Conversation with Olivier Saillard

image from the film Alaïa by joe MCKenna

AZZEDINE ALAÏA
conversation with Olivier Saillard

 I first met Azzedine Alaïa in 1995. I was 27 years old and had just been appointed curator of the new Museum of Fashion in Marseille. Maryline Vigouroux was president of the Espace Mode Méditerranée, a huge ship moored at the end of the Canebière, which brought together, exhibition spaces, a resource center, and a support center for young designers and businesses. Bernard Blistène, with the authority of his immense knowledge, oversaw all 14 of the museums of the city, a city in the throes of a complete cultural renaissance. Together they had chosen me to take care of the fledgling fashion museum. Robert Vigouroux had succeeded Gaston Defferre as mayor, and was developing and promoting the city by taking a strong cultural direction with a prolific increase in new museums openings, inaugurations of new exhibitions, and events that are still today at the forefrontof the memory of the city and its inhabitants.

Some years before coming to Marseille, I remember being completely stunned and spellbound by a full-page photograph of Maryline Vigouroux. In the magazine Jardin des Modes, she described, point by point, her innovative project. Dressed in a long flowing dress by Azzedine Alaïa, her hair was slicked back and her bare feet jumped out at me from the image. Maryline embodied a completely new and different face of governance: young, dynamic and breaking away from the old, just like the sun-drenched city. I remember it leaving a very strong impression on me, almost like a prophecy that convinced me then and there that I should go and work for her if life’s chances ever brought about the opportunity. A few months later chance arrived, taking the form of Bernard Blistène, with whom I had such a happy meeting. Afterwards, I chided myself for my rogue cheerfulness, with my outfit composed of a kilt over jeans, and my youth, that should have made me anything but confident that I had the job. But as luck would have it, Bernard was able to discern the passion that inspired me and the voracity I had to exist and take part in the projects that we would all carry out together.

The interview that followed, with Maryline Vigouroux, took on a more official tone. Everything that I had read about her, her face with features straight out of a photograph from the 1930s struck me and I was forced to timidity. Above all, this person, who was so young, self-willed and tenacious, who some called the mayor’s wife, who was envied by many, and who fought for her place at the table beside her husband at the helm of a powerful city, fascinated me. Her wardrobe provided the spark for us to hit it off when I discovered that it was constituted entirely of stand-out pieces by Azzedine Alaïa, many of which have since been donated to the museum that she launched. She was so taken by the designer that she dressed in his clothes every day. She also saw him as a guide and a mentor who, from early on, had accompanied and supported her in her ambitious projects.

All the way across France, in this crescent moon that gives cartography to Marseille, they had both simultaneously dreamed of a temple of fashion where the constitution of a patrimony, both historical and contemporary, would come to rival the Parisian institutions. Alaïa was named Honorary President of the Espace Mode Méditerranée and carefully guided the acquisitions of historical works that remain today absolute references in the catalogue of inventory. Driven by his enormous passion, Azzedine came to fight for the museum at the auction rooms, taking long coats by Schiaparelli, dresses by Balenciaga or Fortuny, and a great many other garments that now belong to history. Thanks to him, to his intransigency as much as his impulses, the collections of Marseille were able to compete with those of the great museums of the world. Under his benevolent patronage, donations poured in from all around to this young museum, so well surrounded. Azzedine’s presence guaranteed earnestness and commitment.

Just after being appointed to the position, I was introduced to him. It was a Sunday afternoon. It was very hot and through the open windows, a pigeon had flown into the studio. Carefully, methodically, and with affection, Alaïa took the bird softly in his hands to release it back outside. Fearful yet docile, the pigeon bat its wings in front of us. Though we had not yet spoken a word to one another, I thought to myself that this scene and its poetic force, the first that I was to witness at Azzedine’s side, could lead only to a relationship of understanding and friendship. It was instantly the case, even if he did have some playful mischief in store for me later down the line.

