Even in a world inured to designer change, no one expected this.
Not the editors and retailers and friends who sat front row at the Lanvin women’s wear show in Paris last October applauding the crisp tuxedo day looks, the shimmering jewel-toned cocktail frocks. Not Fashion Group International, a prominent industry organization that bestowed upon Alber Elbaz, the Lanvin artistic director, their Superstar Award three weeks later. Not Meryl Streep, who handed him his award while wearing Lanvin, noting, “if what you’ve made me feel over the years is multiplied by all the other women whose lives you’ve enhanced, I think you should get this every year.” And most all, not Lanvin’s own employees, many of whom cried when they got the news.
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.
And 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.
“I have never heard of anything like it,” said Julie Gilhart, an independent consultant and former fashion director of Barneys.
“The company is breaking up into two camps: the management on one side, the works council, the studio and the ateliers on the other,” said a recently dismissed manager who would speak only on condition of anonymity because of pending legal action against Lanvin.
An erstwhile happy fashion marriage between a designer and a proprietor has turned into a very ugly divorce. And, like many divorces, it is now being played out in court — in this case, the Tribunal de Grande Instance in Paris, where on Wednesday, Judge Pénélope Postel-Vinay ruled on an emergency procedure brought by management.
Lanvin executives had accused the Comité d’Entreprise, a works council that functions as an intermediary between employees and executives, of abusing the internal communications network, fomenting unrest since Mr. Elbaz’s departure, and groundlessly alerting the board of directors to concerns about the company situation, especially its financial situation, and requesting an independent audit, and asked that such actions be halted. The judge found that the works council had behaved within its rights on the first two points and that the court did not have jurisdiction to suspend the right to alert. She further fined the company 3,000 euros, or about $3,285, and instructed them to pay all legal fees for the works council, though she did not grant the €20,000 in damages it had requested. Both sides (confusingly but not surprisingly) claimed a measure of victory.
Mr. Albaz and Lanvin executives all declined to be interviewed. But the public nature of the case means that, while this year alone has seen a plethora of designer moves — including Alessandro Michele replacing the fired Frida Giannini at Gucci and Peter Dundas’s jump from Pucci to Cavalli — the situation at Lanvin has lifted the mink-trimmed silk charmeuse skirt of fashion, exposing the costs of such changes for everyone involved: protagonists, employees and even consumers.
“Everyone should pay attention,” said Ralph Toledano, the chief executive of Puig fashion division and, as the former chief executive of Guy Laroche, the man who took Mr. Elbaz to Paris from New York in 1996, to be creative director of Laroche. “It is a story of exactly what should not be done.”
It is a story, mostly, about relationships — between individuals, between corporate and creative — and about the gap that can exist between public perception and private reality.
There is a truism in the fashion world that the most successful companies are built on a designer-chief executive pairing: Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino and Giancarlo Giammetti. This evolved, as fashion industrialized and globalized, into a team of creative director and chief executive officer(think Tom Ford and Domenico de Sole), watched over by the benevolent (or not so benevolent) eye of a majority shareholder, and became the model for the revival of fashion brands like Céline and Louis Vuitton. That was how Lanvin’s once-upon-a-time began.
The fairy godmother was Shaw-Lan Wang, a Taiwan-based Chinese-born former media mogul, who was part of a consortium that bought the then-largely wholesale men’s wear and fragrance business of Jeanne Lanvin S.A. from L’Oreal in 2001, quickly taking control. That was when Mr. Elbaz, the former creative director of Yves Saint Laurent — fired from his post after three seasons when Gucci Group bought the company — asked for a meeting. It is time to “awake the sleeping beauty,” Madame Wang told Mr. Elbaz, according to a 2009 profile in The New Yorker. She cast him as her prince.
“We were really starting from scratch,” said Natasa Cagalj, currently creative director of Ports 1961, who worked closely with Mr. Elbaz at Lanvin from 2001 to 2005. “We could hardly get any models for the first show. We joked we would have to get people off the streets of Paris.”
