Inside Alber Elbaz’s factory of dreams
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Following the tragic death of Alber Elbaz this weekend, we revisit this interview from last year with the much-loved designer.
People say to me, ‘We’re so happy you’re coming back, what will you do?’ and I was so scared of their expectations,” says Alber Elbaz, who was last the head of a fashion company in 2015, when he was pushed out of his position as creative director of Lanvin. It’s natural he would be nervous about returning to fashion, as he once occupied one of the industry’s highest perches. Elbaz’s 14-year tenure at Lanvin turned a sleepwalking house with a storied past and some perfume licences into a supernova. The clothes and accessories were described as love letters to clients who spanned a broad range of ages and sizes for such a catwalk force. Elbaz’s Lanvin wasn’t always drop-dead sexy, but it was intelligent and eccentric, dignified and sensual, luxurious and joyful. Devoted famous friends included Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore. Upon departing, Elbaz dabbled in accessories capsule collaborations with Tod’s, LeSportsac and Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle. But with AZ Factory, his new direct-to-consumer company that launched last month during Haute Couture Week in Paris, he is finally making clothes again. “I missed the people of fashion, who made my dreams come true,” he says.
And they missed him, but five years is a long time. For those who remember when Elbaz was at the top of every who’s-next luxury fashion list – would he take over Chanel? Would it be Dior? – the clothes he’s offering with AZ Factory, a joint venture with Richemont, on azfactory.com, Farfetch and Net-a-Porter, are indeed both highly anticipated and a bit surprising. The other people – the younger ones with shorter memories, who make up a much larger cross-section of the world and thus represent a much larger potential customer base – will see them with different eyes. Both should find something to love.
Not everything Elbaz showed me in a Zoom preview from his all-black office on a floor of the Fondation Cartier was to debut right away; that honour went to 11 knit dresses – sleek, some sleeveless, and one with massive, Lanvin-reminiscent puffy sleeves – in black, white and solids such as red and fuchsia dubbed MyBody. Subsequent launches, or what he calls “stories” (“I don’t like the word ‘capsule’, I’m too much of a hypochondriac”), will be rolled out throughout the spring season, including MyBody 2.0, a tight edit of sporty, multicoloured dresses and matching leggings, available for immediate purchase at the end of February, and all under €1,400. There will be tops and bodysuits too, in the same base knit, which is proprietary to AZ Factory. Sizes start at extra-extra small “for those women who tell me they have to shop in the children’s department”, Elbaz says, to 4XL. There will also be a line of slouchy silk pyjamas with joyous original prints commissioned from indie artists whom Elbaz found on Instagram, a handful of flouncy pieces made out of recycled duchesse polyester to dress up the knit basics, and a smaller group of work-appropriate, soft-tailored separates made in original high-performance knits that mimic fabrics such as jacquard.
Rather than accompany the clothes with a broad line of accessories (usually a cash cow for fashion companies), there is just one shoe: a pointy-toed sneaker in the same bold colours as the clothes. “My marketing team calls them Pointysneaks,” says Elbaz with a giggle. “I think of them as sneaky pumps.” Everything combines with everything else easily: the pyjamas under a ball skirt, or a tech-knit T-shirt and leggings topped by an asymmetrical tunic with flounce and volume that should come with (happy) trigger warnings for Lanvin fans.
Elbaz sees AZ Factory’s clothes as “solutions”, a word that comes up repeatedly in our conversation, and an approach that makes sense in this market segment. Shoppers of the exploding proliferation of direct-to- consumer fashion lines – clothes that by definition they can’t touch or try on before they buy – are often looking for basics or iterations of something they already know, rather than grandiose impulses they can stumble upon while strolling around a shopfloor. “People [shopping direct-to-consumer] are looking for a product that is a solution,” says luxury-retail consultant Mario Ortelli. “And that’s something you go to the low end for. When you buy higher end, you buy a brand with its own values and lexicon. When you’re in the middle, in accessible luxury,” he says, like AZ Factory, you have to provide both – a garment that actually performs but has “a stylistic identity to justify the price”.
AZ Factory has no problem with stylistic identity, but it came second. First was performance, specifically “AnatoKnit”, a viscose and Lycra blend used in the dresses, tunics and leggings that took him eight months to develop, starting well before Covid sent everyone indoors to bore themselves to tears. “I didn’t want a chic little black dress in evening fabrics,” he says. “I wanted to create a knit dress that felt as if it was hugging you all day long. So I had to become more of a scientific researcher than a designer. At one point I was really mad at myself that I didn’t buy the fabrics ready to go, but part of this project is we take the time to produce and to think.”
