His particular brand of imperfect glamour — fraying lace edges, exposed zippers, grosgrain ribbon and pearl trims, sculpted bows and rosettes — has elevated the humble T-shirt to near-couture standards, turned sneakers into $540 "It" shoes and reinvigorated the categories of cocktail dresses and costume jewelry.
Now that Lanvin is firmly established, it is poised for a new phase of growth. Lanvin Petite children's clothing launches in stores next month. And the first Lanvin men's store will open in New York next year, becoming the label's 38th boutique worldwide.
To coincide with his 20th women's runway collection in Paris in March 2012, Elbaz, 50, has another project, a 700-page book titled "Lanvin: Alber Elbaz" to be published by Steidl. It will depict the process of creating a single Lanvin runway collection, from fabric to knitwear mills, embroidery work to model fittings.
"When you see that 1,000 threads are going into making one rose in one machine, you see that while we may talk about fashion as a glossy industry with mega stores, models, parties and Champagne, in the end this is about a seamstress, a needle and a thread," Elbaz said recently over breakfast in Los Angeles during a rare visit from Paris to host a dinner party and fashion show for friends and clients.
Lanvin was founded in 1909 by Jeanne Lanvin, a milliner turned children's and women's dressmaker, who had 1,000 employees in the 1920s. After she died in 1946, the business was turned over to relatives, to a French holding company and eventually, in 1996 to L'Oreal.
Despite a handful of successful fragrances and licenses and a string of designers, the label failed to gain traction. That changed in August 2001, when Lanvin was taken private by an investment group headed by Taiwanese media magnate Shaw-Lan Wang. Elbaz, who had worked previously at Geoffrey Beene, Guy Laroche and Yves Saint Laurent, was hired a couple of months later. When appointed artistic director of Lanvin, he was given carte blanche to revamp everything down to the packaging.
Over the last decade, the house's exuberant silk and taffeta cocktail dresses with asymmetrical drapes and flounces, crystal and pearl statement necklaces, chain-handle "Happy" handbags and ballet flats have earned quite a following. Elbaz also makes silk pajamas, ribbon-trimmed lounge pants and Lanvin Blanche T-shirts, tuxedo dresses and tulle skirts for the bride.
"Comfort is the true definition of modernity," he likes to say.
In May 2009, Lanvin made headlines when Michelle Obama was photographed wearing a pair of $540 Lanvin satin sneakers with grosgrain ribbon laces and metallic pink leather toe caps while volunteering at a food bank in Washington D.C. Lanvin is Robert Downey Jr.'s go-to for the red carpet. (Lucas Ossendrijver is the house's menswear designer.) Beyoncé wore a Lanvin red, one-shoulder cutaway gown to the MTV Video Music Awards in August, and Uma Thurman wore a ball skirt and blouse to the LACMA Art + Film Gala just last weekend.
Katie Holmes, Kate Hudson, Jessica Alba, Zoe Saldana, Demi Moore, Rachel Zoe, Liz Goldwyn, Jacqui Getty, Dita Von Teese and Eva Chow were among the stylish guests who gathered Nov. 4 at the 1928 Carondelet House near downtown Los Angeles for Elbaz's informal showing of the spring 2012 collection, followed by dinner.
Lanvin dolls dressed in miniature versions of his clothes, made by a group of African women affiliated with the charity Dessine L'Espoir, made for cute party favors.
"Alber has a joy and appreciation for women that is echoed in his designs," said celebrity stylist and costume designer Arianne Phillips after the event.
"His clothes are feminine without being over-the-top girlie," said painter Rosson Crowe.
The next morning, the designer was in the dressing room at the Rodeo Drive Lanvin boutique working with customers as if they were his dolls, showing different ways to wear a knit-backed fox fur infinity scarf or suggesting the proper undergarments to go with a tight satin dress with snake-like crystal embroidery. "It's about having a relationship with women and hearing what they want," he said. "Not being stuck in a studio with 14-year-old models."
Of course, all this attention — and attention to detail — comes at a price. Lanvin's clothes are some of the most expensive in the luxury market, with prices such as $850 for an embellished T-shirt, $4,330 for a sequined cardigan, $17,050 for a feather-appliqued gown. (Accessories start at $195 for a tassel key fob to $18,950 for a crocodile bag.)
"Sometimes it takes me seven dresses to make one," Elbaz said by way of explaining the prices. "It's all about fabric development, technique, patterns and shapes."
While most fashion designers traveling to Los Angeles raid the vintage stores looking for inspiration pieces, Elbaz's ideas come from his mind. Born in Casablanca and raised in Israel, he's a daydreamer, but also a pragmatist with an affinity for reality TV. (Of the Kardashians, he said, "Underneath, I think they are really good girls.")
"I travel a lot in my head," said Elbaz, whose chic and cheerful fashion sketches often turn up on Lanvin T-shirts and accessories. And yet his biggest source of inspiration is words. Sometimes all he needs is one or two words to start drawing and dreaming.
The spring collection he showed at the Los Angeles dinner, for instance, started with the words "hell's angels" and the idea of angels living in a hellish world. At the dinner, he drew a sketch to explain how the image of angel wings turned into the season's strong-shouldered silhouette.
Part of his appeal is that he is a lovable neurotic — the opposite of the typical slick, packaged fashion designer persona. Elbaz once went to a psychiatrist for help with his weight but ended up talking about fashion instead. "Everyone accuses me of being a control freak, so why can I not control a sandwich?" said the designer, who lives in Paris' 7th arrondissement with his partner Alex Koo, Lanvin's worldwide marketing director.
During one session with his psychiatrist, he remembers the conversation turning to plastic surgery. If women can buy a perfect body, the doctor asked, what does the role of the dressmaker become?
It was a provocative question, and it got Elbaz sketching. He decided to try being a kind of plastic surgeon himself, designing an entire collection using only stretch fabric. Then he got bored and started adding yards of chiffon, butterfly-shaped jewelry and leather harnesses.
"That's when I realized fashion is not about emphasizing the body or hiding it, but about making women fly," he said. So, after so many sketches and words, the spring 2011 runway collection began with a series of billowy chiffon "flying dresses."
This free-association creative process is why Elbaz's book will begin unconventionally, with nearly 200 blank white pages.
Because, as the designer said, "That is how I start every day."