By the second season, however, everything had changed. Mr. Elbaz began to establish the signatures that became trademarks of the house (as well as inspiring multiple copycats), from exposed zippers in the back to grosgrain ribbon trim and a love of what Virginia Smith, the Vogue market director, fashion and accessories, called “a sense of imperfect beauty; the appreciation of the humanity found in a frayed edge.” The press flocked in. “It’s one of the few shows I remember people practically dancing in their seats and clapping their hands,” Ms. Smith said.
Paul Deneve, the president of Nina Ricci, joined as managing director in 2006 (previously Madame Wang’s son had held that position), and they began to build the business. “People would fight to get the brand in their stores,” said Cecile Andrau, the sales director at the time, who eventually became executive vice president for Lanvin Inc.
Retailers bought it not only for their stores, they bought it for themselves: Marigay McKee, the former chief merchant of Harrods, says she has “at least 10 black dresses” in her closet; Ikram Goldman, the owner of the eponymous Chicago boutique, who bought the brand from Mr. Elbaz’s first season, said she also made purchases “for my archives.”
“It was mesmerizing how fast that brand grew,” Ms. Gilhart said. Barneys, she added, “did our first million-dollar trunk show with Lanvin. They became an anchor brand on the second floor. The other anchor was Azzedine Alaïa.
But that doesn’t mean it was easy. “Alber was a total workaholic,” Ms. Cagalj said. “The first to come, the last to leave. He can’t stand mediocrity, and he was always challenging you. He called it ‘Ping-Pong:’ the constant back and forth with the studio.”
Bruno Frisoni, creative director of Roger Vivier, who worked with Mr. Elbaz during two seasons at Yves Saint Laurent (and worked at Lanvin in the 1980s, before Mr. Elbaz), had similar memories. “He is exhausting to work with,” he said. “He never agrees to anything until the last minute, because of his level of perfectionism and passion. He gives you notes and notes and notes, not drawings or silhouettes, and can talk for hours about images and ideas.”
Yet at the same time, the intensity was balanced by a “humanity,” Mr. Frisoni said. Mr. Elbaz was famous for sending flowers on birthdays, on births of babies, after funerals. “He treasured the atelier, and they knew it,” said Ms. Cagalj. Indeed, they stayed with him: In his speech at the FGI awards dinner, Mr. Elbaz referenced a seamstress who had recently retired at 61 — after joining Lanvin at 17.
“Love” is a word that comes up a lot in relationship to Mr. Elbaz. Though fashion is famously fond of a comeuppance and a sotto voce aside, it is almost impossible to find someone with a negative experience with Mr. Elbaz. Mr. Toledano said he resigned a few months after Mr. Elbaz left Guy Laroche for Y.S.L. because: “When you are in love with someone and he or she drops you, you can’t fall immediately in love again. You need time.”
Ms. Cagalj says “he taught me design was an emotional process.” Mr. Frisoni, describing a Lanvin show he attended, said: “You could see he loved people, loved women, loved fashion. How could you not love Alber?”
But love did not characterize every relationship at Lanvin. Fissures had begun to appear in the relationship of Mr. Deneve and Madam Wang. In 2007, reportedly without telling Mr. Deneve of her plans, she sold the perfume business to Interparfums. In January 2009, Mr. Deneve left — after “diverging opinions.”
It was the beginning of a pattern that would repeat itself: Disagreement would not be tolerated. Those who did, left. Or were asked to leave.
Mr. Deneve’s replacement, Thierry Andretta, former chief executive of Moschino, focused on changing the wholesale and retail balance of the brand and opening stores, doubling the revenues in four years from approximately €120 million to about €240 million, before leaving in 2013 for “personal reasons” widely attributed to disagreements over strategy.
And though for years they seemed to have a warm relationship, developing a famous routine in which at the end of every show, after bowing to the crowd, Mr. Elbaz would bow to Madame Wang personally, and she would give him a kiss and a bouquet of flowers, now he, too, is gone because of a disagreement over strategy.
The word that comes up most often when associates are asked to describe Madame Wang is “autocratic.” Fashion houses are not democracies, of course, and Madame Wang is Lanvin’s majority shareholder; she owns the last word. Still, it is striking that, over the years, the strategic disagreements all seemed to turn broadly on the same point: an alleged reluctance on the part of Madame Wang to invest in the business, whether by putting cash back into the company after selling off assets or opening it up to investment from the outside.
