Alber Elbaz is in front of me. But because we are still in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, he is not here in the flesh of course, but rather onscreen on my iPad: Him in Paris and me in Singapore. Mr. Elbaz is now platinum blonde, with his signature dark-rimmed glasses and black top providing a sharp contrast to his fair hair. The fact that I am having a Zoom, one-on-one audience with Elbaz is quite astonishing when you take into consideration the fact that the influential Israeli fashion designer has been (largely) out of the fashion scene for over five years. Having experienced the glamour and pure joy of Elbaz’s Lanvin, a line which he resurrected and headed as designer and a stakeholder for some 14 years and which seemed to have an acute understanding of what women at that time desired and needed, lends this moment — his return to the fashion fold — a certain weight.
In our conversation, Elbaz, 59, seems rejuvenated, energised and almost exuberant when talking about his latest project — the luxury brand AZ Factory — created in partnership with the Switzerland-based Richemont group. At the time of the interview, the line had not yet launched, but was due to make its debut via a digital presentation at Paris Haute Couture week. But before we chat about the new label, we first talk about the pandemic and political situation in the U.S., and what he thinks it will mean for the future of fashion. “We don’t have a crystal ball to know what will happen. But if we look at history, after big wars or pandemics, there is always a peak of economy and creativity,” he says. He points to the rise of flapper culture and jazz in the 1920s following World War I, and then moves on to the aura of dignified silence that surrounded the inauguration of U.S. president Joe Biden the evening before our interview in late January. “I think that we’ll go back to [the] smart years. I think that we will learn to live in silence, I think we will learn to listen,” says Elbaz.
This idea of listening, watching and learning is something that Elbaz has practised with great intention in his five years away from the fashion scene. He tells me that he was travelling and doing different things — including learning about technology in Palo Alto, California. “I went back to the past of fashion and tried to understand and question the present. But more than anything, I tried to imagine the future,” he says. The result of all that study and understanding is his new line, AZ Factory. Although it bears parts of his name — the A and Z representing the first and last letters of it — there is a distinct sense that this label is a collaboration between Elbaz and his various partners. The partners in this case include the team he works with on AZ Factory (and includes a 76-year-old woman), the technology companies that create the innovative materials used in the collection, as well as the last and perhaps most important group — his customers.
Alber Elbaz debuted the label in January 2021, more than five years after his departure as creative director of Lanvin.
Elbaz was certain that if he was going to create another luxury brand, he wanted to do things differently. “I started to be more of an observer. I was looking at women… I was not seeing them. But I tried to understand, ‘What is it that they need? What is it that they are looking for? What is it that is missing?’” he says. There was also another element that he had to move away from — his own renown as a designer. Elbaz found himself asking how he could forget himself and “the ego trip of a designer saying, ‘Look at what I can make you.’” Instead Elbaz found himself questioning where he fit in as a designer, and what women truly wanted. Did they want him to create a dream, or did they want more comfort in their clothing? Did women still seek a total look, or something to complete their existing wardrobe? Elbaz said he wasn’t seeking to create a revolution or even evolution — the former being unsustainable, and the latter moving too slowly for the patience of most consumers — but rather a reset.
He turned to Palo Alto where he says he “saw the winds of change”, and felt a certain freedom he didn’t always feel in fashion because of the need to preserve its heritage. “Sometimes when we try to protect someone, it can protect, but it can also choke,” he says. While at first he was somewhat intimidated by the big innovations he saw, Elbaz was able to meld the two — fashion and technology — together in a way that made perfect sense to him.
AZ Factory is a smart line of clothing, shoes and accessories for the modern woman that actually places their needs front and centre. The line is meant to be beautiful, practical and solutions-driven — solving problems but also giving the same joy that Elbaz provided his old clientele with at Lanvin. “The two words that are very important for me are purpose and hope. What is the purpose of this dress? What is in this dress that you don’t have already? Because we have enough of everything,” he says.
Dresses come with long zipper pullers for easy access, while the Switchwear range allows staples like tops, tights and oversized jackets to be dressed up with the addition of luxurious separates like this duchesse satin skirt.
AZ Factory combines the traditional craftsmanship of a luxury fashion label with forward-looking technology. For example, the dresses in MyBody range, one of the first drops that launched on the AZ Factory website and also on online portals Net-A-Porter and Farfetch, are made with AnatoKnit technology that holds the waist and backside in and also provides gentle posture support. “I wanted to create a new stretch and a smart fabric. And a fabric that has areas that can help you with compression…so there are places where I can release the tension, places where the dress is a bit thicker, and places where the dress is a bit lighter — all of it in one dress,” he says. Elbaz describes it as an atomic dress that is still “fashion”. He then added an ergonomic sleeve that allows you to move it 360 degrees, and also made these pieces only as thick as an iPad in profile, allowing them to be easily rolled and packed for travel. The material they are made from is also designed to be breathable, with perforations in some areas, something which he had seen used widely in sportswear, but wanted to incorporate into different types of clothing.
Later on, he began to think of the whalebone that had been added to a traditional corset to improve the posture of the wearer. He thought about adding in this element, minus the discomfort. The dresses Elbaz created are not orthopaedic in a strict sense, but he says they do give you the feeling of having to stand up straight. They are also designed to hug and shape your silhouette in a flattering way. Other details on the clothing, which also includes bodysuits, tights for layering and tops, are also thoughtful. Elbaz designed zippers with long pullers that were inspired by surf suits, so that a woman would be able to zip herself into a fitted dress, without the almost gymnastic level of flexibility some clothing demands. On these dresses they add a fresh, sportier design element to the oversized sleeves and exaggerated silhouettes he was already known for.
