Alber Elbaz, Beloved Fashion Designer, Is Dead at 59

A favorite of celebrities like Meryl Streep and Natalie Portman, he rejuvenated Lanvin and had recently started his own brand. He died of Covid-19.,

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Alber Elbaz, a Moroccan-born Israeli fashion designer who rejuvenated Lanvin and had recently launched a new venture, AZ Factory, died on Saturday in Paris. He was 59.

The cause was Covid-19, Richemont, the company backing Mr. Elbaz’s brand, said.

Beloved not only by his clients and celebrities such as Meryl Streep and Natalie Portman but also by his peers, Mr. Elbaz was that rare character in fashion: a truly empathetic and generous designer, both in the clothes he made and in the way he conducted himself within the business. The graceful lines of his dresses mimicked the graceful lines of his life.

“Alber always thought of fashion as an embrace of life at its best,” said Anna Wintour, the global chief content officer for Condé Nast and editor of Vogue. “And when we wore his clothes, or were in his wonderful, joyful presence, we felt that too.”

Designers such as Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino and Stella McCartney all paid tribute to what Mr. Piccioli called one of fashion’s “biggest treasures.”

Mr. Elbaz had launched AZ Factory after a five-year hiatus following his abrupt firing from Lanvin, where he was fashion director from 2001 to 2015. During his time there, he turned Lanvin, the oldest surviving but dusty French fashion house, into a more modern and prominent brand whose creations were worn by the likes of Beyoncé, Lupita Nyong’o, Pharrell Williams, Michelle Obama and Harry Styles.

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Models display creations by Mr. Elbaz and the Dutch designer Lucas Ossendrijver for the label Lanvin at the 2013 Men’s Fashion Week in Paris.Credit…Pierre Verdy/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
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Designs by Mr. Elbaz for Lanvin at the Autumn/Winter 2011-2012 ready-to-wear collection show in Paris.Credit…Francois Guillot/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A gifted designer, Mr. Elbaz was known for sending flowers to other designers before their shows, his self-deprecating humor and his insecurities.

Mr. Elbaz had a fraught and public relationship with his own weight, and said that being skinny was a fantasy that influenced his work. He transformed that fantasy into lightness, he said, by turning his creations into comfortable and sometimes subtly eccentric clothes.

Ms. Portman once called him the “ultimate fashion philosopher-mentor.”

“He says things to me like: ‘Wear flats. You’re short. It’s much cooler not to pretend,’” Ms. Portman told Time in 2007, when the magazine named Mr. Elbaz one of the world’s 100 most influential people.

In recent years he had also become something of a one-man advocate for reform of the fashion system and the pressures increasingly placed on designers.

As he said in 2015 as he received the Fashion Group International award, “We designers, we started as couturiers,” asking: ‘What do women want? What do women need? What can I do for a woman to make her life better and easier? How can I make a woman more beautiful?’”

ImageA 2011 design by Mr. Elbaz for Lanvin. 
A 2011 design by Mr. Elbaz for Lanvin. Credit…Francois Guillot/AFP via Getty Images

Then, he said, “We became “creative directors, so we have to create, but mostly direct. And now we have to become image-makers, creating a buzz, making sure that it looks good in the pictures. The screen has to scream, baby. That’s the rule. Loudness is the new cool, and not only in fashion, you know. I prefer whispering.”

The world of intricate dresses, cat walks and red carpets was one that he embraced publicly but remained wary of, one that he said was not reality.

“You have to go back to nothing in order to maintain the dream,” Mr. Elbaz told The New Yorker in 2009. “The moment the dream becomes reality and you start to mingle too much with all these people…” he added, leaving his sentence unfinished.

Still, luxury clothes came with a price that he readily justified: Mr. Elbaz once compared a fashion collection to a vaccine — an easy product to duplicate, but not something cheap to create.

Albert Elbaz was born in Casablanca, Morocco, on June 12, 1961, and grew up in Israel. Though he dreamed of becoming a doctor as a child — he always called himself a terrible hypochondriac — fashion proved a better route to helping people.

After studying design at Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art in Tel Aviv in the mid-1980s, and a brief stint in the Israeli army, he moved to New York, where he removed the T from his first name so that it would not be mispronounced — and because “Alber Elbaz” made for a more balanced brand name.

Survivors include a brother and two sisters as well as his partner, Alex Koo.

In New York, Mr. Elbaz became the assistant designer of Geoffrey Beene. He then moved to Paris in 1996 to become the head of prêt-à-porter design at Guy Laroche — until two years later Yves Saint Laurent himself chose Mr. Elbaz to take over as his heir, designing the women’s Rive Gauche ready-to-wear collections for YSL.

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Mr. Elbaz after showing his collection for Guy Laroche’s Spring/Summer ready-to-wear show in Paris in 1999.Credit…Thomas Coex/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
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A design by Mr. Elbaz for the Yves Saint-Laurent Spring/Summer ready-to-wear collection in 2000.Credit…Thomas Coex/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

That dream, however, was short-lived, as Gucci Group bought the brand in 1999 and Mr. Elbaz was soon fired in favor of Tom Ford. It was a crushing blow for the designer and started him on his journey questioning fashion.

In 2001, however, he met Shaw-Lan Wang, a Taiwan-based Chinese-born former media mogul, who was part of a consortium that had purchased Lanvin, and he convinced her, he said, to “awake the sleeping beauty.” Their partnership led to an aesthetic flowering, as Mr. Elbaz experimented with dresses made from a single seam, and clothes that managed to be both generous and elegant, straddling the line between classicism and modernism.

“Alber would always tell me, ‘I am just a dressmaker’,” said Ms. Wintour of Vogue. “He was, if by that we mean someone who had the enviable ability to make something women would love to wear — and an incredible instinct for how they would want to feel when they were wearing it.”

In 2005 he received the International Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and in 2007 was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.

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Tommy Dobrzynski, left, the vice president of visuals at Barneys, talks to Mr. Elbaz as they put the finishing touches on new windows at Barneys on Madison Avenue in 2012.Credit…Emily Berl for The New York Times

Nevertheless, aside from a hit sneaker, he never quite managed to create the It bag that could power a brand forward in a world driven by accessories, and after increasing clashes with Madame Wang over the future of Lanvin, to the shock of the industry, he was fired.

For the next five years he wandered the world, taking meetings in Silicon Valley and Switzerland, dipping in and out of collaborations with brands such as Tod’s and Le Sportsac, and trying to decide what to do next. In 2016, he became an Officier of the Légion d’Honneur.

But his new brand, AZ Factory — which was backed by Richemont, the Swiss luxury company — was his answer: to make clothes to solve women’s problems, at a more accessible price, sold directly to them, without heed of season, size or dictat, using technology at the service of beauty.

“I asked myself, ‘If I was a woman, what would I want?’” Mr. Elbaz told The New York Times in January. “Something that is first comfortable. Something fun. Something that lets me eat a big piece of cake.”

That allowed him to create the most simple things he had ever made, he said — although he had also compared the formation of his new brand to giving birth.

“My hormones are burning,” Mr. Elbaz had added. “I’m so itchy. I cry and laugh within seconds.” Still, he said, he was thrilled to be back.

Elizabeth Paton contributed reporting.

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