In October 2015, the fashion industry was blindsided by news that Alber Elbaz, the man who had spent the past 14 years successfully bringing new life to a once-ailing Lanvin, was getting the boot from the couture house he helped save. “No one expected this,” were the exact words of New York Times’ fashion director Vanessa Friedman at a time when other designers’ employment shakeups were so frequent that it was difficult to keep up. Since Elbaz’s shocking ouster 4 years ago, the fashion industry and the celebrated designer’s loyal fans, alike, have been anxiously awaiting the formal return of the beloved fashion figure.
While 58-year old Elbaz has entered into partnerships with the likes of French fragrance company Frédéric Malle, LeSportsac, and Italian leather goods brand Tod’s, those were temporary tie-ups, not the real return of a couture king. And so, the waiting game played on.
“Rumors have swirled each time there is a vacancy at a major house,” as the Wall Street Journal stated this summer, and yet, each time, Elbaz’s return failed to come into fruition … until now. The celebrated womenswear designer is back with a new venture in partnership with Richemont. In a release on Friday, the Swiss parent of Cartier, Chloe, Alaia, and Net-a-Porter confirmed “the signing of an agreement to form a joint venture, called ‘AZfashion’” with Elbaz, a project that it describes as “an innovative and dynamic start up, meant to turn dreams into reality.”
The exact nature of the new venture is not yet clear. However, Elbaz told the New York Times, “We are not going to do pre-collections, collections, post-collections,” a nod certainly to his public laments about the increasingly sped-up and over-saturated nature of the fashion industry. Speaking about fashion’s status quo, Elbaz said in 2010, “I always say that doing a collection is almost like writing a book or making a movie, and I don’t know any other industry that can produce six movies a year by the same director. That’s the thing. You cannot write six books a year. You cannot produce six movies. You can’t do six collections a year,” noting that as a result of the increasing demand for more collections in less time, “We don’t have the time to think, we don’t have the time to project, we don’t have the time to digest.”
Seemingly pushing against that, Elbaz says his new venture will, instead, “be about things I believe are relevant to make. We are just beginning now. And we are beginning really, really small. I like the idea of starting small today.”
In a statement announcing the new tie-up, Elbaz says that he is “very happy to partner with Richemont and to establish my ‘dream factory,’ which will focus on developing solutions for women of our times.” Richemont chairman Johann Rupert revealed in a statement, “Upon hearing Alber Elbaz describe his vision for fashion and the projects it inspires in him, I was again struck by his creativity and insight. His talent and inventiveness, with his sensitivity towards women and their wellbeing, will be of great value to our Group and its Maisons.”
Elbaz’s return follows from an enduring tenure at Lanvin, where he became known for his draped dresses and covetable accessories, as well as his penchant for ruffles, his love of sequins, and his happy embrace of color. It also comes after one of the uglier fashion breakups to date.
Fashion brands routinely find themselves in employment scuffles. A very public legal war erupting between New York-based rivals Carolina Herrera and Oscar de la Renta over designer Laura Kim comes to mind, and who could forget the not one but two lawsuits that Hedi Slimane waged against Kering-owned Saint Laurent over his lucrative contract.
Yet, Elbaz’s ouster from Lanvin was particularly striking, in that it was about as ugly as it gets.
As the New York Times reported in 2015, “No one expected on a Wednesday morning in late October that Mr. Elbaz would be sitting at his home in Paris reading a letter from Lanvin telling him not to come into the office, because he had been fired.” Still yet, “no one expected that not long after, the storied brand of Lanvin, the oldest French fashion house in continuous existence, would be in court, engaged in a very public airing of its dirty laundry.”
That very public airing started almost immediately. Seemingly unable to hide behind the friendly gloss of an amicable parting of ways, Elbaz’s ouster from the 130-year old came in the form a “rupture,” as WWD characterized it at the time, between “the charismatic Israeli designer and the company’s principals: owner Shaw-Lan Wang and chief executive officer Michèle Huiban,” the latter of whom pointed to Elbaz’s lack of “creative designs’ as the reason for his sudden departure.
Unwilling to allow his reputation to be tarnished, Elbaz responded to such claims, expressing his “shock,” calling the executives’ assertions “unjustifiable,” and clarifying that “weak management and the lack of a marketing strategy and investment” were to blame for the couture house’s stagnating sales. More than that, though, Elbaz threatened to resort to make the matter even more public by giving a tell-all interview and seeking legal recourse if Lanvin’s executives did not cease “defaming his name.”
All the while a legal battle was underway between Lanvin’s upper management and its Comité d’enterprise, a group of individuals that serve as an intermediary between Lanvin’s employees and its leadership board, beginning immediately after Elbaz’s departure. The back-and-forth between the two parties would end up before the Tribunal de Grande Instance, a French lower court charged with hearing civil matters, as the brand’s upper management initiated legal proceedings against the works council to prevent it from using the company’s e-mail and messaging boards to share information with members of staff regarding the designer’s ouster.
The council, accusing Lanvin of foul play in connection with Elbaz’s firing, alleged that Elbaz was “brutally” terminated from his position with the company before the expiration date of his contract, and entitled to a severance package that would reportedly cost Lanvin between $27.5 million and $55 million, something that counsel for Lanvin disputed in court.
The battle between Lanvin’s executives and its Comité d’enterprise came to a head by December of that year, with a judge for the Tribunal de Grande Instance siding largely with the Comité d’enterprise and lobbing Lanvin with a 3,000 euro penalty and also requiring it to pay the counsel’s legal fees. Not without a win of its own, Judge Pénélope Postel-Vinay refused to force Lanvin to pay the €20,000 in damages the counsel was seeking before bringing the matter to a close.
As for Elbaz, himself, his fight with Lanvin would end up dragging on – in arbitration – until late 2018 when he was handed a settlement to the tune of a reported $10 million or so in connection with his claim that Lanvin failed to hold up its end of his employment contract bargain.