Between Charlie Chaplin and Ohad Naharin: Remembering the Legendary Alber Elbaz

To Alber, with love: few fashion designers knew how to juggle the time zones of fashion like Alber Elbaz, who died just short of his 60th birthday in June and whose life is celebrated by French fashion writer Laurence Benaïm

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A photo of late fashion designer Alber Elbaz is seen between models wearing creations at 'Love Brings Love,' a tribute show in honor of Elbaz, by AZ Factory, in Paris, last October.
A photo of late fashion designer Alber Elbaz is seen between models wearing creations at 'Love Brings Love,' a tribute show in honor of Elbaz, by AZ Factory, in Paris, last October.
Paris
Paris

PARIS – If I had to describe the late French-Israeli fashion designer Alber Elbaz in a word, it would be “storyteller.” It’s a spacious, ample word that one feels comfortable but not bored with, because stars are shining everywhere.

Alber loved stories. He loved to bite into them, to devour them, to tell them and transform them. Like a mother who feeds her children to “give them strength,” he would provide truth through his own unique nourishment: dreams. The two would happily coexist – like pink and black; like a straight dress and a more structural one, draping duchesses in satin. Alber was able to be a New Yorker in Paris, a Parisian in Shanghai, capable of speaking all languages rolled into one, his vocation the life that life itself had robbed him of for years. Few designers knew how to juggle the time zones of fashion as he did.

French model and actress Aymeline Valade displays a creation by Alber Elbaz for Lanvin Fall-Winter 2014/2015 Ready-To-Wear collection.

Alber did the splits with a flexibility of mind that his body denied him. He thought about rhythm, race, working women, without ever imposing the clichés of day and night.

With AZ Factory, the label he launched in 2020 with Richemont, he dreamed up the perfect wardrobe, emanating from a luxury digital brand, integrating innovation and storytelling – from the bed to Zoom, from yoga studio to supermarket – as advertised online in his “Switchwear” line. But beyond this reality, there was another with its ups and downs, and a wound that was always slightly open.

American supermodel Amber Valetta closes the Paris tribute fashion show in honor of the late Alber Elbaz, in October.

Alber and his sparkling eyes, with the wonderment of the child he never ceased to be, with dreams and stories – those we would invent over the telephone, which would become dresses, women in dresses, characters, tall tales in high heels...

“This kind of icy Ruinart blond that drives men crazy, and women so jealous. Long legs. Nude legs even in winter. Trained silhouette. Perfect red lipstick. In her car now. So beautiful in her dress. What’s next?”

Provoking joy

I met Alber just after he had been hired by Ralph Toledano for Guy Laroche, in the mid-1990s. He showed me his first collection. There was some kind of dissonance between this warm character and his work, the vertical shapes, the masculine fabrics, heavily influenced by his three years working at Geoffrey Beene’s in New York.

From a legendary Laroche show in Paris, at La Bastille, to the last Lanvin one, it seemed as if the fabrics had soaked the essence of his heart and that, without ever losing the line, he had been able to extract from Paris thousands of tiny nuances that allowed a unique emotional encounter with the West, with the East, with every woman in the world. 

Alber didn’t just show a collection; his fashion season was first a rendezvous. I think he preferred winter because he loved shadow, candles, perfumes, cakes, chocolate, indirect light, as he felt protected. Paradoxally, Alber walked barefoot in his black shoes, he would turn up in Paris in a freezing January without a coat but with his suitcase and big black notebook, filled with scribblings in Hebrew. 

Models present creations during the AZ Factory tribute show to late Israeli-French fashion designer Alber Elbaz, in October this year.

He made Pavarotti’s questions his own: “What’s important in life – to have talent or be famous? To work or to communicate?” He had this knack of planning everything so it would be unpredictable, to provoke laughter, joy, affection. “In this virtual world,” he would say, “we need to feel, to touch people as much as fabric.”

Alber would have celebrated his 60th birthday in June. He left us in April. It was a shock.

A French newspaper would have told me, “You write about fashion, stay in your section.” So, thank you, Haaretz, for giving me this opportunity to talk about the Alber I knew.

In an Israeli newspaper, I sense there may be space to celebrate those who arrive with too much baggage, are haphazard, who cannot arrange their things in tidy spaces. That is definitely the case with me here – because thinking about him is to hear his laughter, it is observing him as he looks for both the irreplaceable and the familiar.

A creation by Anthony Vaccarello for Saint Lauren, on the runway at the AZ Factory tribute show in honor of Alber Elbaz, which was held in Paris in October.

