While going through education, we learn a deceptively simple lesson: trust. Not just in the opinion of a tutor which is supported by their (presumably) extensive experience, or the judgements of professionals during internships, but also the trust in oneself, and the people who are in our direct environment. This industry is built on relationships, and one of the figures who seems to always vouch most for their importance is Alber Elbaz. Known for treating his team members like family – and in recent times also known for being pretty outspoken about the industry’s various ailments – Elbaz is a designer unlike others. He came to Central Saint Martins a few days ago to give a talk and instill the students not only with hope for the years to come, but also pose questions that students should be asking themselves. We noted a number of Elbaz’s key quotes, from the withering relevance of ‘being cool’, the problematics of a post-truth society, and navigating a confused and sad industry.

Alber Elbaz by Rozalina Burkova for 1 Granary

ON LOUISE WILSON

Louise Wilson was my tango partner. People really say that tango is a very sexy, very erotic dance. Forget sexy. It’s all about trust. Because it’s that moment when you close your eyes and you let your partner lead you, even if it’s around a dark room and I’m not talking about the White House (laughs). I trusted her with my eyes shut. Every year, I was coming to the schools to do some interviews and before that we would eat Chinese. We ate a lot. And then she would advise me [which student] to take and which not. There were never too many choices, just one and I trusted her.

ON UNIQUENESS

Fashion today is to be different. Don’t be generic, be you. Don’t create generic bags: create new bags. There are so many shows and so many designers and so many competitors – there is only one way to go: be you. That’s the only way to win. Listen, take advice, but be yourself.

ON SHOW REVIEWS

I was always afraid of the press review after the show. We call it: “The disaster of the day after.” I always felt that after the show I was a victim going to the highest Supreme Court of fashion. It feels like waiting for a verdict when you are just a designer. One day I realized that the judges are just human beings like the designers. That maybe they are tired of going to so many shows on one day; maybe they are tired after one month of travelling, and they are maybe a little bit hungry because they didn’t have time to eat. And maybe it’s no longer cool to eat. Mince salad, veggie hamburger, no salt, no gluten. And flat water, just flat – as flat as you can. I heard a funny joke the other day, that if you want to rob a store you just have to come in with a bagel, they’re so scared of gluten [laughs].
So I decided to come and welcome everybody before the show (all the journalists and all the press and all the buyers) with a little bit of drinks, wine and champagne. I think it put them in a better mood. I offered them also a little bit of food – sweet and salty, par choix as they say in French. You know what? Everybody was happy there, I got great reviews. I always thought it was [because of] the damn alcohol and the food that I got the good reviews. I never thought it was me. It appears that not being good enough is my personal motor; so I keep running. You have the mentality of an athlete, but in the head, not the body. My psychologist says that I have the syndrome of long-distance runners: constantly running and when you turn around you’re so lonely, because nobody is next to you.

ON THE SYSTEM

I think that the fashion system always used to be like a family business. Now it’s not about strength, but it’s about power. People are scared of power, and people respect strength. They are scared to make mistakes and have so many collections to produce. You’re doing your collection and you’re working like a madman. And then people are asking you about the next season and you didn’t finish this season. It’s almost like giving you a dessert that is larger than the steak for dinner. The amount of collections is so big, and it’s not that you are lazy. I think that it is one of the reasons people go to vintage so much, because they have to produce so fast and deliver so much. Actually the designer is turned into a producer. When you produce, you have no time after a show and then you have to deliver 600 garments to a store.

“All of the sudden the industry is sad and confused: “Are we men or women? Are we doing pre? Is it see now – buy now? Is it buy now – see now?”

ON STARTING YOUR OWN BRAND

I was an assistant for Geoffrey Beene in New York for seven and a half years. I went to his studio and they didn’t have space for me, so they put me in a dressing room with a coffee table and I was told to sketch. Geoffrey went away for a week for a quick operation and I was by myself. By the end of the week, his head assistant came, looked at my 300 sketches and said: “It’s not really Geoffrey Beene.” I already packed all my things and I thought I’d be fired. I am used to being fired. Mr. Beene came to me and said to keep a few. After all of this they told me that I never quite got it right and I thought at that moment that I didn’t do him, I did me. I know that a lot of students after finishing school want to go and start their own thing. Wait, go learn from the big names, from the good things about them and mostly from the mistakes. Don’t go and become a creative director of two people. It doesn’t work. Taking a chance, not using a formula, that is where you want to go.

ON THE FASHION INDUSTRY 

Many people think that fashion is a very funny industry: we wake up at midday, do some botox, we drink champagne by mistake rather than coffee, we get to the office and get depressed, and then we leave. But all the people I know from fashion are hard-working; we have a loyal industry that I refer to almost not like an industry but like a family.

When I was preparing for my Légion d’Honneur ceremony, I had to invite forty people. I was thinking: “I am a jobless designer now, I have nothing to show, no advertising.” I was thinking: “Maybe no one will come from fashion.” I started to see all these RSVPs, and I had 350 people coming to the ceremony. It’s not a fashion show and it was the first time I had invited the fashion industry, but had not one dress to show.

ON CHANGE

There are such winds of change in the world. All of the sudden the industry is sad and confused: “Are we men or women? Are we doing pre? Is it see now – buy now? Is it buy now – see now?” All these questions. I say it’s good; it’s a sign that you are thinking, and that we have to come with solutions to many things. The most important thing that is changing, is that fashion was exclusive for 300 people, and now it’s [available to] all of them. How do we deal with this? Do we show the most sophisticated pieces to 300 journalists or to 300.000 people? Style it, put it on a cool girl with a cool face. But is cool really relevant?
We shouldn’t be pessimistic, we should be optimistic about the changes. We have to go and push and make it happen. We have to put our hearts in it, say what’s in your mind, be honest to yourself.
ON SUZY MENKES
I cannot tell you how afraid I was of her in the beginning. I would send the PR director to see where she was, because the higher the hair, the more dangerous she was. Through the years, you see the golden heart and you see the support. It was mutual. You see the respect, the professionalism. One day I spoke with a man named Emanuel Ungaro, he was the first assistant of Balenciaga. I asked him: “What did you learn from Balenciaga?” Emanuel said that before he went to work with Balenciaga, he had 25 people working for him. When he went assisting Balenciaga, he wouldn’t let him touch a piece of fabric. “For two or three years I only did lining.” And then what? Silence et rigueur. I don’t want to translate it, but those two words are not in fashion anymore. It’s about the silence, it’s about being loud now. And you know what? The Oxford Dictionary word of 2016 was post-truth. Think about it.
Words Desislava Todorova