Before the Lanvin spring/summer 2011 pre-collection presentation commenced yesterday, creative director Alber Elbaz told his audience that this past Saturday was his birthday. “It was the most pathetic birthday I have ever had,” he confessed. “I was flying from Paris to New York by myself, and the only person who I celebrated with was a stewardess in the Air France lounge who brought me a little muffin with a candle on it and then sang to me.”
When Elbaz arrived at the Mercer on Saturday night — tired, jet-lagged, and without dinner plans — he discovered that the hotel staff had left him a cake, which he found very touching, until he dropped the thing on the carpet by accident. “I started to taste and pick at it, and then I thought about how dangerous it was because I will never fit into my pants the day after,” he mused. “So I just tried to move it somewhere so that it was out of my eye line. But then the whole cake fell on the floor, and I was so embarrassed to call the room service about it that I cleaned it all by myself.”
Ruined cake aside, Elbaz was so at ease before his presentation that he milled around and greeted guests with joyful pecks on both cheeks. “I hope nobody has a cold. I am giving everyone kisses!” he giggled adorably. Spectators took their seats on a few dozen white upholstered chairs pulled higgledy-piggledy around a small stage and waited expectantly. Only, someone was late — and Elbaz wouldn’t start without her.
“We are waiting for one more person. She is almost here,” he announced. We were hoping it was someone super-famous who would whirl through the doors with diva-esque self-importance, but when a high-heeled woman in a headscarf and sunglasses breezed in and took her seat, no one seemed to know who she was. The tardy woman in question turned out to be Melody Gardot, a jazz singer and friend of Elbaz’s whose songs were featured in the presentation.
As he has done in the past, Elbaz narrated his collection, explaining each outfit as it was modeled in front of the audience (and very politely thanking each model when she exited the stage). This season’s looks featured a number of pieces that could be reversed or adjusted to transform into totally different looks (see video footage here). Elbaz restyled the clothes himself in front of the audience, turning jackets inside-out or peeling off removable layers. In several cases he tugged a skirt hem down to the model’s knees and then pushed it back up her thighs like an accordion to demonstrate how the length could be adjusted. “See, there is a day version and an evening version,” he said. “Clean … and then dirty!” Standing next to the model, he grinned humbly and looked up at her shoulders. “Now you can really see how tall she is and how short I am!”
At the show’s conclusion, Elbaz opened his hands and proclaimed, “That’s it!” Then, something magical happened: The audience spontaneously broke into a rendition of “Happy Birthday,” followed by applause. Elbaz blushed and bowed and thanked everyone.
“You don’t see a group of editors singing to you like that every day,” he said afterward. “It’s not just about collections or selling and buying, or style numbers or magazine covers. It’s about people, it’s about humans, it’s about faces and love and hate and good and bad. That’s what the presentation is all about.” Personal relationships are why he prefers to do as many presentations in as many different cities as possible, even if it means flying across the Atlantic on his birthday. “Last year I decided not to do [a presentation] in France, because, you know, everybody has Internet these days, so why bother? And they said, no, it’s not just about a couture dress, it’s about seeing each other and being there. It makes you realize that it’s more than just sitting in front of a screen. I think that maybe we’re too much face-to-face with the screen that we turn our backs on humanity. So, I’m all about turning towards humanity.”
While at the presentation, we also cornered Julie Gilhart, fashion director of Barneys New York. Her take on the transformational collection? “Alber really thinks about a day in the life of a woman, a real woman. There’s nothing fantasy here that he’s imagining a woman to be. He thinks about how women are, and how he can make them feel like their fantasy. He makes fantasy clothes that fit into our basic lifestyle.” But does she still think he’s the greatest living designer? “Still. Number one,” she said. “He works 365 days a year, and he cares. There’s a lot of good designers out there, but I think when you stack up all the different things, he excels. It’s like the scorecards at the Olympics where they hold up all the numbers in each category. He gets 6.0s in every category.”