“I feel like I’ve been pregnant for five years and now I’m in labour for a month and a half, filled with many panic attacks and several epidurals in my back,” Alber Elbaz says, less than a minute into our interview. On a frosty January afternoon in Paris, he is a week away from introducing a new fashion concept backed by Richemont, called AZ Factory, that marks his return to the industry after a five-year absence.
“At least the baby has a father and mother,” Elbaz says. “Richemont is the father, and I’m the mother.”
Though he is his usual irreverent self, weariness seems to dampen his mood after many long days and nights back at work. His eyes squint from behind his black frames and his head rests heavily on his hand as he chats from a cavernous Paris office at the Fondation Cartier, where the Swiss luxury conglomerate has given him an office. “I always like to be in dark rooms,” he says. “It’s all glass walls and I managed to create a black office. When I create, I need to be in a cocoon.”
Although Elbaz has remained a presence since he was abruptly ousted from the French house of Lanvin in 2015, having collaborated with Frederic Malle, Converse, LeSportsac and Tod’s on small projects, he had little interest in taking on another role as creative director, having seen the challenges caused by the relentless pace of fashion first-hand. Instead, he wanted to create something new, a digital-native, couture-meets- athleisure brand, with more accessible prices and broadly inclusive sizes. The key difference, he says, is that at AZ Factory, he is free to break the rules.
“I needed to take the time to dream and fall in love with fashion again,” he says. During his break, he tried many things: to meditate, to teach, to explore yoga and, he jokes, to transform himself into an athlete. “But my trainer said I have the mind of one but not the body.”
While guest lecturing at Polimoda, a fashion institute in Florence, he revisited black-and-white images of Cristobal Balenciaga and Hubert de Givenchy, draped in lab coats, presenting their haute couture collections before swarms of adoring women. Elbaz longed to return to that level of intimacy between a designer and the clients, but he wondered if there was a way to translate that experience in an era of instant gratification and online shopping. Though his new designs are meant to be more accessible, it was not by accident that he decided to unveil them during the spring couture collections, when the most rarefied, hand-made pieces are normally shown.