When Lanvin’s creative director Alber Elbaz was conceiving a capsule collection of five looks designed exclusively for the Middle East, he found himself parlayed with mixed messages over what the region demands. “On one hand people will say, ‘They are very modest so they need to be covered and it has to be longer’,” he says, “and then on the other hand they are like, ‘They like it really short and décolleté and colourful’. So I’m like, ‘Hold on, is it a boy or is it a girl? Is it right or is it wrong?’” Thinking out loud, as is his wont, Alber concludes, “Maybe this is the story; it’s not a story of confusion, it’s a story of contradictions. You can and you should have the two.”
The five capsule pieces, which Bazaar has photographed on a quintet of GCC-based women who embody the soul of the house, evolved from Lanvin’s autumn/winter 2015 collection; a celebration of his Moroccan roots. The collection came about in response to an exhibition Alber curated in Paris’ Palais Galliera dedicated to the founder of the house, Jeanne Lanvin, last year. “It’s not one of those huge, strong, loud exhibitions, it’s very whispery,” he muses, saying that by the end of the retrospective process, “I felt a little bit empty because I gave everything to her [Jeanne].” It led Alber to question, “Who am I? What am I?” which took him back to his birthplace of Morocco, “the place where I feel that the world didn’t change because people are still looking into your eyes, people still like touching you,” he smiles. “There is a human heat that I’m missing today. There is too much politically correct around me and [in Morocco] they’re not politically correct because they are very honest and naive.”
Thus, the new season collection is punctuated with tassels and passementerie, yet remains a very modern homage to the designer’s birthplace. “The last thing I wanted is to do is a desert costume because I don’t want to see a maharaja on Fifth Avenue and I didn’t want to see a belly dancer in Madison Avenue,” he says wryly. Indeed, much of the Berber-inspired palette of red, gold and black could almost be military in feel were it not softened by a more deconstructed silhouette, almost as if Lanvin had summoned its in-house marching band. “I don’t like the idea of military and soldiers but I like the idea of an orchestra,” he says, “because an orchestra has better sound.” Evolving into lavish kaftans, the Middle Eastern influence remains tangible. “I love kaftans, mostly because of the comfort. Comfort and fashion are two things that don’t work together,” Alber admits. “I remember doing a party one time in New York and we had all these drag queens wearing Lanvin, dancing and stuff. One of them came up to me at the end of night, it was maybe three in the morning, and told me how they love my dress, saying it was also so comfortable. In my life I never heard a drag queen talking about comfort; I thought it was charming.”
From left: Dina Karam Fekih, Majorie Raymond Lahham,
Gabrielle Bechara Bou Aoun, Ranim Mortada Benani and Audrey Gerard
Mining the orchestral passementerie and “comfortable” kaftans, Alber has switched up his catwalk originals into the five looks created for the Middle East, which he describes as slightly more “desirable, feminine and real” than the original runway pieces. As a designer, he is closely attentive to, and admiring of, this region. “I met a lot of people from the Middle East; the Emirates, Jordan, Egypt and the first thing I see is a very young generation that is extremely educated. When I talk education I’m talking Stanford and Columbia University, like wow,” Alber says. “The second thing I see is very fashionable and glamorous. But then, looking a little bit deeper, I see family values, I see humbleness and modesty. You go forward but you don’t also give up your tradition. You mix between tomorrow and yesterday. This is maybe the magic of your power. It’s not just the money, you know.”
Alber believes that the combined values of tradition and modernity, of achievement and modesty, of ambition and family that he identifies in the Middle East are also at the heart of Lanvin, a house whose emblem is a mother and daughter. “The fact that the logo is a mother and a daughter, and not a horse or a lion, it’s already taking me to more of an emotional place,” he says of how he interprets the brand. “I know that I’m not designing for the cool, hip crowd of the moment, because I have in mind that longevity of a mother and a daughter; of a young lady and an old lady; and a skinnier and a less skinny lady.” Alber doesn’t do skinny. “I love rounded people, I really do!”
The mother and daughter analogy resonates with Alber and keeps him anchored within the wider industry. “Fashion is a little bit of a dysfunctional family,” he muses, “you have a choice; either you go to Caviar Kaspia to buy the caviar, or you buy flour and water and you bake the cake yourself, and that’s what we do at Lanvin.”
Marjorie Raymond Lahhm wears: Dress, Dhs15,195;
earrings, Dhs2,200; ring, Dhs1,900
Despite Lanvin having over 1.7 million followers on Instagram and counting, its creative director prefers the reality of eating homemade cakes to hashtagging them. “Everything is so computerised and global and we live via Instagram, we think that the images are what life are all about. When I see some of my friends’ Instagram,” Alber doesn’t use the social networking tool personally but admits to checking it via friends’ accounts, “I think, ‘Oh my god they are having like a mozzarella with chic tulip and you are like Pizza Hut.’” He worries that the 24/7 pursuit of perfection of a life lived through the lens of Instagram is in danger of losing the essence of humanity. “Everybody is so afraid of making mistakes; I think the best is happening when there are mistakes,” Alber says, adding that human frailty is an essential component of dream-weaving. “Intuition is the motor of luxury. Without intuition, without making those errors sometimes, we can turn into high street.” Designing the “dream out of the story” is a concern of Alber’s as the fashion juggernaut becomes ever more consuming. “Fashion in many ways now is becoming stuff. We are turning from being fashion designers to being stuff designers. We design stuff for 900, stuff for 400, stuff for that market, stuff for another market, stuff, stuff, stuff.” The result? “Everybody wants to have everything and there is chaos,” he says, “It’s interesting now to let that tsunami pass and go back to intuition and go back to dreaming and ask women, ‘What is it that you really, really want?’”
Satisfying women’s desires – whether genuine or a social media-fuelled mirage – puts enormous demands on those charged with delivering the output. “There is no other industry like fashion that never stops. I have a lot of friends in the movie industry, in music… they work hard but they stop. In fashion it doesn’t end. You have now pre-collection and collection, post-collection, couture and men and you have to be devoted just to that. You cannot have a life.” With the spectre of McQueen and Galliano looming large over fashion’s creatives, Alber has carved a niche of niceness with which he shields himself from the harsher elements of the industry. “If you are a mean person, you create mean, and if you are a good person, you create good. So I’m not touching meanies, it’s not in my vocabulary. I don’t like to work with mean people because they block my creativity,” he insists.
With b*****s banished from the firm, and Jeanne Lanvin’s mother and daughter legacy guiding the house, Alber seems perfectly at home in his 8th arrondissement studio, and as long as he is given the freedom to plough his own course that’s where he’ll remain, for now. As for branching out into his own label, “Maybe one day, who knows? I’m open,” he shrugs. “One of the reasons I stayed at Lanvin for all these years – even though I have so many offers to go to bigger and more powerful houses – is the fact that I have freedom, and freedom is my sole ingredient to be creative. If you want to kill my creativity just kill my freedom.” And with the spirit of bohemia strong in Alber’s Middle Eastern homage, long may liberty reign at Lanvin.
Styling by Katie Trotter. Photography by Mazen Abusrour. Lanvin stores can be found at The Dubai Mall, Galleria Mall, Etihad Towers, Downtown Beirut and in Bloomingdale’s and Harvey Nichols - Dubai. Prices approximate. Hair and make-up: Toni Malt and Sarah Damichi. Fashion assistant: Alina Alam.
With special thanks to PER AQUUM Desert Palm Dubai.