Art of Style

The designer interview: Alber Elbaz

Switchwear top, Switchwear skirt, MyBody leggings, and sneakers, all AZ Factory

He made his name with an illustrious 14-year tenure at French couture house Lanvin, but ALBER ELBAZ is appealing to a whole new audience of women with his new concept, AZ Factory. He talks to KAY BARRON about carving out his new path, designing clothes that make women feel good and creating smart solutions from adversity

Styling Marina Gallo
Alber Elbaz

Please be upstanding to welcome back the wonderful Alber Elbaz! The beloved designer, absent from the world of fashion for five long years, has finally chosen to re-emerge. But after an esteemed career working for the most renowned houses, this time he is dancing to the beat of his own drum, returning this month with AZ Factory. Now, AZ Factory is no ordinary brand; more so a concept that celebrates body positivity, speaks to major shifts in the way women are dressing and, most importantly, is built on Elbaz’s desire to bring happiness back to fashion.

And how we have missed the joy that Elbaz brings. The designer is renowned for his sense of wit, his love of bright and enriching color, an elegant sense of whimsy (sounds impossible, but he nails it) and, of course, the wonderful way that women feel in his clothes. As he talks from his office in Paris, it’s all there in abundance, beneath a joyous mop of bleached-blond hair. He is, almost literally, a ray of sunshine.

After leaving Lanvin in 2015, where he served as creative director for 14 years, Elbaz all but vanished. Though he is quick to point out, it was no vacation. “I was in mourning,” he says of his acrimonious exit from the French house. “I never felt the need to create a family, as I felt that my work and co-workers were my family. I felt loneliness and shame, and I started doubting myself. But when I left, I decided to be very, very quiet. I didn’t want to say anything about anyone. I was elegant.” In time, Elbaz began to heal, and the moment of pause and reflection opened up a new world of possibility. “That was the first stage. Then I started to dream,” he says. “I went to meet everyone who ever wanted to meet me. I went to schools, I taught, I traveled. After so many years of deadlines, I had the luxury to meet myself again. I had the luxury to think on a larger scale and I felt liberated to create my own new dreams.”

AZ Factory is not just me; it is us. A and Z are the first and last letters of my name, and it is the birth of a factory, where ideas are produced
Alber Elbaz

That dream became AZ Factory, which the designer describes as a ‘reset’, but is quick to say it is not just an Alber Elbaz comeback. “It is not just me; it is us. A and Z are the first and last letters of my name, and it is the birth of a factory, where ideas are produced.” Elbaz doesn’t recall the moment when he realized he wanted to do his own thing – it happened gradually. He used his time away from the industry to observe, study and ask questions. “I asked myself silly questions, like, ‘Why are men’s clothes all in the front – the buttons and zips – while women’s are all in the back?’ A woman has to contort to get undressed, or be accompanied.”

Following research of wetsuits and the pulls that are used to do up the zips, an idea was born that led on to many others. But originally it was just about the black dress – a whole collection of black dresses. “I wanted the dresses to hug you, to hold you tight in certain places, but release you in others. It was like working as an engineer to create the ‘atomic’ dress! It was so exciting but, oh my God, so, so hard,” says the designer. “I worked with factories in three different countries to get the dresses right – and, while I am patient on some things, when you have an idea and people are telling you that they have never done it before, and aren’t sure if they can, it is difficult.” At one stage, one of Elbaz’s designers was traveling to a country to inspect the progress of the pieces, but when it was discovered that her passport had expired six months previously, she was thrown in the airport prison. Elbaz laughs hysterically as he recounts the story, admitting that when he heard, he just screamed, ‘But where are the dresses?!’ It’s clear they certainly weren’t laughing at the time.

MyBody dress, AZ Factory

But this wasn’t about complicated design for design’s sake, it was about solutions. Women have been at the heart of everything Elbaz has created, and he is renowned for making a woman feel beautiful and confident in each of his designs. AZ Factory started with women and the conversations Elbaz had with them about what they were looking for. He wanted to add functionality to fashion, for them. “During coronavirus in 2020, I asked myself, ‘Is fashion important at all?’ I mean, who cares?” he says. “But I realized that, for a lot of women I spoke with, if they were wearing an old sweatshirt, they didn’t want to look in a mirror. Then one day they might put on one of their favorite pieces and it cheers them up. So, I think fashion is more important now than ever before.” It served as more inspiration for him; the idea of basing a whole concept around the thought ‘I don’t know what I want to wear’, by making everything simple. “I wanted to mix together the old way we have been dressing with the new,” Elbaz explains. “It was the start of optimism for me, and the hopeful return of life [beyond our homes].”