Though she accepted a silent minority shareholder in Arpège, the company that owns Lanvin, in the form of German investor Ralph Bartel in 2009 (he now owns 25 percent and has a seat on the Lanvin board), and gave Mr. Elbaz some shares in her own Luxembourg-based holding company, Bluewater Investment (reportedly the indirect owner of Arpège, though the company declined to comment on the relationship), she maintained a tight hold on Lanvin. “Everyone tried to buy it,” Mr. Andretta said. “She simply refused. In her way, she is very passionate about the company.”
Charles-Henry Paradis, a member of the communications team and the representative of the employees on the Comité d’Entreprise and to the board, said: “She is a very proud woman. She would see selling as an admission of failure.”
But in order to grow, Ms. Gilhart said, “You have to feed the machine.” Valentino and Brunello Cucinelli, two companies Mr. Andretta characterized as of comparable size during his tenure, have continued their upward trajectory in part by bolstering their balance sheets, thanks to both the acquisition by the Qatari royal family and a public offering.
Mr. Andretta’s successor was Michèle Huiban, the former finance chief, who had been hired under Mr. Deneve and promoted by Madame Wang to deputy director general under Mr. Andretta. Unlike her predecessors, Ms. Huiban had almost no profile in the fashion community, but was “seen as an extension of Madame Wang,” a former executive said. Her appointment coincided with a difficult financial period for the brand. Revenue and net profit fell in 2013 and 2014, and according to an internal announcement, there was a loss of €2.5 million in net profits projected for 2015 — the first since 2007.
Lawyers for Lanvin disputed claims that this was an issue in court, saying that the company is on a solid financial footing, and pointing to the fact Madame Wang is trying to buy back the Lanvin name and distribution rights in Japan as proof.
In an internal memo shown to The New York Times, the financial difficulties were attributed to the general geopolitical situation, lack of creative energy and the absence of a meaningful accessory business.
Though Lanvin had notable success with items like the ribbon-trimmed sneaker (worn by Michelle Obama, among many others) and the ballet flat (worn by Angelina Jolie), as well as tulle-covered pearls and other costume jewelry, Lanvin remained a heavily ready-to-wear business. Mr. Paradis said that today the balance is 60 percent ready-to-wear, 40 percent accessories. Lanvin does not officially release such numbers, though another insider said the division could be as extreme as 80/20.
“It is true that I can’t recall a specific bag that broke through,” Ms. Smith acknowledged, “though I remember there were many good ones.”
In a letter written to both the management and employees, Mr. Elbaz said that it was lack of an articulated strategy and investment that was responsible for the stagnation, a view supported by many employees, Mr. Paradis said. And both Mr. Andretta and Ms. Gilhart say that every time they asked Mr. Elbaz to design an item for commercial needs — more jackets, say, or long dresses — once they had explained why the market needed the product, he was happy to comply.
Whichever side is right, it is not unusual in situations like this — falling sales, corporate change — for the designer or the chief executive to take the fall. In June, for example, after the fourth consecutive quarter of falling sales, J. Crew fired its head of women’s wear, Tom Mora. Last year, after an extended sales decline, the chief executive and creative director of Gucci were both fired. But, in part because of Mr. Elbaz’s talent and charisma, the industry as a whole was so invested in Lanvin’s happy ending, no one imagined it would happen to him.
Maybe he didn’t, either, as he began to voice his belief that the brand needed to accept further outside investment and articulate a concrete management strategy; Lanvin executives allege that he tried to sell his shares in Bluewater without telling Madame Wang, and then pressured her to sell her own holdings. Lanvin became, according to numerous employees, a tense building in which to work. Last year, 65 people — almost 20 percent of the work force — left. (The company’s lawyers characterized this as normal industry attrition.) Earlier this year, Hania Destelle, communications director for 21 years, who was known as being very close to Mr. Elbaz, was fired.
