first collection, fine jewelry designer, Paris
interview by LOIC PRIGENT
photo by CÉCILE BORTOLETTI
style by YASMINE ESLAMI
LOIC PRIGENT — So, this new job?
ELIE TOP — I’ve lost weight. [Laughs]
LOIC PRIGENT — From the stress?
ELIE TOP — Yes. It’s a good stress.
LOIC PRIGENT — How does it manifest?
ELIE TOP — I sleep badly, but I’m not up all night. Before the launch, I was extremely stressed, and I realized it’s not easy to do your own show and to have your work shown under your name.
LOIC PRIGENT — How old are you?
ELIE TOP — Thirty-eight.
LOIC PRIGENT — But you’re hardly a rookie.
ELIE TOP — I’ve been working for 20 years, but I’ve always been protected by the people with whom I collaborated. At Lanvin, it’s Alber [Elbaz] who takes the risk.
LOIC PRIGENT — How many people are working on this project?
ELIE TOP — Myself and four others, and the outside ateliers.
LOIC PRIGENT — Do you draw?
ELIE TOP — Yes, with a set-square and a ruler, as they do in industrial design, but not on the computer. The atelier renders a drawing using a 3-D computer program after that. I draw the woman, her head — and the jewelry comes with her. Her hair is styled; she is dressed. I draw the volumes, and afterward the impulse comes, creating the attitude. I have a lot of large A3 notebooks crammed with these details.
LOIC PRIGENT — Your drawings are sophisticated.
ELIE TOP — I like drawing. It’s part of the pleasure. After that, it becomes more about engineering. I need to be aware of the parameters and the constraints of what I want to do. The exercise is then to continue to have fun within those constraints.
LOIC PRIGENT — You are alternating between the aesthetic and the technical?
ELIE TOP — Yes, there’s an interaction. Between the idea of stepping outside in terms of form and technical constraints, something self-evident happens. In my jewelry, all the elements in the settings are necessities that hold everything in place. [Elie draws flying saucers in patinated silver and demonstrates a puzzle of spheres and gold wire, held together by tiny solderings.]
LOIC PRIGENT — Is it very personal work?
ELIE TOP — Yes, of course. I try to extract something more personal, compared with everything I’ve done before. I needed to look for and find the most personal things that I did at Lanvin while working under Alber. It took time, months even.
LOIC PRIGENT — Did you choose the jewelry that was most representative of you as a creator?
ELIE TOP — No, not specific pieces, just a logical sequence. I had figured out that what defined me was the technological, mechanical, architecturized idea. Even my flowers and butterflies that were created at Lanvin — what interested me was mounting them. So my butterflies became airplanes! I am very mechanically inclined.
LOIC PRIGENT — You went back and sourced what have been your principal influences. It must’ve been interesting to do this at the age of 38.
ELIE TOP — Yes, I’m from northern France, toward Béthune. It’s a very industrial area. The landscapes I saw in my childhood were steel mills. I hadn’t thought about that before. As a child, I was obsessed with the French Belle Époque, Versailles, the churches and the châteaux — the Baroque. I would create very precise drawings of châteaux, a bit like technical drawings, and I still have that very meticulous side.
LOIC PRIGENT — What did your parents do?
ELIE TOP — My mother was a schoolteacher, and my father was a professor of geography and history. But then he became a computer programmer in a factory with blast furnaces, where my uncles and grandparents had worked.
LOIC PRIGENT — How did your debut in Paris happen?
ELIE TOP — I was studying at the school of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture. My friends were all at Sciences Po, so I was pretty embarrassed. When I felt like I was losing it intellectually in this fashion school, I learned how to make canvases and to do whipstitch, but my education in philosophy stopped at my senior year of high school. I got an internship at Saint Laurent at the age of 19. It was at the studio with Jean-Paul Knott; he needed someone on children’s licenses and bathing suits. [Laughs] The advantage there was that it gave me access to the studio — and they kept me on. I alternated for a year between licenses and the studio. Then Alber Elbaz arrived at Yves Saint Laurent to create the prêt-à-porter, and I joined his team. After he left, I went into Yves Saint Laurent couture. [Elie looks at the large portrait of Loulou de la Falaise in an incredible cape of embroidered gold. It’s the only photo on his desk.]
LOIC PRIGENT — Is that Loulou de la Falaise?
ELIE TOP — Loulou wanted someone who was young. I was fired by Saint Laurent Rive Gauche then rehired on the haute couture side by Loulou and Anne-Marie Muñoz. That lasted for two-and-a-half years before the last show.
LOIC PRIGENT — Did you make Yves Saint Laurent laugh?
ELIE TOP — I don’t think I made him laugh. I know he liked me, but he didn’t speak much. He would say funny things, and we would laugh a lot. But afterward, there was that personal isolation, very Durasian. It’s rare to meet someone who impresses you that much, a formidable charisma. The way he had of looking at you; he really stared sometimes.