The result is pieces built to be worn together in a modular approach. It may have started with dresses, designed to hold and support, but it developed into leggings, asymmetrical tops with detachable bows, bodysuits and ‘Pointysneaks’, which are a brightly colored sneaker and pump hybrid (“a sneaker you can run in, but will also want to take out dancing”). Notably, and something that is sadly almost unique in the current luxury fashion landscape, every piece across the brand is available in the size range XXS to XXXXL and has been fitted to perfection. Let’s not forget that Elbaz had diverse runway casting at Lanvin, long before many other grand houses took note.

We are creating the first digital luxury brand that is based on design, innovation and fun… We are creating and curating stories
Alber Elbaz
MyBody bodysuit, MyBody leggings, and sneakers, all AZ Factory

The first instalment of AZ Factory is called MyBody, and the idea is that you wear the mini dresses over the leggings, if you feel more comfortable that way, or the bodysuits under the skirts, all of which are crafted from a technical-weave fabric that Elbaz developed to support and sculpt. It’s mix-and-match dressing – and everything works brilliantly together. Launching initially in a neutral black, white and beige palette, pink and red will be introduced later in the month. The zips, which are designed to be distinct, were developed from his earlier wetsuit research, and each is embellished with a gold chain, so a woman can get dressed easily on her own. Switchwear follows in March, which blends the idea of ‘couture’ with loungewear, featuring voluminous jewel-colored duchesse satin skirts and tops, designed to be added atop MyBody pieces. Then there will be further ‘supplements’ launching later in the year, building the perfect AZ Factory closet. “We are creating the first digital luxury brand that is based on design, innovation and fun. One story at a time, one type of product at a time. Not a collection with many different products – just one product with many different versions. We are creating and curating stories,” he says.

Of course, after five years out of the fashion storm, and all eyes on his return, Elbaz is feeling nervous. Speaking a few weeks ahead of the launch, he describes himself as someone about to give birth, and isn’t sure what people will think. “I kept asking, ‘Is it enough?’, but I decided that today I crave comfort and simplicity,” he says. “And I hope people will understand it. It is my fear that everyone will think, ‘Oh my God, you’re back, let me see your draped satin dresses.’ But I was not in the mood for draped satin dresses now.”

MyBody top, MyBody leggings, and sneakers, all AZ Factory
A lot of the women I spoke with might put on one of their favorite pieces and it cheers them up. So, I think fashion is more important now than ever before
Alber Elbaz

Thankfully, there is a lot of love for Elbaz, and the industry is full of loyal fans who may miss those draped satin dresses but know that he can turn his hand to anything. After all, with tenures at Geoffrey Beene in New York, French house Guy Laroche, Saint Laurent and Lanvin, he has proved that he has never been a one-trick pony. Elbaz could easily have chosen to pop up at another house, as many were expecting him to, but he chose to start small – he often refers to AZ Factory as a start-up. But then, of course, came the pandemic, so the team, which is humble in size, has had only six and a half months working together. During the first lockdown, he didn’t leave his apartment in Paris, spending two and a half months in one place feeling claustrophobic. He admits to finding it challenging and scary, but now he is full of hope.

“Historians say that after wars and pandemics, there is always a peak of art and economy after the pain. After WWI and the Spanish Flu, there was an amazing moment in time in Paris – les Années Folles – or in English, the Crazy Years,” says Elbaz. “Montparnasse in Paris was the beating heart of those years. Coincidentally, this is where our factory is today. Paris became the capital of la liberté – freedom to create and to just be for art, music, literature and, of course, fashion. Everything was booming. Jazz music started at that time. The Americans brought it to Paris. It wasn’t about playing with notes, it was about playing together and improvising. The time of being together during those years was about bringing back hope. Yet, I feel that if I have to define or to give a name to the time after this pandemic, I would not go back to les Années Folles. I would call it the ‘Smart Years’. I realize again and again that every crazy idea is later considered a smart idea. We live in a time of smart phones, smart homes and smart design. I hope now for the smart years.”

Seeing the smile on his face and hearing the passion in his voice as he describes the arduous journey to get AZ Factory to this point at all, it’s clear that carving his own path could prove to be the smartest thing that Alber Elbaz has ever done.