Introducing Alber Elbaz, the Man Who’ll Put Guy Laroche Back In Your Closet

What a difference a year makes. Last winter, the name Alber Elbaz was hardly recognizable. But following the critical success of his most recent presentation for Guy Laroche, the Paris fashion house where he was appointed creative director in September 1996, Mr. Elbaz, 36, is now one of the brightest new stars in the fashion firmament.

Despite sustained commercial successes in Europe and the Middle East over the years, it had been some time since the house of Guy Laroche, a pioneer of fashion modernism in the 1960’s, had attracted such critical exclaim. “In his second season, [Mr. Elbaz] blew out the dust of the [Laroche] couture house with a show that was spring clean,” Suzy Menkes reported in the International Herald Tribune on Oct. 17. Even Women’s Wear Daily weighed in with a cover photograph of one of Mr. Elbaz’s ensembles from his spring-summer collection.

The buzz was back, bringing with it the sudden stardom that has launched Mr. Elbaz, a Tel Aviv native, into spinning orbit. When he was hired by Guy Laroche, Mr. Elbaz had been living in New York City for 11 years; for seven of those years he was the design assistant to his mentor, Geoffrey Beene. He still hasn’t unpacked. He works or travels all the time, making endless public appearances. “And I used to get jet lag going to New Jersey,” Mr. Elbaz said in an interview in January at his office on the Rue de la Tremoille in Paris.

More recently, Mr. Elbaz brought his spring-summer Guy Laroche collection to America. It was presented at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills and at Bergdorf Goodman here when the department store and The New York Observer hosted a cocktail party and fashion show on Feb. 3.

“The first thing I did when I got this job was study the archives of Guy Laroche,” explained the spirited and thoughtful Mr. Elbaz, who is like a melding of Groucho Marx and Huckleberry Finn. “Guy Laroche was the beginning of the mix of high and low in fashion. What he did was modern in the sense that even in the 1960’s, his women wore couture at night but sweaters during the day … It was the beginning of the jet set.”

Having come from the atelier of the intellectual Geoffrey Beene, Mr. Elbaz wondered what the fashion press would expect for his first collection for Guy Laroche. Elsewhere in Paris, John Galliano was inebriating his flock with grand luxe and Alexander McQueen was titillating with shock effects. “When we, the second generation, take over at a couture house, the first instinct is to change everything from pink to black vinyl, from one to another in one day, so everybody is shocked … and you’re declared the new bad boy,” Mr. Elbaz said. “There’s a lot of media hype, but nothing for the stores. And the customers say, ‘Oh my God, look what he did.’ … So I thought probably I should just surprise a little bit and do things a little bit slower. I didn’t forget that Guy Laroche’s customers can be, like, 75 years old and they like pink, bouclé and gold buttons,” he laughed. “And there was pressure to create both interest and salability. At Geoffrey Beene, ‘salable’ was a bad word because it was all about the beauty of cut, the finish, the fabric.”

Mr. Elbaz’s first Guy Laroche collection for fall 1997 was tame by his standards. His second collection was a bit more advanced. Having read that most of Guy Laroche’s clients sojourned in St. Moritz, taking the cure of mountain air and luxury hotel rest in summer, he thought, “Great! The collection will be inspired by a sanitarium in St. Moritz.” Translation: a collection that was crisp, pretty, clean. Mountain flowers on the hems of dainty tulle dresses. Green, lilac, Swiss blue were the colors. There were white shirts. Cropped pants. Leather dresses imprinted with postcards circa 1960’s St. Moritz, colored chartreuse, green and turquoise.

Mr. Elbaz, wearing loose black trousers and a leather jacket, walked from his desk toward a rack of clothes in his modern office. “Four months later, all I see in the collection is what I want to change,” he said, showing me some dresses and shirts. Being superstitious, he did not want to discuss the fall 1998 collection he will show in Paris on March 12.

He remembered his childhood. “I was a fat child, I was asthmatic. No wonder I’m a hypochondriac,” Mr. Elbaz said affectionately of days past in Tel Aviv. “I’d go to school, come home, do my homework and then go to the doctor. A big line of my mother’s was, ‘Oh, dear, I have a headache. I’m going to get an aspirin. Do you need one?'” His father died, age 42, when Alber was just a child. He and three siblings were raised by his mother, an artist. They were hardly rich. “We all worked for everything we have,” he said.

Where and how the idea of fashion came to him, he isn’t certain. But as a young man he loved to draw. “When I was either 7 or 8 years old, I did a sketch every day of my teacher and what she wore. At the end of the year, I gave her the sketchbook. For me, the sketching of dresses was about fantasy and dreams. In my little room at home, I felt that I was somewhere else. In Paris, for instance.” After graduating from the Shenkar College School of Fashion and Textiles in Tel Aviv and serving for three years in the Israeli Army, Mr. Elbaz came to New York and stayed with a brother in Queens. A month later, he got his first Seventh Avenue job, designing $150 evening dresses.

“I’d go out the elevator in the building and hope no one saw me. But when I look back, I’m glad of those jobs on Seventh Avenue. I learned the expression ‘mother of the bride.’ All these great, Seventh Avenue expressions: ‘pastel,'” he said, striking the pose of certain local garmentos. “‘It’s got to sing on the hanger, Alber,'” he mimicked.

It was a stroke of good luck that Mr. Elbaz met Bergdorf Goodman’s Dawn Mello during those Seventh Avenue days. After seeing his book of sketches, she introduced him to Geoffrey Beene, who hired him immediately. Seven years later, he itched to move on. “It was hard for me to decide to leave. I was sad. And where was I to go? Where do you go after Geoffrey Beene? To Donna?” He shook his head No.

Luckily, a headhunter from Paris called about the job at Guy Laroche. And the rest, by all fashionland accounts, promises to be history.

Introducing Alber Elbaz, the Man Who’ll Put Guy Laroche Back In Your Closet