Thebe Meets Alber. AZ Factory AW22

It’s so heart-warming to see that AZ Factory continues to exist and convey its founder’s legacy in fresh and innovative ways. Alber Elbaz had just launched AZ Factory when he succumbed to Covid last April. His vision for his new brand encompasssed body-positivity, sustainability, and tech, but at its heart were the women he hoped to dress. “We’re not here to transform women; we’re here to hug them,” he told Vogue Runway at the time. He had only a few months to establish a new way of doing things at the Richemont-backed company, but a year later the brand is staying true to those founding principles, and then some.

Early last month, as an exhibition of the tribute collection “Love Brings Love” featuring contributions from 44 designers opened at the Palais Galliera in Paris, AZ Factory announced it would be inviting a rotating series of talents, “Amigos” in brand parlance, to create collections for the label. The first Amigo was to be the 28-year-old South African designer and LVMH Prize winner Thebe Magugu. His collection will have two store drops this year. Magugu never had the chance to meet Elbaz in person, but he was acquainted with his work growing up in Johannesburg. “My favorite childhood memory is my mom saving enough money to buy satellite television,” he remembers on a Zoom call. “Funny enough, the first channel that came on was FTV [Fashion TV]. Lanvin shows played on repeat, and that’s how I was first introduced to the work of Alber.” Magugu’s collection stays true to the sensibility that Elbaz was nurturing at AZ Factory, but it’s equally representative of his own aesthetic.

You’ll note that Magugu’s logo, a “sisterhood emblem” depicting a pair of women holding hands, features as a belt buckle detail on the handkerchief hem pleated skirts he specializes in, and again as stainless steel hardware in a cut-out at the neckline of a dress in the engineered knit that Elbaz had been developing. The look Magugu designed for the “Love Brings Love” tribute to Elbaz, an ode to a white silk shirtdress he made for Guy Laroche, one of his pre-Lanvin postings, reappears here, only with a hem that looks like it has been dipped or smudged. Moreover, Magugu sees the African continent as the link between himself and Elbaz, who was born in Morocco. “The question I posed to myself and the design team here is, ‘What if Africa was the birthplace of couture?’ I think about that a lot. The things that make up luxury – the idea of time spent creating something, the storytelling, passing something on from generation to generation – are really the same as you find in African craft, as well. We’re best known for our storytelling and our work with our hands. I thought that was a very interesting intersection that we could explore with the collection.” The intersection is most apparent in a pair of ruched-neck caftans, a typical silhouette in Morocco, printed with paintings by the Paris-based Algerian artist, Chafik Cheriet, whom Elbaz commissioned before his passing. “They really encapsulate both of our worlds,” Magugu says. “They’re playful and something that a lot of people can find themselves in with that slight African regality that I wanted to have when we started the project.

As much as it was a melding of their sensibilities, Magugu says he picked up new skills through the process. At his own brand he typically starts by sketching, but at AZ Factory there’s more of an emphasis on draping on the mannequin. “It was an interesting challenge for me, but ultimately very beautiful.” He also learned more about Elbaz himself through the process. “In interviews I noticed how kind he was and when I got to AZ Factory I got confirmation from the team. It wasn’t a TV facade. The more I grow into the industry the more I find that kindness can lack in a lot of ways. So that’s very special to me.”

Collage by Edward Kanarecki.

NET-A-PORTER Limited

Love Brings Love. AZ Factory SS22

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.

Alber Elbaz, Forever in Our Hearts.

The saddest and most heart-breaking news on a Sunday. Alber Elbaz, who made his name at brands like Guy Laroche and Yves Saint Laurent, and spent a 14-year spell rejuvenating Lanvin, has died at the age of 59 at the American Hospital in Paris. “I have lost not only a colleague but a beloved friend,” Richemont (the conglomerate backing Elbaz’s latest venture, AZ Factory) founder and chairman Johann Rupert said in a statement published today. “Alber had a richly deserved reputation as one of the industry’s brightest and most beloved figures. I was always taken by his intelligence, sensitivity, generosity and unbridled creativity. He was a man of exceptional warmth and talent, and his singular vision, sense of beauty and empathy leave an indelible impression.” The Moroccan-born visionary is best known for Lanvin’s striking renaissance during his 2001 to 2015 tenure at the French house. There, he dressed women in the most chic, and at the same time always comfortable and body-friendly, day- and evening-wear. His abrupt split from the brand, which saw him forced to defend his work and leadership style, was well-documented, and Elbaz subsequently took a five-year hiatus. Returning to fashion with innovative AZ Factory on the spring/summer 2021 couture schedule with a fresh perspective and a modern brand proposition, the industry was overjoyed to welcome back one of its leading creatives, who always imbued his work with such joy and put the focus squarely on making individuals feel special. The legacy of this unique designer will forever stay alive in his timeless designs, and the Alber Elbaz woman will always feel her best self while wearing one of his all-time signature looks: a pyjama silk shirt printed with his frivolous illustations, a chiffon ball-skirt and layers, layers of pearls. His brilliant work and ebullient presence will be sorely missed.