He described to me in profound detail, one by one, the dresses of Madeleine Vionnet. An exhibition at the Chapelle de la Vieille Charité in Marseille, some years earlier, had enthralled him. Hanging in the chancel, the draped crepe and mousseline dresses, in whose modern recognition he had actively participated, floated. In other annex rooms, the handkerchief dresses rested on glass mannequins. These graceful torsos which were the work of CIRVA, an organization at the time directed with the strength and conviction of Françoise Guichon, probably planted the seed for Azzedine to create the mannequin sculptures that have become one of his signatures. As a couturier of life, he gave them movement and the memory of the preempted bodies that today confer, onto his creations, their unique and almost primitive character. Inexhaustible when it came to fashion history, he knew not only all about the style of the masters of cut – great or small – but even more so about their technique. Azzedine was without doubt the greatest curator of us all, the most erudite, the most knowledgeable. Still today, I challenge any conservator, curator or commissioner to tell the history of fashion through the analysis of technique in the way that only a couturier as great as Azzedine could do. Free from the books and the biographies that are often erroneous, bound to the garment and the academy of the body over which he presides, Alaïa taught me to look at and to evaluate an evening dress, from the inside, no matter the name on the label or the decade in which it was made. Our exchanges, which occurred over more than twenty years, took on the greatest dimensions when we shared our opinions on an archive piece, or when we would both be bidding for it (on the majority of occasions, he would be the one to take home the coveted piece). The sounds of the corridors of the Maisons and the ateliers of the past, the secrets of the clients, the craft of the couturiers stitching through the night, the hours twisting into a single endless thread of time. As a virulent critic of the system of fashion whose excesses and aberrations he already prophesized against, as well as being a relentless defender of the status of the designer/creator and their rights, Azzedine was as much a rogue as he was determined.

Years later, when I became director of the Palais Galliera, there was no doubt in my mind that I should invite him to inaugurate the museum with a retrospective exhibition dedicated to his work. I do not remember him ever formally accepting. But over dinners, moments shared having a drink together, shared impulses, passions, and battles sometimes fought in vain – notably one occasion which saw us try to convince the heads of two federations that change was necessary and that ended in a joyous drunken evening with no thought of tomorrow – were as much of an unspoken agreement! The City of Paris, its mayor Anne Hidalgo, and the director of public establishments that reunites the municipal museums, Delphine Lévy, lent their support to the project from the get-go. Opening the new Palais Galliera, which had been closed for several years for renovations, with the first retrospective in France dedicated to Azzedine Alaïa carried a very strong message. Independent, autonomous, and exigent, Azzedine embodied the figure of the couturier demiurge and intransigent – he had made Paris shine resplendently. We were very proud to invite him. Upon the uncontested talent of Azzedine and the rigor of the exhibition, Fabrice Hergott , the director of the Museum of Modern Art in Paris accepted that we install a number of dresses in the majestic Matisse Room. In this way the visitor could cross the Avenue President Wilson that separates the Palais Galliera from the Museum of Modern Art and come to understand the community of spirit that the work of Azzedine expresses in all places and circumstances. In front of the murals by Matisse, the designs from Azzedine’s early years, dresses like cutout paper, responded tactfully. Already honored by the invitation from the fashion museum, I believe Azzedine was even more touched by the Matisse Room being opened to him. At Galliera, in a meticulous, essential, and timeless scenography created by Martin Szekely, decades of Azzedine’s creations were displayed in order to see and understand a lesson in fashion at a level that can only be attained by the true greats. Timeless were the evening dresses, unclassifiable were the coats and the jackets from all of the eras of his work. In this museum that the Duchess Galliera had originally intended to house sculpture, the designs of Alaïa, strangely, with acuity and exactitude, imposed themselves with a force like the marbles and plaster of a collection.

Over the weeks and months of the exhibition dedicated to him and celebrating his work, Azzedine came by the museum almost every day. Tirelessly, for famous and important figures, for dear friends or anonymous admirers, he led the visit through his creations, every one of them as fresh, new and modern as the day they were made. From the stories he had told us, from many interviews, we ensured that each piece was accompanied by an in-depth text, which came to render the origin of a shape, to insist upon the technique involved in a sleeve, and to put into perspective these pieces of chiffon assembled over a lifetime. These written portraits of dresses, silent yet loquacious, recount the unique path of the last true couturier of the century.