Elbaz had imagined a knit with variable tension that changed around different areas of the body to bind and release for comfort and offer better mobility for the parts that take a lot of stress, such as under the arms. “I started going to factories I knew and they said they couldn’t do it with their existing machines. Then I went to a high-tech company that does really high-level activewear, and I said to myself, ‘How can I enter into this enormous machine that’s producing millions every second?’” (Indeed, Elbaz aims to keep inventory low, so the massive minimums required by bigger manufacturers would not have been an option.) “It was a nightmare. Finally, we found labs who were making the machines we needed and they sent us to factories that were using them. And it was the pandemic, so every DHL shipment was getting lost or suddenly half the factory had corona. It took so long that by the time [the fabric] arrived, I was so tired I didn’t even want to design – we’ll do a three-hole dress and that’s all a woman needs!”
That impulse didn’t last long. Sizing was another central concern. “I’m an oversize man and I know what it is [like] when I go to find clothes for myself, which is why I buy a lot of shoes and glasses,” he laughs. Creating clothing for women from very small to very large was another central animating idea of AZ Factory, though it falls outside the logic of lower-cost clothing, which prefers the least amount of customisation per item. But Elbaz’s background is in high-end luxury – his first job in fashion was for fit maniac Geoffrey Beene. Pierre Bergé hand-picked him as Yves Saint Laurent’s successor before the Gucci Group bought the company, installed Tom Ford and sent Elbaz back onto the job market (where he was snapped up by Lanvin).
Plus-size customers often complain of a lack of attention to fit, as if designers simply took patterns for slim women and added a few inches all around. “I had to size not just every dress by itself,” Elbaz recalls – every colour even got its own slightly adjusted pattern. “I discovered that if I did it in white, the elastane had a different tension than in red or pink. I couldn’t believe it when I first saw it – I said, ‘How come the red dress is a little tighter than the white?’ We had to go deep, deep in there.” Thankfully for his bottom line, the 11 initial dresses will remain a backbone of AZ Factory. Research and development cost per item should start to go down eventually, if he sells enough to amortise.
For all the newness of this business model to Elbaz, revolution has never interested him. AZ Factory launches ephemerally but one day, maybe soon, it will be in brick and mortar stores. The brand’s CEO, Laurent Malecaze, has a background as a strategy consultant across many different industries, but his first foray into fashion was scaling up the high-end multibrand boutique The Webster from a single Miami storefront to a chain of eight addresses, including an outlet, and webshop with international reach.
If Elbaz still has some luxury hangover in the precision of fit, it’s not to be found in AZ Factory’s communications, which are breezy, unslick and, till launch, homemade. One common factor in selling designer goods is cultivating mystery around the head creative, and playing with notions of tradition and heritage around the making of the products. Witness the Chanel videos of “les petites mains” sewing couture, just as they have for 200 years. Machine-made clothes cannot partake in that romance, but direct-to-consumer likes transparency. AZ Factory hasn’t yet made available the content that will accompany its launch –Net-a-Porter and Farfetch are each getting their own customised content – but the brand’s Instagram feed, if only on the level of look and feel, is improvised and informal. Goofy asides shot in the middle of marketing meetings appear frequently. Elbaz turns himself into a mascot with AZ Factory’s logo (a circle with two black eyes reminiscent of his oversized glasses), playful illustrations and Instagram cameos. For younger consumers meeting him for the first time, outside the hushed reverence of most luxury communications, he is leaning into playful, informal and friendly.
Elbaz’s central presence in the messaging of AZ Factory contradicts the choice of the name, says Mario Ortelli: “If you don’t have an eponymous brand, [the business partner] has more flexibility to part ways with the designer. Many designers have big egos – why not put your own name on the company?” He notes that if Elbaz wants to leave his options open for another high-luxury post, his own name remains available to him.
The future is difficult to predict, but in speeches and interviews since leaving Lanvin, Elbaz has made it clear that the fashion system as it works now – overproducing products for rigid seasonal schedules that are easy to knock off and go on discount immediately – is broken. “This company is a change for me, because I didn’t come back to the place where I started. It was very hard for me to accept when big houses offered me a job, because I felt I was in another place and wanted to do things differently. I’ve been through a lot these six years. There were good moments and bad moments and I did a lot of thinking. AZ Factory is my conclusion.”
Models, Kenza Safsaf at System Agency and Tomiwa Oluwa at Elite Paris. Casting, Leila Azizi at Suun Consultancy. Hair, Kyoko Kishita. Make-up, Serge Hodonou at Walter Schupfer Management. Photographer’s assistant, Lorenzo Païno Fernandez at Saint Germain Agency. Stylist’s assistant, Marie Poulmarch at Noob Agency. Production, Philippe Bustarret at Bird Production