AZ FACTORY: TECH COUTURE BY ALBER ELBAZ
NUMÉRO: What have you been doing since 2015, when you left the post of artistic director at Lanvin? ALBER ELBAZ: I took some time out from fashion to develop a new way of seeing things. I needed to fall in love with fashion again. I’ve always adored the industry, always felt at home there, but there were so many meetings and board meetings, followed by yet another stultifying meeting… I needed to let go, take time to think, dream, look and travel. I needed to question the past, understand the present and imagine the future. I asked myself what direction fashion was going to take.
Did you feel a little bit disconcerted in a world that’s changing so fast and so radically?
We’re all changing – technology is transforming the world at lightning speed. I spent a lot of time teaching during this in-between period, giving masterclasses, which brought me in contact with the new generation. I met a lot of fabulous people who
are as beautiful outside as they are in. They refuse to eat at McDonalds, they’re interested in sustainability and diversity, and they’re much more open-minded. Since they’re permanently connected and curious about all sorts of subjects, their brains are full of information. But sometimes, where creativity is concerned, it’s better to lack information, because it forces you to dream. Boredom is necessary for creativity. And I was often bored these past few years. It’s in those moments of boredom that you start to question the status quo and think deeply about things. I was also asked to take part in school jury crits, but after a while I stopped, because who am I to say what’s good or bad, beautiful or ugly? So instead I suggested to the schools that they get me on board earlier in the year, so I can help students rather than simply judging them.
Did you travel a lot over the course of these past five years?
Yes, partly to get away from it all because I felt so vulnerable. I wanted to hide, but at the same time, although I was no longer in love with fashion, I still felt enormous respect for people in the industry. Magazine editors, including my great friend Babeth, acted as head hunters for me, organizing job interviews. They really wanted me to start working again, but I just wasn’t into it. And then one day I travelled to Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley. I was expecting people there to speak an incomprehensible language, tech jargon. But we talked about creativity and innovation, and I began to see how much new technology is changing the world – look how Zoom and Netflix have become part of our daily lives. So I began asking myself what place beauty might have in this digital world, and if intuition and instinct could exist in a universe of algorithms and databases. Can a designer and a CEO work harmoniously together in this context? I think the best adventures in fashion happen when a creator and a manager understand each other – a balance between yin and yang.
So which Silicon Valley principles can be applied to fashion?
Well, when I told some people how enthusiastic my visit to Palo Alto had made me, they asked if I was planning on producing electronic goods! More seriously, the intellectual challenge is to bring innovation to an industry that’s based in tradition and an aesthetic heritage. I started thinking in terms of the word “reset” rather than “revolution.” I’m not a revolutionary – I’m a good boy, as you can see. We even organized our first presentation during couture week, so I’m not anti-system. The essence of couture, if you think about it, is experimentation and individuality. Experimenting with cut and fabric for clients who see themselves as unique individuals. If that’s the essence of couture, I think there’s a place for me in there.
So how exactly did your new project, AZ Factory, come about?
I started developing ideas based on needs, because I’m always surrounded by women. I’m certain that we need fashion today, because it’s like a drug without side effects. But then how do you explain that the clothes we see in the runway shows are never worn in the street? How come you and I, who both work in the industry, wear black sweaters? Whatever happened to the pink embroidered coats with pagoda sleeves? I think we need fashion that’s practical but which also thrills us. A starting point was the fact that, during all these years of travel, the women I met were battling with weight issues. What’s more, during lockdown, we all discovered we have an apartment or a house, and that we didn’t need to jet off to Australia for the weekend. And there were some who discovered they had a kitchen and starting cooking. Then, all of a sudden, panic: “Cripes, I’ve put on weight!” I feel like saying, “Yeah, so? It’s the story of my life.”
How did you partner up with the Richemont group?
Every businessman I met before Johann Rupert [Richemont’s president] wanted me to produce a fiveor ten-year business plan for my new project. But I always felt it was better to do things more organically.
“I’m certain that we need fashion today,
because it’s like a drug without side effects. I think we need fashion that’s practical but which also thrills us.”
When I met Johann, he said that if I was able to answer ten questions then he could draw up a business plan with me. He asked me what was going to happen politically with respect to global warming, how I saw US-China relations evolving, things like that. And then, a few months later, the pandemic broke out and any business plan you might have made immediately became completely redundant.
So what exactly is the concept behind AZ Factory?
It’s not my big comeback, it’s a reset, as I was saying earlier. A and Z are the last letters of my name, followed by the word “factory,” because I like the idea of a collective that the concept of a factory suggests. We are a luxury digital brand based in innovative design, but we’re also about a fun way of telling stories. Just before the pandemic, I was in London with Johann Rupert, and I remember that already back then he was saying, “Create a joyful brand, a fun label.” Our values are trust, respect and love.
During couture week, you showed your first three concepts in a very entertaining film. How often will garments come out, and what distribution model will you be using to get them to customers?
We showed three stories, but we’ll launch them one at a time, a product at a time, with digital distribution to start with, on Net-a-porter and Farfetch. Physical retail spaces will maybe come later, because a lot of stores have supported me along the way, and because I think that when the sanitary situation improves we’ll all be glad to return to the shops.
Can you say something about the first concept, MyBody, which came out in late January?
It’s technical knitwear that brings comfort and support to women’s bodies. We’re in a world of likes today, but what about love? I wanted to create an anatomical dress that would embrace women’s bodies instead of constraining them. To certain zones, we apply a slight compression, like a hug, and in others we release all the tension, for example in the upper part of the torso, so as not to squeeze a woman’s heart. Thanks to perforations and ergonomic sleeves, the knit can breathe. To make these dresses, we worked on machines usually used for sneakers, and in the film it was important for me to show the expertise of the factories we collaborate with. The dress can be worn by women of all ages: it’s produced in several lengths and also several sizes, from XXS to 4XL. And it’s affordable. Moreover, we mustn’t forget the pointy sneakers that lengthen the leg… I call them “sneaky pumps,” but my marketing department prefers “pointy sneaks.”
And what about the second project, Switchwear?
This is about looks that allow you to go from “very casual” to “fabulous” in just two minutes. On a base of leggings and a “second-skin” top, you pull up a balloon skirt in duchess satin, and voilà!, you’re ready to go out for the evening without even taking off your sneakers. We’ve also designed a double-breasted jacket in duchess satin, sweat pants, two tops… But not too many pieces, because we have to think about sustainability. You can wear the tracksuit with dangly earrings, which gives a sort of “athletic couture” style. We’ve also developed pyjamas that can be worn both at home and in the street. They’re printed with images of love, affection and tender kisses, because during lockdown we were all shut up at home, sitting there dreaming of someone kissing us or taking us in their arms.
And the third concept?
It’s called SuperTech-SuperChic. For this story, we developed a wardrobe that’s independent of the seasons, made from microfibres, a material used for both under- and sportswear. We worked with a Dutch factory to give 3D volume to the fibre, like a brocade. We also developed pieces with a rather nice volume, all of them in nylon. In this way, high tech becomes high fashion.
Would you say that this new brand, which was founded on an analysis of women’s daily needs, takes further some of the ideas that went into your hugely successful 2010 collaboration with H&M?
When H&M first contacted me, I didn’t want to accept, because I didn’t see how I could make what I offer my clients for just €200. Then Christmas came and I thought how unfair it was, because so many women would have liked to wear those pieces. And in the end the pleasure of working without ego became part of my DNA. Today, I’m not looking to impress anyone, I’m working as though in a start-up. It’s about getting back to the essence, to the simplicity of things.