Words Elisabeta Tudor Photos Grace Jones with Alaïa, 1987 (AFP)
This article first appeared in Issue 14 of ARISE magazine
The Paris headquarters of Azzedine Alaïa is as discreet as the designer himself. The three storey 19th-century building on Rue de Moussy, in the middle of the lively Marais district, has a sleek front door, which leads to the boutique. The studio is on the first floor and the designer’s glass-roofed private apartment is on the top. At precisely 1pm each day a handful of friends, artists, celebrities and employees of the house join Alaïa at his kitchen table. His intimate lunches are famous in the fashion industry; recent guests include Iman and Kanye West. “I like it when it’s crowded,” says Alaïa. “We’re always in the studio – me, my team, my friends, people I don’t know yet, but who come to introduce themselves. This is how we do things.” Today he has invited ARISE to sit down with him to enjoy a spread of chicken and green beans. A St Bernard dog sleeps quietly at his feet. “You have to live surrounded by the things and people you love, in this way you keep your memories alive and can forge yourself a strong identity.”
It’s impressive how much devotion Alaïa inspires, both at his table and beyond. “We do whatever we can to change our dates or cancel other shows [to work for Alaïa], because we all love Azzedine,” Linda Evangelista said in the late 80s. The Tunisian-born womenswear designer is so much the supermodels’ favourite that Veronica Webb and Naomi Campbell jokingly used to adopt his surname, pretending to be his daughters. But he’s never once courted fame.
Fiercely independent, Alaïa shows his collection at his own pace, shunning the seasonal fashion week schedules. He doesn’t advertise and rarely gives interviews. Instead, he lets his work speak for itself, collecting a serious list of fans along the way. Customers become friends, and friends become family.
No other couturier could afford to decline regular invitations to show at Paris Haute Couture, only to make a comeback after eight years – as he did in July for autumn/winter 2011 – and win back his pedestal. He stayed true to the style for which fashion connoisseurs love him: shapely forms made from the finest materials, beautifully sculpted to a woman’s body. He offered a fresh take on his masterful skills in cutting and draping by playing with textures such as crocodile skin, Mongolian fur, felted wool and latticework, and introduced a new bell shape. His understanding of the female form was ever-present in the cinched waist of the coat-dresses, tops and jackets, which were paired with pencil and flared skirts in deep shades of teal, red, blue, and plum. ARISE was among the select few invited to the show, alongside Francesco Vezzoli, Sofia Coppola and Donatella Versace. It took a ten-minute standing ovation, streams of tears from some of those present, and the French culture minister, Frédéric Mitterrand, to drag Alaïa onto the runway to take a bow.
Is he anti fashion? “I do not think we can say that I am anti fashion industry – my world is rather in parallel. Ready-to-wear has become accustomed to an inhuman pace. There are too many collections. Nobody, not even the designers, can keep up anymore,” he muses. He showed part of his spring/summer 2012 collection in October 2011, unveiling the second part in January.
Jean-Paul Goude snapped Béatrice Dalle for Azzedine Alaïa in 1998
His artistic independence is hard-fought in a time when financial groups are running the fashion houses in the name of profitability. In 2007 Alaïa bought back the share of his company he sold to Prada in 2000 (the label is still in partnership with Prada Group for the production of footwear and accessories). Now he is signed with Richemont, the Swiss group of luxury companies. “I’m not against the idea of accessible fashion. I appreciate companies like H&M because you have to be aware of the current world,” he says.
“But this doesn’t mean we should neglect authenticity. I supervise my own collections because I want the job to be done right. I like to look at each piece, even if it takes a long time. We are a small team of 20 in the studio, I do not spread my creations all over. If a designer delegates too many responsibilities he loses his soul.” These sentiments have kept him working with the same factory in Italy for the last 30 years. “I like to stay safe, to believe in my traditional values. Also I need to see the materials and manufacturers I’m working with. I could not hand this job over to another person.”
