On Wednesday, Lanvin and Designer Alber Elbaz announced they are parting ways after a 14-year run — widely considered one of the most successful in contemporary fashion.
The split was not mutual. According to Elbaz, he was asked to leave France's longest-surviving couture house, "on the decision of the company's majority shareholder." That would be Shaw-Lan Wang, the Taiwanese media mogul who hired him in 2001, shortly after acquiring the company from L'Oreal.
That Lanvin's owner would dismiss the Morocco-born designer — whose poetic designs, clever advertising campaigns and outsized personality transformed Lanvin from an almost-forgotten couture house to a viable competitor to the big, conglomerate-owned fashion houses of Europe — is shocking. It's not just that his collections were almost always well received, or that they were frequently championed by high-profile celebrities like Meryl Streep and Natalie Portman — his designs were a great commercial success, too. As Colin McDowell recounted in an interview with the designer a year ago, when Elbaz started, Lanvin had only 15 wholesale accounts — today, it has more than 400. In 2010, on the back of a successful collaboration with H&M, the company saw the highest same-store revenue growth in the entire fashion luxury sector, up 32 percent. His ready-to-wear collections were profitable, he added new categories like bridal and childrenswear, and he had an excellent track record with accessories, from handbags to jewelry to sneakers (which nabbed quite a few headlines when they were worn by Michelle Obama).
But, in the end, it may have been business that decided it all — and Elbaz hinted as much in his departing statement, expressing his hope the company "finds the business vision it needs to engage in the right way forward." According to WWD and the Washington Post, the business, which enjoyed revenues of €250 million (about $276.3 million) a few years ago, has suffered from sales declines, and is expected to report its first loss in nearly a decade this year. WWD also reported that Elbaz had complained about the company's lack of a "clear strategy" and "targeted investment," and "compromising the image of the brand in Asia by splashing the Lanvin name on products not typically associated with a luxury name." If that's the case, the parting is a sorry one, for both parties.
Coming on the heels of Wang's seemingly amicable departure from Balenciaga and Raf Simons's decision to leave Dior earlier this month, as well as Elbaz's comments over the years about the increasingly frenetic demands placed on designers these days, it's hard not to look at the split as the symptom of an industry-wide creative burnout. As Elbaz said in an interview with Dirk Standen, then the editor-in-chief of Style.com, in 2010, "You can't do six collections a year. And I think this is actually what is making fashion be the way it is today. I know a lot of people complain that there is not enough change and that fashion in the past was much more creative than today, and I think a big part of this phenomenon is that we don't have the time to think, we don't have the time to project, we don't have the time to digest."
As soon as Elbaz's departure was announced, the industry immediately began to speculate that Elbaz would take the spot recently vacated by Simons at Dior — after all, his name was on the short list for the position before Simons took over. But I have to wonder if the public complaints he's made about the demands on creative directors at big houses — including those he made at the Fashion Group International Awards just last Friday — preclude him from such a role. But maybe not. Such comments are often swept under the rug; perhaps Dior would be able to create the kind of support network designers like Elbaz say they need — though with six collections a year, two of those on the road, it's hard to imagine Dior would be the place for it.
Either way, we know that Elbaz will continue on — either at a big house or perhaps as the head of his own label. Even after he was unceremoniously replaced by Tom Ford as the creative director of Yves Saint Laurent ready-to-wear in 1999 — certainly the low point in his career — he came back after just a year and a half, saying it was the only thing he knew how to do well. Fans may find comfort, too, in his comment to McDowell last year about one day leaving Lanvin: "But you know, our work is always our work, no matter what the brand name is. A pizza is the same in New York as it is in Florence. You can make it anywhere if you have the basic ingredients and the skills required."
Perhaps the more difficult question is: Who could possibly succeed Elbaz at Lanvin? He will by no means be an easy act to follow — but he has given him or her a much larger stage on which to play.