When Azzedine, facetiously, left us at the summit of his glory and his talent, only four years after his retrospective in Paris and the one that followed, grandiose, at Villa Borghese, these sumptuous dresses, like a many hollow portrait of the man himself, set about choreographing the day to day, suddenly so different. Some months earlier, I had spoken to him about the fact that I wanted to leave the Galliera museum. Of course, he didn’t want me to leave. During the summer, over a drink, we laughed together about it and I made a point of reassuring him of my continued commitment to the heritage of fashion, albeit in different ways and roles. It was also around that time that at the request of the Minister of Culture, Audrey Azoulay, I was working to compile a vast catalogue of the fashion collections existing in France, both public and private. This ambitious project brought together all of the fashion houses, almost without exception, departments of various archives and museums, small and large, and private collections that included a clothing and textile patrimony. It goes without saying that the collection of Azzedine Alaïa required a very important appreciation, and I think that I can safely say, even more so today than at the time of the study for the catalogue, it appears without contest to be the largest private collection of fashion memoires in the world, not only in quantity, but equally in the quality of the rare and exceptional works it includes.

His sudden and untimely death called upon me to once again watch over these archives, garments, and costumes that we knew he had accumulated by the masses. Beyond his own creations, expertly conserved after every runway show, over many decades, Azzedine Alaïa had acquired an inestimable patrimony of fashion that features the greatest names in history. The Foundation that now bears hisname was a very dearwish for him, and its collections are equivalent to those of the greatest fashion museums in the world. Patiently, never showing them, with pugnacity and even sometimes irrationality that went beyond passion, Alaïa has saved a unique heritage from oblivion. The duty that now befalls us is a moral one, as his friend, and a public one because of the immensity of his work, to preserve, to show and to share this history of fashion that only a couturier of his rank could bring together and offer to the world. It is hoped that future generations may now come here to find refuge and forever pass on the strength and the exigency of Alaïa.

Olivier Saillard

The interview which follows took place and was published on the occasion of the retrospective “Alaïa” at the Palais Galliera, the exhibition ran from September 28th 2013 to January 26th 2014.

Olivier Saillard – In 1979, Michel Cressole, the famed journalist of the newspaper Libération, wrote about you:
“He is the most discreet of the great couturiers, because he is the last, perhaps. Fashion professionals know him well, having many times proposed in vain that he come work for them. To have his name immortalized on a ready-to-wear label does not interest him. With his four seamstresses, he creates unique dresses, all made entirely by hand1”. These few lines are an extract from one of the first articles that the newspaper published about you and that the journalist entitled “The Search for the Lost Pleasure of Fashion”. Reading it again today, we are struck by the unaltered and unwavering character of your stance on matters. Just as your earliest dresses could be re-edited today, this article could just as well have been written yesterday. How do you see the couturier Alaïa, whose name was sometimes marred by misspelling, the “î” replaced by a “y”, who was described as “the tailor in his bedroom”?

Azzedine Alaïa – Some say that I get mixed up when it comes to dates and chronology. To them I reply that I am as old as the Pharaohs! I think I can safely say that my clothes are undatable; they are made to stand the test of time. Since arriving in Paris in the 1950s, I believe that I have never responded to any other demands or imperatives than those of the women who surrounded me and continue to surround me still. I can start on a dress or a jacket one year and feel that it is finally finished ten years later. By opposing the superficial rhythm of seasons and runway shows, I have been one of the only people to dare to break with the constraining calendar that disregards creativity for the benefit of higher output. I got into fashion for the garment, and to serve the bodies of the private clients with whom I had a real contact, not because I coveted celebrity or recognition by the media. To others who say, “Alaïa, you don’t do runway shows anymore”, I reply that we are on the runway every day, whether the audience consists of only one client or a room full of buyers. I have made my place of work a place to live. I travel seated on my stool, through the exchanges I have with friends new and old around my kitchen table. Work takes up almost all of my time.

O.S. – You are the artisan of your self and you belong to the genealogy of couturiers, from Madeleine Vionnet to Cristóbal Balenciaga, or today, Rei Kawakubo, for whom work comes before the Romanesque narrative of life. Your concentration and the rare mastery that you possess in all of the stages of conception and realization of a garment have often deviated you from interviews and introspection. Seeing the reflection in the mirror, and the challenge or the compliance it presents does not seem to be a part of your day, whereas one day, you made the decision to never again wear anything other than the Chinese suit, in all circumstances. That said, could you talk a little about your time growing up in Tunisia?

