"Every designer in the world that I know hates pre-collections," Lanvin designer Alber Elbaz told Alina Cho, former anchor and editor at large at Ballantine Bantam Dell, on stage at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "It's almost like being a little bit pregnant."
Elbaz can only blame himself for resort previews. He said he started the practice that is now a standard part of the fashion calendar 11 years ago. "I really wanted to present some of the pieces to editors, to some people from stores, to have their opinions," he said. "The one thing that inspires me more than anything is not really a vintage skirt, it's words... I wanted to have an opinion of people in the industry, to just have an exchange."
Elbaz is very concerned with designing a collection that reflects the needs of women today — many of which judge every look by the amount of likes it receives on social media. "More and more, I’m realizing that people are not actually living, they are posting," he said. "They are not actually listening, they are taping. They are not really looking, but they are filming... If everything is really just for the photo, let's create a collection that is for the photo. I wanted vibrant colors and vibrant prints. We went with everything that is Olympic loud."¸
But that's not to say Elbaz is prioritizing the superficial only. For his 2016 resort presentation on Tuesday in New York, Elbaz commissioned work from paper artist Cyril Hatt, who created furniture, a giraffe and a life-size red sportscar to surround the models. "The car was a bit crushed," said Elbaz. "When things are not real, they crush easily. It's about about real and fake, fake and real, and the whole exercise was to make women some real clothes — so they don't crush."
The awareness of how his clothing translates to images is never more important than on the red carpet, which gives Elbaz a lot of anxiety. "I always have a problem that the dress should only look good in the photo," he said. "I like the red carpet and I think it's great, but it's not a showcase of fashion. It's a showcase of talent and the talent of all those people who work so hard to make it happen."
Elbaz said communication with an actress' teams — stylist and publicists, etc. — can be like a broken phone system. "[They tell me] she likes pastels but she looks good in bright colors. She doesn't like to show her arms but can you do a corset?" His solution is to call the actress himself and find out what it is that she wants. But even then, he never knows if she will wear Lanvin. "You think they are going to wear it but, oops, surprise! They changed into something else in the car," he said.
Elbaz told a story about dressing an actress who could not make her mind up about whether or not to wear Lanvin to the Golden Globes in January, right up to the day before the event. Meanwhile in Paris, Elbaz was following the mass marches for peace after the Charlie Hebdo attack. Frustrated by all the back and forth, he called the actress the same day world leaders united to walk in protest of the tragic shooting.
"So I picked up the phone and I said, 'There are more important things in the world happening and the world is going backward, and it's all about solidarity and it's all about freedom. Be free to do whatever you feel, whatever you want. Look in the mirror and the mirror will tell you what to do. Don't listen to anyone — free, free, free. It's not a demonstration of fashion, it's your work and your talent. Be well, be happy, wear whatever you want. And a second later she sent me an email and said, 'I'm going to wear Lanvin.'" Elbaz declined to name the actress, but only Emma Stone wore Lanvin to the Golden Globes this year.
Elbaz admits he is not immune to the image-driven pressures of the digital age. He admits he is obsessed with Instagram even though he doesn't have an account and uses his longtime partner Alex Koo's account to log on at night and in the morning.
"My job as a designer is to be a bit of a voyeur," he said. "But it makes me feel so dumb. I look and see these people and I know them and on Wednesday night they are in Beijing having a dinner for Dior and on Friday they are in Barcelona having fun late night... Even just a single dinner, even the mozzarella looks sexy. Then here I am with ketchup and tomato from last week, going to work, just making sure other people have a glamorous life." The Metropolitan crowd erupted in laughter.
Elbaz said he isn't much for partying after his long days at the office. "What do I do when I come home after 14 hours of work? I’m watching the Kardashians and I’m ordering pizza and having the time of my life." Cho asked him his thoughts on Caitlyn Jenner, and Elbaz was extremely supportive. "From a dreamer to a dreamer — all the best."
Dreams were a reoccurring theme throughout Elbaz's conversation with Cho. Elbaz arrived in New York in the 1980s with only $800, and his passion and patience kept him going while he waited three years for a chance to work with his idol, Geoffrey Beene.
"I believe in destiny and hard work and not using many formulas," said Elbaz. "When I came here, I had two suitcases. One was small and one was big. The small one was my belongings, but the big one was my dreams."
Towards the end of the hour-long conversation, Elbaz remembered advice he had received from his sister that he shared with Cho shortly after she left CNN in 2013. "She said to me, 'When you walk, look into five different directions. Look straight because you have to look forward, look back because you have to remember where you came from, look to the sides to see who are going to be next to you if you need them, look down to make sure you don't step on anyone, and look up because you have to remember there is someone to protect us.' And this is maybe what my life is all about."