Back to Life

updated 04/05/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/05/2004 01:00AM

Talk about VIP service. In Paris to shoot the Sex and the City finale in January, Sarah Jessica Parker was scrambling for a dress when her pal Alber Elbaz—the women's-wear creative director for the Lanvin fashion house—came to the rescue. "I was running from one place to another, and I saw the Lanvin store, and the windows are so beautiful—I had to go in," says Parker, who was set to attend a fashion-crowd party the next day. Inside she chose a black taffeta frock that Elbaz custom-tailored with a bow and petticoat before rushing it to her hotel. Says the designer with a laugh: "I was the only messenger that could go to the Plaza Athénée and have a drink after!"

The man of the moment in the high-end fashion world, the eager-to-please Elbaz, 42, can raise a glass just about anywhere he wants. His romantic, impeccably tailored designs have drawn such A-list fans as Liv Tyler and Nicole Kidman, and his latest collection earned raves earlier this month in Paris. "He makes sophisticated clothes that women really want to wear—from Chloë Sevigny to the ladies who shop at Neiman Marcus," says Vogue style arbiter André Leon Talley. "Alber can make a dress that floats like a cloud."

Beyond that, the Israeli-reared designer is known as a low-key sort who sees his client, not himself, as the star. His newest collection, he says, "is about women I know and love, or want to know and dress."

Since joining Lanvin—a 115-year-old company that had long been in search of an identity—in '01, Elbaz has reinvigorated the label, tripling women's-wear sales and leading the company's $100 million annual sales toward twice that amount in the next few years. Not bad for a designer who bounced among four fashion houses in five years, including a high-profile firing from Yves Saint Laurent (his replacement: Tom Ford).

Elbaz himself (who, like the young Saint Laurent, wears thick-rimmed glasses) acknowledges that the firing was a major blow but remains philosophical about his ups and downs: "If it hadn't happened that way, I wouldn't be here now, doing what I'm doing."

Even if it's impossible to imagine him doing anything else: The youngest of four children born to a homemaker mom and a hairdresser dad who died when Elbaz was 13, the budding designer moved with his family from Morocco to Israel before his first birthday. As a youngster, "I would sketch, not just clothes, but women—like the Queen of England—dressed for the morning and the evening," he says.

After a mandatory stint in the Israeli army, Elbaz graduated from fashion school in Israel and headed for New York City, where he worked for designer Geoffrey Beene. His climb to the top was not without drama: On the rebound after the shake-up at YSL, he did a brief stint at the Italian house Krizia, where executives accused him of being too demanding. Reeling, he took a year off to travel and sketch, returning with renewed energy to the less-sprawling Lanvin, where he now creates everything from clothing to shop-window displays on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré himself. "Because we're smaller, we work in a different way," he says of the company, noting that its limited resources encourage inventiveness: "If you have only bread and butter, you have to be more creative to get a great dinner."

Elbaz (who is single) is himself a man of simple tastes. The workaholic designer, who recently renovated a two-bedroom apartment on Paris's Right Bank, has been trying to slim down but admits, "I love McDonald's! When you work 19 hours and you come home, you're not interested in steaming vegetables."

Michelle Tauber. Cathy Nolan and Courtney Rubin in Paris

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