In the early 2000s, Alber said that “the 1950s were the motherhood years. Women were ‘the sisters of,’ ‘the wives of,’ ‘the daughters of’; they needed labels. The ’60s were freedom, the ’70s confusion, the ’90s sex and the 2000s the emotional years – an era when everything is breakable, bathed in a state of fragility that many mistake for femininity.”

With Alber, you could slip into an evening dress like a T-shirt, while a T-shirt could become the best finery. There were the Lanvin years, of “smart couture” celebrating beauty in movement, an energy that so many limited to “streetwear.” In his hands, it became a theater of looks, a stage for characters, of raw edges and industrial zippers, like neon illuminating satin. He removed the collars, the buttonholes, ripped out paddings and liners at Yves Saint Laurent, turned on the lights at Lanvin, attached a host of accessories to pure functionality – ribbons, pearls, “Love” and “Help” jewelry.

Alber had a unique way of creating clothes that could start a conversation or engineer encounters. His life extended beyond his work, because his work was life itself. It was a life he knew how to gather from the folds of every moment, one the “Love Brings Love” homage – organized by AZ Factory at the Carreau du Temple in Paris on October 5 – beautifully brought into the light.

Supermodel Mariacarla Boscono wears a creation by Pierpaolo Piccioli for Valentino, in honor of Alber Elbaz, in October.

Shapes exploded in my head that night. Forty-three designers paid tribute to Alber, from Maria Grazia Chiuri (Dior) to Rei Kawakubo (Comme des Garçons), as well as Jean Paul Gaultier and Thom Browne. Their unique creations paid tribute to and complemented some 20 pieces from his own studio.

Lots of pink, black. Models dancing in this temple to fashion that had been his obsession for so long, one that had served as a starting point for the collection he did not have time to complete.

A model displays a creation by designer Alber Elbaz for Lanvin Spring-Summer 2014 Ready-To-Wear collection show held at Beaux Arts in Paris.

“He wanted to pay tribute to the couturiers, and it is the couturiers who paid tribute to him,” said AZ Factory CEO Laurent Malecaze, who organized the event with Alex Koo, partner and accomplice of Alber, and the whole house, brought together by a single message: “Love brings love.”

It was a world away from the “Karl Forever” ceremony organized for Karl Lagerfeld at the Grand Palais in June 2019. Something living had survived his departure.

The energy of love, the brilliance of the fashion scene, reincarnated after months of lockdown, silence and isolation, whose fire was rekindled by his absent presence and present absence. Paris. New York. Two cities in one, and so many more through the moving silhouettes.

A Ralph Lauren creation for the Paris tribute fashion show in honor of Israeli-French fashion designer Alber Elbaz, in October.

The one that covers the A to Z of Alber’s vocabulary and is perhaps the simplest – the Ralph Lauren black pullover and pants – that finds, in the spontaneity of a line, the essence of the man. Here is the parallel history of a Moroccan Jew from Holon who landed in New York with no more than $100 in his pocket, with red shoes, a bunch of stories and scents to pass on.

“The most beautiful of stories are the ones of our loved ones, which live on in memories that crisscross a floating history. It is not the biographies of the unknown but a real novel” (“La Volonté,” by Marc Dugain).

A collection of images come to mind: Charlie Chaplin in “The Kid”; Ohad Naharin’s dancers, dressed in black suits and white shirts in “Decadance,” their almost instinctive way of reconnecting to a millennia-old story at a simple touch. Let us salute this gesture, this vision through which the artist seeks, as Naharin himself explained, to “unlock the treasures” that are in each and every dancer.

Alber was ill-at-ease in his body, but he knew how to make life dance – the life that Chaplin would compare to “a play that does not allow testing. So, sing, cry, dance, laugh and live intensely, before the curtain closes and the piece ends with no applause.”

For me, Alber remains here, at the very heart of Paris, shining a light on the path ahead with his radiant, boundless friendship – inseparable from Alex, who has all my affection.

Laurence Benaïm is a journalist, writer, creator of Stiletto magazine, lecturer at Sciences Po, and lives and works in Paris. She has penned biographies of Yves Saint Laurent, Marie-Laure de Noailles and Jean-Michel Frank, and her latest book is “La sidération” (Stock).

@laurencebenaim

Models present creations by Israeli-French designer Alber Elbaz as part of his Spring/Summer 2015 women's ready-to-wear collection for Lanvin during Paris Fashion Week.

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