The line is also age-inclusive and body positive, ranging from a XXS to 4XL, and designed for both the young and old. On the site, it is modelled by women of all ages and body types. It was important for Elbaz to address both ends of the spectrum when it came to sizing, as he noted that while the demand for more plus-sized fashion has been more widely highlighted today, in certain regions like Asia, petite women might also find themselves at a loss and having to shop in the children’s department. Addressing the impact that social media and apps like Instagram have had on our collective consciousness, he says, “We are living in a world [where] there are too many likes, and not enough love. It’s not that you have to love everyone. But first you have to love yourself. So it doesn’t matter what your size is… it doesn’t matter what your age is, but it’s all about loving you. And that’s why I decided that my mission was to do a dress that would suit all women,” he says.
Pieces like this red dress from the brand's MyBody collection demonstrate how one design can work on a variety of body types thanks to its construction that offers different levels of stretch and support; besides the combination of sportier everyday pieces with more luxurious fabrics and silhouettes, Elbaz created a pointed sneaker that is designed to be comfortable, but also flattering.
Not content with clothing, he also had a new idea for the kind of shoe a modern woman (or man) might need in their life. He likes to call them “sneaky pumps” as he was inspired by the comfort of a sneaker and the elongated, pointed shape of a pump that women found flattering on their feet. “My marketing team is calling them pointy sneaks,” he says, clearly having lost the battle on naming this particular creation. I ask him if his pointy sneaks run large, telling him that as a size 40.5, I often find it hard to find shoes in Singapore, and he assures me that they will. On AZ Factory’s Instagram account, men are already asking if there are Pointy Sneaks for them (they run up to a woman’s size 42 on the website).
In addition to the sneakers, and the MyBody clothing, there is a second MyBody 2.0 line, which renders this same technology in more vibrant colours and rainbow stripes, as well as bold, rhinestone-studded jewellery, oversized T-shirts and scarves, many of which bear playful illustrations and bright, jewel tones that were his signatures at Lanvin.
The next drop which will come later in Spring promises another innovation that Elbaz has created for AZ Factory — convertible clothing which he calls “Switchwear”. These are modular looks that can take you from lounging on the couch to a fancy dinner, just by adding or removing a few elements. The demonstration via his presentation is thrilling and almost revelatory. Long-sleeved T-shirts and leggings in basic black are immediately transformed with the quick addition of a luxe duchesse satin skirt in a rich jewel tone and a sparkly necklace. A nude tracksuit is elevated with a gloriously ruffled fuchsia skirt while a cobalt blue version of the tights and top is dressed up with the addition of a black satin tuxedo jacket. It’s a simple but genius hook. Allowing the pandemic’s casual wardrobe of sweats and stay-at-home gear to be elevated at a moment’s notice. It’s fashion for the current era that feels new yet not unexpected. On hindsight, although this line began its development before the onset of Covid-19, it seems to have captured the zeitgeist in an uncanny way — something which Elbaz himself didn’t exactly plan.
The next thing he reveals to me are the silk pyjamas, in vibrant hues and glorious prints created by five illustrators that he found on Instagram (there is one print though which features his own distinctive sketches). Rather unsurprisingly, even these are instantly desirable, and can easily be worn outside of the home. Once again, Elbaz seems to instinctively understand what women want in their luxury fashion: clothes that are comfortable, practical and fit into their current lifestyles.
With AZ Factory, Elbaz is also keen to push the boundaries of how technology can also innovate when it comes to fabrics. He tells me that the marrying of fashion and technology should not be seen as something scary and that AZ Factory has taught him many new things. “You know, you have to work with zero ego to do this collection. And instead of being afraid or treating technology as an enemy to beauty, it is seeing that technology can help to bring a different beauty,” says Elbaz. One of the collections under AZ Factory will focus on interesting fabrics such as sustainable yarn developed in factories, and laboratories in Spain and Amsterdam that can create 3D textures like a brocade effect or speckling onto the yarn, lending it a couture-like finishing.
The digital film presentation featured models of all ages. The age inclusiveness of AZ Factory was an important point for Elbaz who was not content to design clothing intended just for a 20-something audience.
He also does not believe that — unlike many designers today who seem to be only designing for a 20-year-old customer — he should be afraid to design for a 70-year-old. This was reflected in the styling and in the label’s witty digital presentation that featured a diverse cast of models. He has shown how his pieces like a stylish, oversized T-shirt could be worn by anyone and how even a bodycon mini dress could be layered over leggings for someone who was conscious about their legs or of wearing something so short. But while Elbaz’s vision of future fashion is about inclusivity, practicality and comfort, and how technology and innovation can serve these goals, it is a great relief to know that he has not abandoned his sense of glamour and his way of communicating unbridled joy through his designs.
Elbaz left Lanvin in 2015, and the global situation and the changing fashion world since has made him question what he wanted for himself as a designer moving forwards. “You ask yourself, what is it that I want to do… another runway show? Or more pomp and another amazing gold dress that photographs well? Or do I start listening to women and seeing what they need today? Can I be a solutions-driven designer as well as one with ideas?” Known for being a women-friendly male designer, Elbaz hesitates a little, but does not baulk at labelling himself a feminist. In his previous house, he recalls how his clothes were cut generously enough for a woman to wear them at different stages in her life, such as when she was pregnant. Today, he feels that size inclusivity, sustainability, being eco-friendly and being transparent are all important factors. “But at the end of the day, when you take all those ingredients, and you put them together, you will still want to see something that also makes you dream. And this is where [as a designer] you have to work almost like an alchemist to take one and one and make it equal five,” he says.
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