are going to be doing and, yes, we are starting. After a long time of not being in love with fashion any more, I was looking to fall in love again. And I am happy to announce that I am.”