Born in Tunisia in 1940, Alaïa arrived in Paris in 1957, having graduated from the Tunis Institute of Fine Arts, where he studied sculpture – and learned to sew by working for a dressmaker during his holidays. He made friends with well-known personalities of the time such as Marie-Hélène de Rothschild and the writers Louise de Vilmorin and André Malraux, who invited him to dinner parties. At one of these dinners he met the Countess of Blégiers and started designing dresses for her. As he made inroads into Parisian high society his clientèle grew and he started to dress the Rothschilds. After five years with Comtesse de Blégiers he worked for Guy Laroche for two years, in order to learn tailoring, and then with Thierry Mugler in his atelier.
Love and hate in a post-war climate
It may sound effortless but the Tunisian fashion designer’s early years in fashion were anything but. “At that time, it was difficult to get a place to live in Paris if you came from north Africa. Being in France at the end of the Algerian War was very hard. Eventually I got a job at Christian Dior but after five days they told me ‘You cannot work here any longer. You’re a foreigner.’ I owe everything to the women around me, who were the only ones to protect me.”
Is this the reason Alaïa loves turning women into ever-lasting beauties through his work? Does his designer-DNA, which earned him the nicknames “the man who made wearable sexy” and “the king of cling”, come from the love these women brought him? Probably. What’s certain is that Alaïa sculpts women’s clothing with a power and sensuality that has allowed him to develop a loyal female following over the past three decades. “It is with women that you learn fashion. I only talk to men when I can’t avoid it anymore,” he jokes. One of his first well-known pieces was a zip-up dress he created in the 1970s for the French actress Arletty. “She represents for me the ideal of the Parisian woman. Open-minded and aware of everything, she had a provocative side and a big mouth that said the things one never forgets. She was from Courbevoie, in the Parisian suburbs – she actually ennobled the suburbs, she is better than the Queen of England,” he says, laughing.
Alaïa has constantly been inspired by strong characters. Countless women of power have acted as the brand’s unofficial ambassadors. In the 1970s actresses such as Claudette Colbert and Greta Garbo came incognito to his first tiny studio on Rue de Bellechasse to purchase a dress personally adjusted by the designer. “My atelier was small, there were sewing machines everywhere, even in the bathroom,” Alaïa reminisces. In the 1980s it was the top models who knocked on the door, not only for fittings but also to get a hand on their favourite prototypes. Stephanie Seymour-Brant, who affectionately calls Alaïa “Daddy”, Grace Jones and Naomi Campbell, who used to live in his studio, were an important part of life at the atelier. “It was like a secret club. Only the lucky few had Alaïa in their closets,” recalled Seymour-Brant.
One of these was a buyer for Bergdorf Goodman, who helped Alaïa stage his first major show in New York in 1982. This event helped to spark a succession of glorious years. In 1983 Alaïa opened a boutique in Beverly Hills and Neiman Marcus stocked his collections, as did Browns and Joseph in London. Madonna, Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn all became enthralled by the designer’s perfectly moulded dresses. In 1985 Alaïa was honoured with two Oscars de la Mode by the French Ministry of Culture. Four years later he was commissioned to create the famous tricolour draped dress worn by opera singer Jessye Norman at the French Revolution Bicentennial Parade.
Breaking fashion barriers
Today Alaïa fits first ladies Michelle Obama and Carla Bruni, who proudly wear the designer’s pieces in public. How does it feel
to have the most influential women in the world at his fingertips? “It’s great to meet such personalities. But to be honest I don’t really care if my dresses are worn by Michelle and Carla or by a normal woman. Every customer is valuable, there is no hierarchy.”
After lunch he and his team go about choosing archived pieces for an ongoing exhibition at Groninger Museum in the Netherlands, which focuses on his work over the past decade. It includes ready-to-wear and couture, for the most part readjusted by the designer himself. “I keep my pieces, and fashion in general, to protect their history and identity. We work on a choice of 90 silhouettes, according to the theme of the exhibition space, such as black wool or animal skins.”
We’re also given a preview of the second part of Alaïa’s ready-to-wear spring/summer 2012 collection. Double-layered cotton, viscose, raffia, crinoline and embossed knits featuring laser perforation and subtle embroideries form cocktail dresses in shades of celadon green, eggshell yellow, nude pink and white. These are timeless pieces that refuse to bend to trends. What is their creator’s secret? “I wake up every morning curious about what I will learn, and never regret anything at all.”