"I said to Pierre Bergé one day. You know I like to cook. 'Yes,' he said. Well, what I think we have here is a bottle of very fine silky old wine, and what we need to go with it are some fresh tomatoes and olive oil. 'I don't understand what you mean,' Bergé questioned.
And so I told him - well, we have all of this beautiful tradition, but I think we need some fresh ingredients."
And that was Alber's secret for a series of delicious collections at Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche.
"I went to the archives for inspiration, got an idea and then worked with it until I had something completely new. But for me it was very difficult - with such an enormous tradition to draw from. Fashion has to come from inside you. It has to be something visceral that reflects the actual moment, not a recreation or copy of another design."
We were sitting at a corner table au bar at the Hôtel de Crillon, where crystal drips from the ceiling, and where wraparound mirrors by César catch reflections - on this Friday, of a graceful waiter in a white, peaked lapel jacket, and of another lunchtime guest, Carine Roitfeld, Editor-in-chief of French Vogue, and her clean, longhaired blonde escort. The Hôtel dates from the 18th century, but has been refinished with early 20th century décor, and is now home to the ultra modern and elegant cuisine of chef Jean-François Piège.
Before us appeared a medley of seafood - crimson lobster, golden sea bream, and gray Dover sole all floating in a sauce of vibrant saffron. As a mousse of fine champagne bubbled in my flute, Alber sipped vintage Coca-Cola served in a wineglass etched with a crown.
"And I must admit," he was saying. "The experience at Saint Laurent was painful, ending as it did. But I was not fired as I read in several articles - it was my choice to leave. And I have no ill feelings at all towards Tom Ford, and in fact, I hope he does well in his new career, whatever that's going to be."
In the course of nearly a two-hour lunch that passed as quickly as a 15 minute runway show, Alber had nothing but good to say about most everyone and everything. His genial personality and quintessential brilliance stands out like a beacon in the often not so nice world of high fashion. So, it is no wonder that his collections for Lanvin have been so well received by international editors, not to mention the Hollywood set.
"It was Geoffrey Beene who taught me technique - how to work with material. You normally don't think about fabric as being stubborn, but it can be. You can't work with tulle the same way you work tweed. Whether it's black or red makes a difference, too. The proportions are all different, and you have to get your hands on it and work it until it is right. You know, I work at the Lanvin atelier by looking in a mirror, because the silhouette is completely different from that angle, and if you are looking at it straight on, then the image becomes one-dimensional."
A demoiselle sitting beside us, sporting the tiniest of waistlines, had just been served a club sandwich accompanied by a mound of potato chips.
"And what I do at Lanvin is what I learned from Beene and Saint Laurent, both of whom made my dream come true. It's one thing to go back and look through archival photography and find a beautiful dress from the 50s or the 60s, the time when couture was flourishing. You can take that as inspiration, but you have to add something, just a little bit of uncertainty. Our lifestyles have all changed, and it's happened since the millennium. If the 90s were all about sex, and then at the end S & M (which isn't sex, it's domination), then now it's about being smart. A woman can take a cocktail dress, and then unfold it until it transforms into an evening gown. And it's about having contrast. You can't just have a sweet pink dress; you have to add something - something urban. Maybe it's a touch of gray that is slightly ugly and contrasting, but makes the total picture work."
Dessert had arrived, and Alber was dipping into a mousse of mango
swirled with crème chantilly and decorated with fresh raspberries.
"Couture," he said. "Well, first you have to define it. Nowadays it's become
more like an experimental laboratory. How many women have time to come for 3
fittings anymore? It's mostly for stars, and then they try to sell the perfumes,
and I don't even see that it is really influencing Ready-to-Wear lines anymore.
It's gone off somewhere else, which is not to say it is dying but evolving. It
used to be you had to work each piece individually to fit a unique body, say
somebody with a big bottom. That's why women came to have pieces made in the
first place - to fit their own measurements. Nowadays, everybody is on a diet,
the shapes are more uniform, and so what I like to do is make pieces with seams,
and then finish the details in couture technique, and then minor alterations
can be done in the boutique."
Double espresso was served in a demitasse alongside the tiniest squares of high-octane chocolate dusted in gold leaf.
"But the thing is to express your inner ideas. I'm going to London on Monday
to work with fashion students, and what I'm going to do is give them all a different
piece of material. All black, but different fabrics, and I'm going to have them
make something. Not from looking at a sketch, not from copying an image, but
from finding an idea deep inside. And they're not going to like it, because nobody
does that anymore. And I'm not going to like it, because I'm going to have to
communicate all this somehow. But in the end, it's that idea, the one that is
buried deep down that counts, because that is where your soul speaks out."
The bill came, Carine said her adieu, and all that
was left was a sparkling afternoon - chestnut trees along the Champs
Elysées bursting into April flower, and the kiss of springtime radiating
like a beam of glorious light.