Here are some of my favourite Alber Elbaz moments, from his most iconic looks at Yves Saint Laurent and Lanvin to my mum wearing one of his dress for New Year’s Eve few years ago…

“Live” collage by Edward Kanarecki. Front photo by Tim Walker. Ad campaigns by Steven Meisel and Tim Walker.

My Body. AZ Factory SS21

Alber Elbaz is back in fashion! Oh, how I missed his fabulous, perfectly imperfect dresses, joyous colour palettes and chic femininity he delivered at Lanvin. Five years after an abrupt exit from the Parisian maison, he returns with his own brand, which won’t be playing along the industry’s dusty rules. His debut AZ Factory collection, which is part spring-summer 2021 ready-to-wear (available now on Net-A-Porter, Farfetch and the label’s site), part couture, proves Elbaz truly reconsidered many things before starting his new venture. “I was doing a lot of observation,” he told Vogue. “I needed to run away. Somehow, I didn’t want to do any more pre-collections, post-collections. I had to question the present, and the future. I had so many questions: the world, women, technology, needs changed…so how is the industry going to change?” He’s embraced tech; he’s stepped up to environmental-responsibility, he’s taking on body-positivity – all things that seemed like far-off improbabilities in 2016, when he took a break from fashion. After taking a good look around – pending his time teaching, reading, visiting Silicon Valley, listening to women friends, researching new fabric technologies, he concluded there’s a place for a totally modernized approach to fashion. “I was thinking: What is the purpose of design today? Thinking, but not being intellectual. How can I help women? I wanted to work on new technology to develop some smart fabrics with factories [to make] beautiful, purposeful, and solution-driven fashion. That is for everyone.” The first offering from AZ Factory is “My Body,” a set of dresses engineered to consider the ergonomics of all shapes and sizes. Its implications are super-modern, practical, empathetic – and kind. “I saw for five years, women I met for lunch how much women were struggling with their weight, and sometimes that was hard to watch,” Elbaz said. “ Even in the ’50s, [fashion said:] ‘This is right, and this is wrong.’ I think that there is no wrong! I took a subject that is taboo, that you almost don’t want to talk about, but I said: Yes I will. We’re not here to transform women; we’re here to hug them.” His dream, he explained, was “to build a magical dress that was made of knitwear: an anatomical knit. There are areas that are a bit thicker, areas that are finer. I released the tension in the skirt, so you can walk faster, or dance if you wish.” AZ Factory has all the flourishes and colorful quirks his fans will easily recognize from his Lanvin days – the volumes and prints he so fluently dashes off from his pen. But this time, rather than going in the French haute couture party-gown direction, the ideas are sprung from athleticism and servicing real life. Developing his own bespoke fabric has made him break the wasteful old fashion-y habit of splurging on multiple options. “I said: Be strict with yourself!” he laughed. “I’ll do one jogging suit in seven colors and a few duchesse skirts in recycled nylon.” It can all be hand washed, too, thus eliminating dry cleaning impacts (and bills), while cutting down on washing machine water and electricity use. Just one thing I’m not sure of are the pointy-toe sneakers. But in overall, everything works really well. It adds up to a new way of doing things, that’s for sure: a far cry from catwalks and shows, a break with some of the bad old habits of fashion, and a leap to launch purely online. “And everything is 230 to 1,200 euros!” Elbaz concluded. A price point which is much, much lower than the one at Lanvin, for instance. It’s a new space in between, where something with design integrity and modern thinking is finally happening. Welcome back indeed, Alber.

Get your hands on the first AZ Factory must-haves: AZ Factory stretch-knit leggings, AZ Factory stretch-knit top, AZ Factory stretch-knit mini dress & AZ Factory stretch-knit bodysuit.

“Live” collage by Edward Kanarecki.