A.A. – I was raised in Tunis by my grandparents on my mother’s side. My father and my mother had decided to live in Siliana, they had to remain there because of the agricultural work. My brother, my sister and I were entrusted to the care of my grandparents of whom we have the fondest memories. I must admit that we were not very enthusiastic when the time came to leave, certain summers, to visit our parents. I far preferred life in Tunis. Every Friday, the day off from work, Ali, my Berber grandfather, used to play cards. Not wanting to sacrifice this weekly pleasure, he would drop me off at the nearby cinema, Ciné Soir, where I would watch one showing after another of the same movie. On the first showing, I would concentrate on the story and the scenario; on the second showing, I would observe in more detail the décor or the costumes; on the third showing, I would focus on the way the actors played their roles. The next day or the day after, I would retell the movie to my classmates in exchange for colored crayons. When they would ask insistently that I sing or dance replicating the scenes I had watched at the cinema, I would up the price to two crayons! My grandfather was one of the few police officers of Tunis. On Saturdays, he also used to take me with him to his office, where he worked for the department of identity cards and photographs. There, sitting beside Madame Angel, I would watch as she invariably cut out the three photographs, which were very thick at the time. With a cutter, she had to remove a layer from each of them, then apply them to various dossiers. Madame Angel would stamp the first photograph – I remember being fascinated by the waffle effect that the black and white document would produce!
The second, she would carefully attach to the dossier being processed. The third photograph was provided in case the first happened to be torn or damaged by a fatal slip of the cutter. If all went well with the first photograph, the third photograph was discarded in the rubbish bin, but I would retrieve all the photographs that would end up there. After a while, I had managed to collect the faces of a large portion of the population of Tunis. I never got bored of sorting them and placing them by category into shoeboxes: brown skin, black skin, with moustaches, with beards, long hair, short hair and when I happened on a photograph of a blonde, well! My favorites were the Sicilians in their communion dresses… Those identity photographs came to be in a way my first collection, when I was barely ten years old.

O.S. – You recognize, more than anyone does, that it is from women that you learnt the greatest lessons. You have succeeded in nurturing with them a proximity that has never lessened. In magnifying them, you have never placed them in a pantheon of fantasies, as is the case of some other couturiers who force the client to conform to a drawing that dictates. You have, without ambiguity, deified their wardrobe as well as their forms whilst never breaking with the closeness of a relationship that encourages women and reassures them. What place did women occupy during those years spent in Tunis?

A.A. – Since my grandmother, Manou Bia, I have gone from one woman to another. She was very free-spirited; her front door did not have a lock. In the evening, we would close it with a piece of tenting that we had found there. Until I was sixteen, my grandmother gave me her arm. What I mean by that is I slept on her arm rather than on a pillow. Madame Pineau is the midwife that brought me into the world. She was highly respected. Originally from Trouville, Madame Pineau lived in the most popular, working-class neighborhood of Tunis, but she felt as at ease there as she would have in a quiet neighborhood, having helped with the birth of the majority of its inhabitants. Madame Pineau was like a second mother to me. I would go to her house often, I would assist her at the births, helping to heat the water, she would entrust me with the babies who had been born only moments ago! I was barely ten years old and I already knew about everything. “I lived a life without interdictions”2. At her house I devoured the catalogues, the medical journals with the copies of works of art and the few fashion magazines she had. I remember admiring in them the designs by Dior and Balenciaga. “I wondered how these dresses held their shape”3. Because she sensed that I had some natural artistic talent, Madame Pineau lied to the director of the Tunis school of fine art, swearing that I was indeed sixteen years old. She encouraged me to enter my candidature for the entrance selection, without my father’s knowledge. “Of all the students applying, only four of us were Arabic” 4. In order to pay for my art supplies, I would spend my nights stitching dresses for a local seamstress. I learned how to do the various stitches by doing my sister Hafida’s sewing exercises, she didn’t enjoy manual work. On the squares of linen toile handed out by the nuns of Notre-Dame de Sion where she received her schooling, I applied myself to stitch according to the instructions that they were being taught. In Tunis, it was very unusual for a boy to be sewing. Two of the daughters of an important Tunisian family who lived across the street from the seamstresses shop where I worked at night were intrigued by my comings and goings and asked to see me. They had spoken about me to their friends and acquaintances, and had recommended me to Madame Richard, one of the two seamstresses working for the wealthy and important bourgeois ladies of the town.

O.S. – Upon your arrival in Paris, it seems that it was once again women who shaped your path. While others decided to venture into the couture houses by way of apprenticeships in the ateliers or design studios, you became the tailor in your bedroom that couture clients, famous or anonymous, desired the most. Simone Zehrfuss, the countess de Blégiers, Louise de Vilmorin or Arletty, to name but a few, were the great patrons of a fledgling business that you envisaged to go against the grain of the existing models. How did they arrive in your life and in what ways did they guide your new itinerary?

