People still have money. Some people, that is, have some money. And if they are female people they probably want to look sophisticated and attractive, but not flashy or aggressively sexy – although they may well have wanted to look that way a decade ago. “Hot” was what we called it then, if you recall. But now is not the time to be assertive about your cleavage or (what remains of) your wealth. It isn’t the moment for consuming conspicuously, and that is a terrible problem for Latex Catsuitsretailers. Yet as long as women believe it is their duty to be beautiful – which, we can safely assume, will be until the end of time – there will still be a fashion industry. And women will continue to spend four figures on a dress if they think it will make them look just right, right now. Alber Elbaz, the designer of the Paris fashion house Lanvin, often describes his work as “classic with a twist”. This is precisely what looks fashionable now an elegance that reassuringly summons the past but with some funkiness around the edges that acknowledges our weird present. At the Golden Globes this year, Maggie Gyllenhaal wore a version of one gown, a single-shouldered sheath with a great festive pouf at its peak. She looked lovely and refined – as women tend to in Lanvin – though the garment was made of bright-turquoise fabric with pink-and-black leopard spots. In the eight years that Elbaz has been designing for Lanvin, the oldest surviving French fashion house, he has transformed it from a dusty artefact into something influential and prominent. Tilda Swinton won an Oscar last year wearing a black velvet creation by Elbaz. (Elbaz went over the dress with a steamer, giving it what Swinton calls “that dappled, molten-oil look”. It “was so exactly what I wanted to wear. . . sincerely comfortable, modest, super-chic, profoundly modern.” She looked like an extremely elegant bat.) In 2007, Lanvin posted revenues of $ 148.9m, 60% higher than two years earlier, and Elbaz’s vision has started to trickle down to the mass market. There are many designers whose work can make women look thinner or prettier. Elbaz seems to have the power to make women appear more interesting. Several years ago, Barneys’ creative director, Simon Doonan, hosted an event for Elbaz in Los Angeles. Elbaz wanted twinkling chandeliers and a runway. Barneys obliged, but expended its budget and was reduced to using “local talent” for the models. Doonan assumed that Elbaz would be horrified. But when the show began, Doonan recalls, “not only do the local girls look beautiful and stylish, they actually look like fascinating people. Alber is an alchemist he turned them into Left Bank existentialists.” “The highest compliment a woman can receive is ‘My God, she looks smart!’ not ‘She’s sexy,'” Elbaz wrote in a foreword to Lanvin , a lavish coffee-table book. The ladies at Barneys seemed to concur. One afternoon last winter Elbaz was bounding around Barneys on Madison Avenue, where dozens of women had come for the chance to meet him and place orders for his spring collection. Outside the dressing room there was frenzy. People were not quite ripping the samples out of one another’s hands, but it felt as if they were on the verge. “Every Lanvin trunk show we do is like a scene from The Day of the Locust ,” Doonan said. “Alber’s clothes are like crack for women.” Looking over the menu one morning at the Carlyle Hotel in New York, Elbaz said “Should we be good today or bad? Maybe Lycra Leggingswe start good and get bad later.” He ordered the fruit salad. He wanted the pancakes. Elbaz thinks it’s a very big deal that he is overweight. Asked what he imagines life would be like if he were thin, he replied “Amazing,” with real conviction. But he isn’t very big, just round, with the kind of face you want to squish in your hands. His jowls are soft, his eyes are blue and framed by long lashes and large, rectangular glasses, and his sartorial choices – too-short trousers, cap-toed shoes with no socks, and always a bow tie fashioned from silk or velvet or a length of grosgrain ribbon – give him the appearance of a dreamy, somewhat forlorn French schoolboy. (He is, in fact, 47.) Elbaz worries constantly and openly, and there seems to be something fundamental about him in need of comforting.