Alber Elbaz’s Priceless Gift to Women

In Israel, the story of the famed fashion designer who died this week of COVID-19 is of a local guy who made good. But it was his multilayered personality that made him who he was: an honorary member of a tiny club based on trust, responsibility and mutuality between designers and women

Alber Elbaz delivers a speech after he received the title of Officer in the National Order of Merit by French Culture minister at the Culture ministry in Paris, in 2015.
Alber Elbaz delivers a speech after he received the title of Officer in the National Order of Merit by French Culture minister at the Culture ministry in Paris, in 2015.Credit: CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT - AFP
Lisa Peretz
Lisa Peretz
Lisa Peretz
Lisa Peretz

Indiscretion or over-the-top praise – it’s hard to say which of them Alber Elbaz detested more. What’s certain is that both elicited discomfort from the Moroccan-born fashion designer, who passed away this week after contracting COVID-19 (despite being fully vaccinated). But details of activities and compliments underlie almost every eulogy. What a trap! Accordingly, there’s no alternative but to focus on the very essence of every fashion designer, and especially of Elbaz: first and foremost, elegance.

The universally known facts are that he completed his studies in the department of fashion design at the Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art, cum laude; that in the late 1990s he took over at the Yves Saint Laurent luxury fashion house; and that after a brief tenure there, in 2001, he mustered his talent and vision to inspire the then-lifeless French label Lanvin and catapulted it to spectacular heights.

A Mizrahi man from Casablanca, a citizen of Israel who grew up in its periphery and eventually became a resident of France and a true citizen of the world

Here in Israel, his career trajectory is described at every opportunity as a local success. It’s to be expected that this would be the frame story, for how many Israelis have such glorious achievements to their name, and in such a competitive field? Hardly any. Alber Elbaz was one of the select few. Perhaps that also explains the tremendous love that was lavished on him in Israel by media people, local designers and students of fashion. He was one of ours, and he was the most successful of all.

Alber Elbaz at Lanvin's spring-summer 2007 ready to wear show in Paris, in 2006.Credit: AP

But Elbaz’s real identity was deeper and more complex than that framing suggests. It's enough to peruse his ID card in order to grasp that: a Mizrahi man from Casablanca, a citizen of Israel who grew up in its periphery and eventually became a resident of France and a true citizen of the world.

His multilayered identity was not an obstacle. On the contrary: It paved his way, onward and upward. It bestowed upon him all that is good: awareness, sensitivity, spiritual and cultural richness, and a deep understanding of the world with all its contradictions. His phenomenal success can be linked directly to those traits. It’s thanks to them that he became what he became. And with their help he also actualized maximally the concept of “social mobility.” The young boy who immigrated to Israel, settled with his family in Holon and then migrated again in his 20s to Tel Aviv to attend Shenkar – and from there again to Paris, where he ensconced himself at the height of the international fashion industry.

Such was the dizzying mobility of an eternal immigrant who, wherever he plunked down his needle and thread, came to own the place. His peripatetics recall those of his good friend, the late Israeli-born actress Ronit Elkabetz, whose trajectory also incorporated Tel Aviv and Paris, Mizrahi and cosmopolitan identities, Israel and Europe – assimilating them all and becoming a queen in every venue.

When speaking about Alber Elbaz, it was usually said that he was a designer who knew and loved women. That’s true, and in the modern world of fashion it’s also rare. But he also granted us something truly priceless: the ability to identify. More than any other fashion designer of his generation, he shared our dreams, empathized with our complexities, shared with us our deepest secrets. That’s our essence, those are the materials we’re made of. They resonate in every pleat and seam he ever produced.

A model walks the Lanvin Spring-Summer 2008 ready-to-wear show, in Paris.Credit: AP

The vast majority of contemporary designers use us as a tool for their fantasies, fantasies that are laced with a mixture of violence, chauvinism, sexism, prejudice and gross exploitation. Elbaz was an honorary member of a tiny, high-quality club based on relations of trust, responsibility and mutuality between designers and women.

That club is now being emptied of its members, leaving us women lost and vulnerable within a dark, cynical industry. In his last project, AZ Factory, Elbaz seems to have understood the gravity of the abandonment of women by the fashion designers, and he invited all women – young and older, weight-challenged and thin, tall and short – to huddle together under his new fashion brand and to enjoy an incomprehensible abundance of sizes, prints, colors and cuts, an abundance that is and was unparalleled in the basically misogynist fashion world.

I met Alber Elbaz about 20 years ago under professional circumstances. Over time we consolidated a friendship that played out along the Tel Aviv-Paris route. Because he was a private and secret person in his life, I am honoring his right to a eulogy devoid of elaborations of our adventures, conversations and good times. To go into detail would be to expropriate the intimacy of our relationship. All I can say is that he gave the world splendor, talent and charisma – with all of which he was prodigiously blessed. To me he granted true friendship. The most beautiful gift I've ever received.

Elbaz at Lanvin's 2015 Spring-Summer fashion show in Paris.Credit: PATRICK KOVARIK - AFP