A.A.– Leïla Menchari had become a very dear friend. Her mother, a very emancipated woman, had been one of the first Tunisian women to stop wearing the headscarf. She is the one who enabled me to leave for Paris by recommending me to a rich client, who was Tunisian but dressed in Dior, who helped me to gain entry to the famous Maison. They offered me the choice between working in the studio or in the atelier. I chose the atelier of course. Unfortunately, circumstances meant that I had to leave after only five days there.5 Leïla Menchari managed to get me a maid’s room in Rue Lord-Byron where she herself also lived. I had brought with me from Tunis a letter of introduction to meet Simone Zehrfuss, the architect’s wife. She was taken with affection and friendship toward me and introduced me to a number of famous people of the time, including Louise de Vilmorin. The first time we met, afraid of mispronouncing my name, she asked me to write it down for her on a piece of paper that she slid into her purse with a knowing look, adding: “The deal’s in the bag!”. Every weekend I was invited to Verrières-le-Buisson (Essonne), to her house, where I would accompany her in her activities. She often complimented me: “You are my mirror” or even “I like the way you speak, figuratively, saying things that are almost like drawings”. At that time, I was very shy. Just being in Paris by myself was enough for me. In being around her, I came to understand how Parisian chic is in fact a question of a person’s way of thinking. One evening, Louise de Vilmorin had to go to a dinner party and asked me to come over and help her refine her look for the event. At the home of a concierge she knew, she remembered having remarked a cardigan from the mass-market store, something like Prisunic. We went out and bought one. We replaced the buttons by something more impactful in metal and we added around Louise’s neck a trinket long necklace that she twisted around before sliding it into the pocket of the cardigan. It was a few seconds long demonstration of an extreme chic that many envied her that evening. Simone Zehrfuss also introduced me to Elsa Schiaparelli. After that, I lived for a little over a year by the Parc Monceau, with the Marquise de Mazan, an Italian for whom I did couture work. I dressed her. At her house, I met the Countess de Blégiers, with whom I lived for five years. I dressed her and took care of her children. By the intermediary of a client in Tunis, I went to work for two years at Guy Laroche.

O.S.- Amongst all the women who ran to be dressed by the skilled hands of the couturier Alaïa, Arletty occupied a special place. She is simultaneously a muse and a friend, a client and a source of inspiration. A number of your collections, including that of 1988, pay homage to her, and some dresses and coats are the same as those of the actress that you always talk about. How did your meeting with her come about?

A.A. – She was in a play by Félicien Marceau that was on at the Théâtre de la Renaissance, L’Etouffe-Chrétien. A friend of mine, who did her hair, Frédéric Somigli, introduced us to one another in her dressing room. Straight away, she said about me, in her inimitable cheeky sense of humor, “He is short, but he sure is unforgettable.” Very shortly after, she asked me to make her a pink suit inspired by the eighteenth century because, according to her, pink made your complexion look well, and “dresses could act as face powders”.6 She is the one that gave me the idea to make fitted bodysuits. She used to make slight changes to the volume of her skirt with a pin. “It falls too properly, she would say, it has to fool around a little.” With Arletty, I learnt even more of the tricks of Parisian chic that nobody teaches you. She was a very strong influence. My dress with the zip that turns all around the body was born from the one she wore in Hôtel du Nord.7 The dresses shaped like troubadours tunics and the long gowns that she wears in Les Visiteurs du soir 8 inspired a number of the outfits in my Autumn-Winter 1988-1989 collection. The butterflies of the Autumn-Winter 1991-1992 collection are an homage to Arletty and the bodysuit that she wears in the film Tempête.9 Her witty words, her effrontery and her insolence dictated some of my principals. She would often say that she was “virgin of all decoration”.10 That made me decide to remove jewelry and accessories from my collections to place the naked garment at the forefront. She was so simple, so full of popular and majestic grandeur. Arletty embodies the Parisienne.

O.S. – If one were to draw a pictogram of Alaïa’s fashion, for many it would be a silhouette cut on the negative over a skater skirt or one fitted on the hips. But that would show a lack of awareness of other recurrent traits in your work of cut. Amongst them, it is important to remember your association of wide leg pants with strong-shouldered jackets that, from collection to collection since 1979, recall the memory of Greta Garbo, who you also dressed. Can you tell us about that meeting, the influence of which we can still read in your style?

