It was at the Odeon about 20 years ago, during one of my monthly lunches with the late, legendary designer Geoffrey Beene, that I first met Alber Elbaz. "Mr. Beene" (as I called him) was a radical and genius designer, and we had become unlikely friends after I wrote an article about him in PAPER in 1987. A creature of habit, he would regularly meet me at the Tribeca restaurant for a burger to catch up and compare notes on the escapades of being troublemakers and outsiders in our respective fields. Mr. Beene never liked to come downtown alone and always had one or two of his co-workers in tow to walk him in, keep the conversation going (Beene was shy) and deal with the bill so he wouldn't have to.

One day, as I was leaving for one of our lunches I got a call from Joyce, Beene's longtime, hilarious receptionist, who wanted to give me the scoop that today, Mr. Beene would be bringing along his newest assistant, Alber Elbaz, whom he couldn't wait for me to meet, because I would love him. And he was right. Elbaz and I bonded over burgers with Beene. From that day on, Elbaz always joined us for lunch and we became friends. I could see right away that he was different from the other assistants I'd met over the years. Beene treated him differently. Elbaz seemed perfectly at ease with the sometimes mercurial designer. He seemed to regard Beene almost as a father figure, and Beene reciprocated by often interacting with Elbaz as a son. I could see at once how much respect the designer had for this super-creative young man who had recently moved to New York to pursue his dream to make fashion. Even after Elbaz flew the Beene coop to design for Guy Laroche, then Yves Saint Laurent and finally for the house of Lanvin, he still credits Mr. Beene with teaching him most of what he knows.

Like Beene, Elbaz is not your everyday designer: he is an explorer who is passionate about invention, new ideas, beauty and rigor. Unlike Beene, who was often prickly and even sometimes bitter because he had such a difficult time within the fashion establishment due to his contrarian nature and shy personality, Elbaz is a warm, open, and gentle man who speaks about love in every sentence. And his work follows suit. He loves women and it shows in every garment he designs. He is not interested in reinventing the wheel with his pieces, but just wants to make women look and feel more beautiful and comfortable in their own skin. And he does. Every time I see Elbaz -- sadly, not too often these days (as he is as tethered to his career as I am to mine) -- I feel like we are still kids, sitting and giggling at the Odeon over a burger. I adore this man on so many levels. And I am not alone. I was so happy to grab a coffee and chat with my brilliant friend when he was in town the other day to pick up the Accessories Council's Designer of the Year award and to host a beautiful yet insane Halloween party filled with Lanvin-clad drag queens.

Kim Hastreiter: You're adored, Alber. People relate to you, they love you, and you make them feel comfy.

Alber Elbaz: I was sitting with a fashion-friend of mine in Paris, someone I know from work, and we talked and we ate and then dessert came, and he started dishing about people we know in common. After a while, we realized that we only said wonderful things about everyone. I believe that love springs love. People that we love love us back, and people that we don't like, they don't like us either. I think it's all very simple and clear and rounded. Life is actually more rounded than linear. Most people think that life is linear, but I believe that life is round.

KH: Karma.

AE: It's not about fitting into the system or not, because I don't even know what the system is. I have always been as afraid of systems as I am of uniformity. I'm not comfortable with formulas and I think that when you have a formula, it's the beginning of the end. So I just do things I feel, I work with intuition, I make mistakes and for me that's the process of creative work. To just feel that freedom is for me the definition of luxury. It's not your address, it's not the size of your apartment, it's not the label you are wearing... it's that freedom. That's what we -- you and I -- have in common actually; that we have that luxury that I call freedom.

KH: We are lucky. I don't think there are a lot of people in my business or designers of your stature who have that freedom.

AE: Every contract I've ever signed has gone into defining my freedom within my work. I'm not so much into money, which is why I'm not a rich man. I would not be able to work in an environment where people are telling you that you have to do it bigger and better and faster and quicker... it's not my trip. I would not be able to work without freedom.


KH: Throughout your career, in a way, you've always ended up at places that gave you that, and when it stopped, if it was taken away, you moved on.

AE: Exactly -- when my freedom was taken away, I left. It happened only one time, but I'm happy it happened because it made me grow and become what I am today. I learned that I can do only things that I love and I can do it only with people that I love. I don't need much, but without these ingredients I cannot cook. Actually, I feel that I am working more in a kitchen than in a living room.

KH: Me too. What I do every day is like making soup. It's balancing ideas and aesthetics like spices.

Yes, we make soup. I also like to make roasted chicken... there is nothing intellectual about what I do for a living. I think the biggest danger today in fashion is that people think we are in show business. But it's not show business. We are dressmakers and coat makers, and we have to be here to cater to people and help them look and feel good. It's not about reinventing the wheel. It's about making people comfortable. As a designer who is not exactly skinny, I am very sensitive to comfort because I am not comfortable anywhere or with anything.

