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Alber Elbaz took the stage for a talk at The New School's University Center on Monday night toting a large brown paper bag, which he matter-of-factly placed next to the podium. Judging from the warm giggles that rose from the audience, it was clear that more than one person found the sight unexpectedly goofy — a revered luxury designer schlepping around his things in the most basic sort of shopping bag, like anyone would. But few fashion bigwigs can elicit a giddy response like Elbaz, the beloved designer who was ousted from Lanvin in October and helped incite an industry-wide conversation about designer burnout, can.
"When I posted the fact that I am coming here, the invitation, I read also some of the comments," Elbaz said. "One of the girls, she said, 'Oh, I'm definitely going to hear Alber.' And then she said, 'Make sure you don't forget to bring some tissues.' So, I don't know if you brought some tissues, but I brought some tissues with me."
To the students and industry attendees' delight, he withdrew a few boxes of Kleenex from his shopping bag and dropped them at the foot of the stage.
"I think that sugar is a very important thing for the brain, especially when you create. So I brought candy!"
He pulled out a few big bags of chocolates and handed them to the audience, too. Applause and laughter for Fashion's Oprah.
Fortunately (or not, depending on your fancies), there weren't many tears over the course of the next hour, during which Elbaz gave a speech and then joined Paper co-founder and co-editor Kim Hastreiter and Julie Gilhart, the consultant and former fashion director of Barneys, in conversation. Though he declined to talk about Lanvin and noted that he hasn't been able to sketch since his firing, he did show a dark sense of humor about it, referring to it now and then as "my tragedy."
To answer your most pressing question: No, Elbaz did not say what he plans to do next. But here's an idea of what it could be.
"I would love very, very much on the one hand to work and to touch this world of high street, because there is a beautiful energy going on," he told Hastreiter and Gilhart. At the same time, he expressed a desire to make "beautiful, beautiful, beautiful coats and gorgeous shirts" for private clients, women he could get to know and work with individually.
Elbaz maintained that the increased demands on designers to churn out collections and pre-collections isn't conducive to good work ("Designers are not just machines where you press a button and say, 'Be creative!'"). Still, he was optimistic about the state of the industry and the mass movement to rethink how and when brands show their collections, and how many they're willing to complete each year. Some designers like Gucci, Public School, and Vetements have merged their men's and women's fashion shows; Balenciaga is presenting men's for the first time; Burberry is going all-in on "see-now, buy-now."
"With all the changes that we are witnessing now, I think it's great. Even though it's difficult day to day, I think something really good will happen," he said. "I think something really fabulous will end up, because people are questioning and for too long we did not question. For too long we just did what we always did."
CEOs aren't any happier than their creative directors, Elbaz said. Everyone they interact with — designers, merchandisers, marketing directors, wholesale partners, retail partners — want something different from them: higher prices, lower prices, different colors. While designers are feeling a creative crunch right now, their spreadsheet-wielding counterparts aren't necessarily better off.
Elbaz didn't really have a solution here, but the conclusion he did end with nonetheless roused cheers from the crowd: "I think if we inject a little more love into fashion and less fear, because today I feel it's more about fear and less about love," he said. "We would have a beautiful reason to wake up every morning."
It was a pretty rallying cry, if not a particularly concrete one. Riding high on sugar and charm, the audience didn't seem to mind.