The reasons why Elbaz would leave are surely more complicated than he or the current owner can articulate. The business was troubled, with declining sales. One of its most loyal boutiques, Tender in Birmingham, Mich., had stopped carrying the collection. Popular culture has been making all sorts of demands on fashion houses, and the designers who direct them, that have nothing to do with clothes. Being an Instagram star is an exhausting bit of narcissism. And Elbaz has not been shy in lamenting the shrill and increasingly coarse nature of the contemporary fashion industry.
Fashion moves at a punishing pace — a defining factor in the recent departure of designer Raf Simons from Christian Dior Couture and perhaps in the amicable exit of Alexander Wang from Balenciaga earlier this month. (Wang was replaced by Demna Gvasalia. There is much speculation that Elbaz could next find a home at Dior.) And sometimes there are personality conflicts that can’t be smoothed over.
But it is nonetheless sad. Elbaz did so much for Lanvin, and one wishes that he would stay around to do even more.
In the beginning, in 2001, it seemed like such a perfect place for him, the talented romantic and pragmatist. He’d had a dazzling but brief tenure at Guy Laroche and had been chosen as the successor to Yves Saint Laurent after his retirement. But Elbaz was pushed out of Saint Laurent after it was sold, after the arrival of Tom Ford and his smoldering aesthetic.
Lanvin wasn’t a label people spoke of very much back then. It didn’t have an iconic silhouette. Who was Jeanne Lanvin? There was no imagery that immediately captured her essence. For all except perhaps students of fashion history, Lanvin was a blank slate. Its owner, Shaw-Lan Wang, a Taiwanese investor, gave Elbaz free reign. And for all intents and purposes, Elbaz re-created Lanvin in his own image.
His signatures were an easy, draped silhouette in dark smoky colors or intense jewel tones. He loved grosgrain ribbons as closures instead of buttons, and he popularized gleaming metal zippers that snaked up the backs of dresses like industrial glitter. He made fashion reconsider costume jewelry. He created big, dazzling, unapologetic necklaces and bracelets that were fun, not precious. (But they were not cheap, either.) Meryl Streep is a big fan, but so too is Kim Kardashian, who never looked more sophisticated than when she attended one of his shows wearing one of his designs.
Elbaz dressed his models in heels, but he was truly known for his ballet slippers. He was the rare designer who thought a woman moving comfortably in a pair of flats could be just as glamorous — maybe more so — than one in stilettos.
There was a kindness and romanticism to his work. But it was strong, too. Elbaz understood that all three could coexist in a single design because they could coexist in a woman’s personality. He regularly lamented his weight. Perhaps that’s why he shied away from trussing women up without leaving even a millimeter of room in which to breathe.
Elbaz has always been on their side: admiring, commiserating, cheering. Fashion needs Elbaz’s aesthetic — but more important, women deserve it.