Fashion sheds a tear for 'every woman's darling'

The beloved Israeli designer Alber Elbaz has died of Covid aged 59


NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 18: Designer Alber Elbaz walks the runway during the Lanvin for H&M Haute Couture Show at The Pierre Hotel on November 18, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for H&M)

One of the fashion world’s most beloved and colourful designers — and almost certainly the only one who has ever served in the Israeli army — has died of Covid-19.

Alber Elbaz, who is credited with the transformation of the venerable Lanvin fashion house, died in a Paris hospital last Saturday. He was 59. According to reports, he had been vaccinated against the disease but succumbed to the South African variant of the virus.

Elbaz, a self-confessed hypochondriac who fought a public battle with his weight, was adored by women who felt he understood how to design forgiving clothing — a talent he neatly summarised by saying it was a designer’s job “to make women smile; to bring them the chocolate without the calories”.

Born Albert Elbaz in Casablanca, Morocco, in 1961, the future designer moved to Holon, south of Tel Aviv, when he was 10, along with his mother, Allegria, a painter; his father, Meyer, a colourist in a hair salon; his brother and two sisters. After completing his army service, Elbaz studied design at Tel Aviv’s Shenkar College before moving to New York in the 1980s, where he dropped the final “t” from his first name so that it would not be mispronounced. He also said that “Alber Elbaz” made for a more balanced brand name.

In New York he worked briefly in a bridal salon before working for the designer Geoffrey Beene, eventually becoming his senior assistant.

Thereafter, Elbaz’s career took on a meteoric trajectory, as he became associated with some of the most iconic names in fashion. First, he was headhunted as the creative chief for Parisian designer Guy Laroche; then to succeed Yves Saint Laurent at Rive Gauche, where he was later ousted by Tom Ford.

In 2001, Elbaz went to Lanvin, then considered a moribund fashion house. He spent 14 years there, transforming its fortunes and attracting the attention of high-profile women, particularly actresses such as Meryl Streep and Natalie Portman. Fashion journalist Suzy Menkes wrote: “Elbaz is every woman’s darling. And that includes Nicole (Kidman), Kate (Moss), Chloe Sevigny, Sofia Coppola and a slew of rising movie names.” Portman, in particular, loved Elbaz’s designs. With a shared Israeli background, he was the natural choice for her to design all the clothes she wore in the 2016 film A Tale of Love and Darkness, based on the Amos Oz novel, which she wrote and directed.

Years before, after leaving Saint Laurent, Elbaz seriously considered switching careers. He told journalists that as a self-declared hypochondriac, he thought long and hard about becoming either a nurse or a doctor. He had spent his early years in Holon accompanying his mother to various specialists, sparking a lifelong interest in healthcare; as an adult, he semi-jokingly claimed to suffer from any number of medical conditions. After he left Saint Laurent, he said: “I thought about becoming a doctor. I am a hypochondriac, so it made sense to go into medicine – I like nurses, I like hospital food, but I thought, ‘Ten years is too long to train and become a doctor.’” He added: “I just couldn’t see the point in fashion any more, but I remember watching something on television and a woman had lost her husband through a terrorist attack.

“I thought, ‘It doesn’t matter what that woman is wearing,’ but then I realised, actually it’s our job as designers to make women smile; to bring them the chocolate without the calories.”

Famous for his self-deprecation and warmth — he regularly celebrated milestones in the lives of his staff — Elbaz once joked: “I don’t take drugs because if I did I’d love them – I’d be a junkie. And because I’m Jewish, I’d probably be a dealer too.”

After leaving Lanvin, the designer — who is to be buried in Israel, where his family still lives — undertook some small fashion projects, such as a capsule collection for Le Sportsac. But in 2019, just before the pandemic hit, he founded a new company, AZ Factory, which he said was for “developing solutions for women of our times”.

Elbaz often spoke of being overweight and how it influenced his designs. In 2009 he told journalist Ariel Levy: “My fantasy is to be skinny, you see? I bring that fantasy into the lightness — I take off the corset and bring comfort and all these things I don’t have. What I bring is everything that I don’t have. This is the fantasy.”

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