LOIC PRIGENT — When did you make your first jewelry?
ELIE TOP — It was with Alber at Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, on that street that runs into the Avenue Marceau.
LOIC PRIGENT — Why did you become creatively involve in accessory design?
ELIE TOP — They had no idea what to do with me. And I don’t know if he had really chosen to work with me. But — well, there wasn’t anyone else to create the accessories! He had me doing research and designing, first the accessories, later the jewelry.
LOIC PRIGENT — What were your work hours?
ELIE TOP — I would get there around 9:30 AM and stay late.
LOIC PRIGENT — How late?
ELIE TOP — We never left before 8:00 PM, or even 11:00 PM. And because I drew well, they had me designing accessories for the sales books. I remember having to design lace purses! But we also had the privilege of seeing some fittings, if we were discreet and well behaved. We were not allowed to be impatient. It was already such an honor to be there.
LOIC PRIGENT — But this wasn’t your first work experience, right?
ELIE TOP — No. With Lucien [Pagès, the press person], I worked at Dior with Gianfranco Ferré, helping with fittings, doing last-minute embroidery before they’d step onstage at the shows, finishing things. And I did two months at Christian Lacroix in haute couture. I’ve seen things that have now disappeared. I’m like a dinosaur!
LOIC PRIGENT — A dinosaur at 38!
ELIE TOP — Exactly. I’d only been in places that no longer exist, with ways of working that have also disappeared. There were the haute couture fabrics, which were ready at the beginning of the season, open to all sorts of experimentation. It was much more sophisticated; you had the choice of 10 different black crêpes from different houses, with varying ways of flowing around the body. We had mountains of fabrics, all quite luxurious, bringing you that much closer to perfection.
LOIC PRIGENT — Your signed jewelry is in the French luxury tradition?
ELIE TOP — Yes, fine jewelry, for that niche of buyers who understand what we are offering them. Sold in our offices by appointment only, for single pieces and special commissions, and at Colette for the collection.
LOIC PRIGENT — I’ve watched you working, and you have an obsession with detail that is nearly psychopathic.
ELIE TOP — Psychopathic? Yes, you have to be if you’re doing your job right. I own it. It’s actually one of my strengths. Otherwise you don’t get results. And it’s healthy to worry. I see it with Alber Elbaz. In the end, you have to be sure of yourself, have a kind of assertiveness; without it, you don’t get what you want. That ever-present worry and dissatisfaction allow you to really see all the faults, all the details. I have an austere, rigorous side. I’m not a very fun person. No? I don’t know. I do like to have fun, sure. But I am academic, from the north, not very Mediterranean. In my jewelry, there is something mechanical that veers toward the dreamy. And what’s the point of opposing those two things?
LOIC PRIGENT — What period has influenced you the most?
ELIE TOP — Between the two world wars. I am not very ’50s, I’m not at all New Look. I prefer the liberated woman of the ’30s, the modern Chanel woman.
LOIC PRIGENT — Do you work on Sundays?
ELIE TOP — Sure, a lot. Not so much Saturday, which is a day off for me. I draw a lot at home on Sundays. I like to isolate myself. I listen to the radio.
LOIC PRIGENT — What are the two drawings on your desk?
ELIE TOP — Thank-you cards. One is for someone at The New York Times.
LOIC PRIGENT — What do you fear in your work?
ELIE TOP — The “design-to-cost” algorithm, marketing. They set a sale price, and then you have to design the product. But I don’t put up with it much, I’ve made choices, turned down jobs.
LOIC PRIGENT — How did you get the idea for the Help jewelry at Lanvin?
ELIE TOP — Alber wanted to do words, so we did Kiss, Help, Happy, Love, Up, Go, and Ciao. It was parodic, a mix of wanting to do it and things that annoyed us. Happy was about doing something a little stupid, fooling around. We didn’t analyze it; we just did it.
LOIC PRIGENT — Do you pull a lot of all-nighters when you have to deliver your creations very quickly?
ELIE TOP — Never all night. I always manage to sleep two or three hours. We used to get into absurd states — I was doing Lanvin bags first and then jewelry in a terrifying race against the clock three weeks before the show. It gives you an amazing energy, and it’s dangerous because you can get used to it. Things happen in two seconds. The stress and the urgency are just driving you. It all happens really fast, and it works. You’re not spending two weeks obsessing over one little detail. You do it all at the same time. It’s diabolical, and afterward it takes a long time to bounce back.
LOIC PRIGENT — So you don’t do overnights here?
ELIE TOP — Here, I let my ideas mature, and I procrastinated a lot — then it all came into place. Also it is an annual, not seasonal, calendar.
LOIC PRIGENT — Your ambition does not extend to making clothing?
ELIE TOP — No, not at all. It isn’t for me, and I am not at all frustrated about it. I am enjoying myself. Between what we are planning to do and what works best for us, life will sort it all out.
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