The last evening of Paris Fashion Week was an extraordinary celebration of a fashion genius who left us too early. “Love Brings Love” was a characteristically optimistic mantra of Alber Elbaz, the brilliant and widely beloved designer whose death at 59 from Covid-19 in April of this year devastated the international fashion community. And so it was fitting that under this banner and before a crowd of the designer’s family, friends, colleagues, and peers, including Dries van Noten, Rick Owens, Pierpaolo Piccioli, Jean Paul Gaultier – and France’s First Lady Brigitte Macron – Paris Fashion Week drew to a deeply poignant, but joyful close. For the show, 45 designers and Elbaz’s design team at AZ Factory came together in celebration of his talent, personality, and design legacy, and many were present in the audience that night. “We wanted to find a way to celebrate Alber’s spirit,” explained Elbaz’s long term partner Alex Koo during a preview of the clothes that the contributing designers had created in tribute, “It is beautiful to see how each designer revealed a different aspect of Alber. It really was a labor of love.” Koo explained that Elbaz had long cherished the idea of recreating the Théâtre de la Mode, an extraordinary 1945 project that brought together Paris’s 60 preeminent haute couture designers, as well as milliners, hairdressers, and accessory designers, to dress a series of doll sized figures that were then arranged in vignettes suggesting fashionable Parisian life – a walk in the Palais Royal, for instance, or a night at the Opéra. The dolls and their decors traveled the world, vividly demonstrating to an enraptured public that the arts of Paris fashion had survived the hardships of the German Occupation and continued to set the bar for technique and imagination. Alber’s dream, as Koo explained in the moving voice-over that introduced the show, was to echo this initiative and “bring together the best talents of the industry in celebration of love, beauty, and hope.”
Some of the designers went for biography: South Africa’s Thebe Magugu, for instance, was inspired by a fall 1997 dress that Elbaz has designed during his two year tenure at Guy Laroche, whilst Alaia’s Pieter Muller had imagined a scarlet sheath dress, translucent but for some sinuous and strategically placed opaque hearts, that suggested the work of Geoffrey Beene for whom Alber, newly arrived from his native Israel, worked for seven years and who he acknowledged as an inspirational master. Coordinated by Elbaz’s long term stylist Babeth Dijan, the clothes were shown in alphabetical order. Unsurprisingly, hearts were a leitmotif: Jean Paul Gaultier, citing Elbaz’s “coeur a l’ouvrage” (roughly translating as putting his whole heart into his work) offered a couture dress composed of layered, three-dimensional, ruby red hearts; Alessandro Michele’s purple gown was suspended from a double heart-shaped brassiere, while Viktor & Rolf’s magisterial white trench coat ballgown was framed by graduated hearts arranged on the sleeves and skirts in an ombre of reds and pinks. Others chose to immortalize Alber’s own iconic look, and his playful dress sense that evoked a silent movie comic with his trademark bowtie, barrel-shaped jackets, and shortened pants. Dries van Noten, whose look was my favourite from the tributes, had developed an elaborate intarsia portrait that decorated the front of his scarlet evening coat. Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing depicted Elbaz on the bodice of his liquid white satin evening dress, and Lanvin’s Bruno Sialelli evoked a billowing Lanvin dress of parachute silk, hem buoyed with a ruffle, from spring 2008 with a giant portrait of the designer on the back that floated on air as the model made her circuit around the Carreau du Temple. Rosie Assoulin, meanwhile, who interned for Elbaz, designed a clever look that came together to create a trompe l’oeil Elbaz, his jacket as a skirt, his television-frame glasses a bodice. Hermes’s Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski revisited a 2014 scarf with a print originally designed by artist Dimitri Rybaltchenko that depicted Elbaz at the window of the storied Lanvin flagship building, the Hermès’s neighbor on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore where he worked for 15 years from 2001. Many tapped into Elbaz’s inventory of signature designs—Donatella Versace looked to his draped sleeves; Schiaparelli’s Daniel Roseberry celebrated his “particular affinity for bijoux” and “joy in explosive volumes;” Balenciaga’s Demna Gvasalia did the same with his hot pink nylon taffeta opera coat “creating maximal volume using minimal seams” whilst the ruffles that Elbaz loved were evoked by Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli in a magnificent ballgown of hot pink volutes and by Alexander McQueen’s Sarah Burton in a short embroidered coat dress.
The show closed with the AZ Factory design collective’s powerful tribute of their own, again riffing on the founder’s impactful signature looks, and Amber Valletta embodied the man himself in a jacket cut from the same pattern as the one his team had originally created for him, its hem embroidered with images of his unforgettable clothes. For the finale, the backdrop curtain opened to reveal the models in a three-tier-high scaffolding grid, framing a portrait of Elbaz and grooving to the O’Jays’s feel-good 1972 classic “Love Train.” There were torrents of heart-shaped confetti and there were torrents of tears.
Collage by Edward Kanarecki.