The fashion industry mourned when Lanvin lost Alber Elbaz in 2015. Not only did the designer single-handedly revive the French label, but he also became one of fashion's most beloved figures: If the late Karl Lagerfeld was the runway's cold uncle, Elbaz was its super approachable dad.
Unfortunately, the industry was not as kind to Elbaz and his departure kicked off a period of self discovery, during which he was forced to rethink his place in a design studio. Elbaz discussed his quest for answers, as well as his new brand, called AZ Factory, during the Vogue Forces of Fashion digital conference on Tuesday.
"We can't leave anything behind — it becomes part of us, those good moments and bad moments, they made us who we are," Elbaz said over an afternoon tea set-up at the Ritz Carlton in Paris. Seated more than six feet across from Hamish Bowles, the designer — who's gone blonde since briefly stepping out of the sartorial spotlight — wore a mask and kept his hand sanitizer close by throughout the conversation, proving that he is still fashion's favorite dad.
"I love the people of fashion," said Elbaz when asked why he ultimately decided to return to design. "After a few years of being on vacation, I realized how much I don't enjoy vacation. I always feel good in studios. I feel good making things. It was a time for me to do a comeback and to give back everything that I learned through the years."
On his five-year break, Elbaz spent time teaching at schools around the world, and with the new tech aristocracy in Silicon Valley.
"Both schools and technology are important. I started first with schools because after what happened to me, I wasn't sure if I was in love with fashion anymore and I really wanted to quit. I wanted to understand for myself what is next and where the world is going," Elbaz explained of his experience with students, adding that the goal of his master classes were to teach the importance of dreaming.
His fascination with technology then led him to meet with digital disrupters and new media companies. In speaking with these innovators, Elbaz wanted to see whether it is possible to mix emotion, instinct and beauty with the world of data.
"A lot of people around us work with books or with a formula. We start with a blank page," Elbaz said. "I do believe that when we look at our industry, we see all the success stories happen when the creatives and the management work in harmony together. That was always the key for success."
Elbaz went on to tell the story of how he ended up signing a deal with Richemont last October. In other meetings with investors, Elbaz was always asked to provide a business plan right away, but when he met with Johann Rupert, the chairman of Richemont, he didn't need to show anything remotely resembling a business plan. Instead, Rupert agreed to draw up a plan for him if Elbaz was able to answer 15 questions about politics, economy and business.
"I thought, how fantastic that businessmen are using instinct," Elbaz said of the meeting. "I always remember what [Pierre] Bergé told me: that the best business people are the ones who are thinking like artists."
And while news of their deal broke last October, details of the label hadn't gone public until now. The name of the company is AZ Fashion, but during the pandemic Elbaz got inspired by the willingness of the industry to lend their showrooms and factories for the production of everything from germ-fighting gels to hospital gowns, so he decided he wanted to incorporate the word "factory" into the brand. Thus, AZ Factory was born.
"There is something about 'factory' that I always love," Elbaz explained in regards to the brand name, noting that he loves to go to the factories he works with because there's an honesty and humbleness to them. "Our world today is divided into producers and consumers. So we are on the producers side. We're also producing ideas and thoughts and solutions."
Elbaz, who spent most of his career working at already-established fashion houses, thinks of his new venture as a start-up. According to a press release from AZ Factory, the brand will officially launch in late January.
"I wanted to give birth to a new story and to not recreate or replace someone else, even though I respected everyone I replaced," said Elbaz. "I showed the world I can design — I designed many years — now I want to look at fashion from a different perspective."