To me, the most exciting thing I've heard recently was at a Halloween party that we threw in New York. One of the drag queens was talking about a Lanvin gown, and she was telling me that she loved it and found it so comfortable. When a drag queen talks about being comfortable in one of our gowns, this is apocalyptic to me. I saw all of them climbing onto the stage in heels and platforms and tight dresses. They would climb the Himalayas in high heels if necessary to perform, but here they talked about comfort. I want to kiss the person who said that. That's my kind of drag queen.

lanvinhmlooks.jpgThree looks from the Lanvin for H&M Collection.

KH: Alber, I do think that some day you should write a book because you are so funny and eloquent.

AE: I can't write; I only can talk.

KH: Well, I'm telling you as an editor: If you can talk, you can write. You are an artist with words and that is a writer.

AE: Irving Penn once told me that I have to write. But I can't. Yet what inspires me most in my work is words. When I design, I don't start with "Let's go to India and do maharaja meets Marilyn Monroe at an acid party in London." That's not my thing. Most of the trips I take actually are sparked by words in my head from my own apartment.

KH: I know that you're a Luddite: no email, no Internet.

AE: It's not that I don't like technology. My brain just doesn't capture it. I cannot drive, I cannot bike, nor do email. My boyfriend of 18 years thinks I stayed with him all these years because he helps me with the remote control. Maybe I'm dyslexic or something.

KH: It's a right brain, left brain thing. No worries. My friend George Lois always says that computers can do a lot of things but you will never ever find an idea created in a computer. I think that the technology and the Internet have actually created a longing for brick-and-mortar stuff like community and authenticity.

AE: I think you hit the exact word: "authentic."

KH: You have a huge following and success in large part because of a combination of your persona, your humility and your work. And now your new amazing line for H&M will be accessible to people who have fewer resources. Everyone in my office today was dying over your H&M pieces. Girls will be pitching tents on the sidewalk to buy it. What are the pluses and minuses of making stuff that's mass?

albersignature.jpgAE: It was an experiment. I wanted to learn something from it. I felt that there is a huge group of people who never could afford Lanvin. I didn't really want to make Lanvin cheaper, though, but I decided I was going to try to turn H&M into luxury.

 I was not sure that it was right for me to do it because I was trained in luxury and this is my know-how and domain. I'm a dressmaker and I am doing things that are expensive not because I feel like putting a big price tag on everything but more because I work in a laboratory. In order to make one piece, I have to make seven or eight of them, and because we work in Paris and not off-shore somewhere, we pay taxes. Because we are working with people who are thinkers, because we are trying to work around proportion, fabric and cuts. And if it takes a group of 60 people to make 50 pieces in two months, that's our job. To find answers to questions is what we do for a living. So basically the whole exercise with H&M was to see if it was possible to make a luxury brand for $69.99.

KH: How do you feel about being somewhat of a celebrity these days?

AE: I'm not a celebrity. I'm far from it.

KH: But you're famous; when you walk down the street, people come up to you.

AE: At least I can say that maybe I got a little bit of fame because of something I've done. I didn't buy the fame from a reality show -- not that I have anything against reality shows. I actually love them and watch all of them. But we've created a new job in our world lately, which is called "being famous." Fame today is not a result of something you've done. It's a new profession. "What do you do for a living?" "I'm famous." Imagine asking a kid, "What does your dad do?" "Oh, my dad is famous." Fame is becoming very, very important. I mean, everyone wants to be famous, basically. Which is why I think that we have to be relevant today, which was another reason why we did this project with H&M. I'm no celebrity. At 10 o'clock at night, I'd rather be at home.

KH: What about dressing celebrities?

AE: There I don't have a problem. I love celebrities. I meet them before they have done the movie or after they do the movie, so I meet them at a stage when they are very vulnerable. I meet them when they are excited and when they are depressed, and this is the time when I meet the real true woman and then they are not celebrities -- they are just women. And I love women.

illustrations_03_lowres.jpgKH: What kind of woman do you love? What kind of woman do you relate to?

AE: I never had a muse or said, "Oh my God, my woman is that and that and she has to be seven and a half feet tall and she has to weigh three kilograms." When some women tell me that they are so into their careers that they're living in an airport, I'm like, "Fabulous, go for it." Then other women tell me, "I have a baby and I want to stay home for two years," and I'm like, "Fabulous!" I think that women have gotten stronger. I'm not talking about more powerful -- there is a big difference between power and strength. I think men are powerful, I think women are strong. When you are powerful, you buy, you sell, you have it, you lose it, it's external; and I think that strength comes from a different place. It's internal.

KH: Alber, you know that Geoffrey Beene would be bursting with pride about you. He would be like the most proud dad. He would look at what you do and what you make and what your collections look like and he would be in awe of what you have done.

AE: Everything I do, I learned from Mr. Beene. The most important thing that he made me understand was that fashion is not about front and back, but it's about what's in between. I think that also life is not about front and back, it's what's in between.

KH: Kind of like what you said about life being round and not linear.

AE: Exactly. It's also about the process and not always about the end results. I hope one day when I am not around any more, my team will take what I taught them and they will continue the Geoffrey Beene heritage; that's the heritage that I bring to them. ★