At the last show, Madame Wang and Mr. Elbaz did not exchange their customary kiss, despite the fact that many retailers thought it was the best show the designer had produced in seasons. Indeed, Selfridges began buying the brand again after dropping it in 2013, according to Judd Crane, the store’s director of women’s wear and accessories.
In October, the employees discovered that Mr. Elbaz had been fired when he called his assistant to ask her to pack up his office because he was not allowed back in the building. (His partner of over two decades, Alex Koo, is still director of merchandising; he also was not available for an interview.) At a large meeting later the same day, Ms. Huiban officially informed them of the decision to end Mr. Elbaz’s contract, while many present chanted his name. Things escalated from there.
The Comité d’Entreprise said they did not get satisfactory answers to the questions of why Mr. Elbaz had been fired and what the strategy was for the company’s future (and their emails to Madame Wang asking her to return to Paris to address the company in person were not answered), so they took their cause public, speaking on a French radio station about their concerns. Management said the employees were refusing meetings; the employees said the same thing. The works council posted a letter from Mr. Elbaz defending himself on a message board, to the displeasure of management, who viewed the council as partisans of Mr. Elbaz. The works council then asked for an independent audit. The next stop was the Tribunal.
The question is: What happens now? Ironically (or perhaps purposefully), celebrities have been wearing the brand on the red carpet at an almost unprecedented rate, with Cate Blanchett, Michelle Dockery, Ms. Streep and Adele all modeling Lanvin in public in the weeks since Mr. Elbaz’s ouster.
In an internal email seen by The New York Times, Lanvin management said it would not pursue the court case any further, and hoped to engage in more constructive dialogue with the employees. It is unclear what direct financial impact Mr. Elbaz’s ouster will have on the company, as the works council believes the company could owe him from €20 million to €40 million in severance, according to a statement from their lawyer in court, a figure denied by the Lanvin lawyers (Mr. Elbaz was not a full-time employee of Lanvin, but rather contracted to them as a “creative consultant” via his own company, AEK Designs, and his current contract was due to end next year). In terms of perception, “the company lost half its value when Alber left,” said Ralph Toledano.
Before he was fired Mr. Elbaz, had hired Chemena Kamali from Chloé as women’s design director; she arrived three days before he was ousted, and is currently in charge of creating the pre-collection with the studio team, to be shown in January. Lucio Finale has been brought in to focus on accessories. (Lucas Ossendrijver will continue to design the men’s wear collection.) Head hunters report feelers have been put out by employees on the corporate side looking for other job prospects. Last week, a long-term member of the studio, was suspended for being “uncooperative” and allegedly undermining the new studio director, charges he denied.
“What’s clear is whatever the brand is after Alber, it has to be something different,” said Mr. Andretta. Names that have surfaced as possibilities for the artistic director position include the buzzy British designer Simone Rocha and the Chinese designer Huishan Zhang.
As for Mr. Elbaz, though rumors flew when he left that he would go to Dior (which had lost its designer, Raf Simons, only a week before Mr. Elbaz was fired), that speculation has died down. Though he recently joined Instagram and has posted pictures of himself with Bono, who dedicated the song “Beautiful Day” to him during a November concert in Paris, Mr. Elbaz has kept a low profile, and is said to be pondering his options. After being fired from Saint Laurent, he spent a year in the wilderness, questioning his commitment to fashion, but this time he is said to be planning to return. He does not have a noncompete with Lanvin.
“Maybe he’d want his own house,” said Kim Hastreiter, co-founder and editor of Paper, who has known Mr. Elbaz since before he moved to Paris (and who played percussion along with the band Pink Martini at his Lanvin 10th anniversary party, where he serenaded guests with “Que Sera, Sera”). He remains a Lanvin board member. Though there was a directors’ meeting scheduled for this week, it has been postponed until after the holidays because Mr. Bartel could not attend.
Retailers are taking a wait-and-see approach. “I am scheduled to schedule an appointment to see the pre-collection,” said Ms. Goldman. “But I don’t need more brands. I need continuity, loyalty, consistency – not labels. I can’t keep bringing strangers into the beds of my consumers and expecting them to fall in love over and over again. It’s unreasonable.”