A.A. – In 1964, thanks to the support of clients who were also friends, we moved into an apartment/atelier located on the Rue de Bellechasse. We used to paint in Chinese ink, the makeshift labels that we would sew into the clothes, and some of the motifs on the fabrics. One day, someone came and told us that Greta Garbo was here, in the entrance. At first I thought they were pranking me, as I loved to play pranks… She had come in with a friend, Cécile de Rothschild, and wanted me to make an oversized coat. I remember a few of the fittings and measurement appointments. I hardly dare look her in the eye but, when her eyes met mine, I felt like I was melting with happiness. The coat was never voluminous enough for her, she always wanted it bigger. Though the fashion at the time, in the 1970s, was very tight-fitting and close to the body, I had to make her an immense oversized coat, in navy blue, with turn ups at the sleeves. To be able to create the volume she required, I did fittings on a male silhouette! In the 1980s and 1990s, I often showed oversized coats that were almost certainly allusions to Garbo, to her inimitable and avant-garde style.11 The double-breasted jacket and trouser suits, frequent in my collections at the time, are also souvenirs of “the Divine”. Attempting to construct a volume that is right is a technique just as difficult and complex as any other. It requires very good arithmetic. Today, the redingotes are more fitted, the trousers are more straight leg, but these clergy boy allures are still very close to the masculine-inspired wardrobe that Garbo wore so gracefully.

O.S. – You lived on Rue de Bellechasse from 1964 to 1984, in an apartment/atelier that will remain in the fashion history books. In those 140 square meters, you showed your first ready-to-wear collections under your name. At your side, a deputy head of atelier and a sales person from Balenciaga faithfully accompanied you in your mission. When other designers started to venture into large production theatrical runway shows, you decided against all expectations to remain at home and continue showing there. Models in the precisely cut clothes walked through the kitchen then the salons. It spiked everyone’s curiosity. It is also said that it was Thierry Mugler who encouraged you to start showing your own collections, in 1979…

A.A.– Yes, it is true that, in the 1970s, besides the made-to-measure clothes that I was designing for a private clientele or sometimes, for the cinema 12, other professionals from the fashion world were calling me. I had acquired a good reputation, and at their request, I did design some clothes for them. I met Thierry Mugler through Lilou Grumbach and we became very good friends. He did indeed greatly encourage me to design a collection and to show it in 1979. I also made fur coats that I wanted to look like flowers for Robert Sack and for Panthère Club, and I dressed the dancers of the Crazy Horse cabaret. That same year, all the journalists were scrambling to get their hands on my musketeer-shaped gloves entirely encrusted with metal eyelets, all applied by hand.13 A black coat also perforated and studded with metal eyelets received a great deal of media coverage. A leather suit, rounded on the hips and shoulders, a zip dress with a geometric shape open back, another dress in jersey with a zip winding around the entire body followed, featuring heavily in a number of important publications at the beginning of the Maison Alaïa.

O.S. – In 1981, you are the favorite couturier of all the fashion magazines. When describing your style, already very present and firmly in place, they say that you combine the craft of the tailor and the imagination of the designer. That same year, you reviewed one by one, like a small vocabulary guide, the details and the focal points of your creations that are described as typographical and sensual.14 You highlight therein the importance of the bias cut that molds and slides over the body. You also talk about zips, like the ones on the biker jackets that inspire you to place them in such a way that they are visible on the dresses, like jewelry that is archaic yet modern, useful and beautiful. You mention incrustations, laces, darts, affirmed topstitching. Each chapter can still today constitute the vocabulary of your current collections.

A.A. – The materials have also been very important. The leather that I wanted to make more feminine, more delicate, sometimes with a little more fragility. I treated it the same way as other haute couture fabrics, for day or evening. Denim is a contemporary fabric in which I like to cut refined yet comfortable dresses, like biker jackets. I molded it like a bas-relief. I also used chiffon abundantly and from very early on, its transparency allows the skin tone to be visible through it. I added press-studs, eyelets or studs – items considered utilitarian – onto clothes in refined, sumptuous fabrics. A diverse range of jersey fabrics have been present in all my collections. For me, stretch knits are a natural derivative from couture jersey. Rather than satisfying myself with its elasticity that naturally clings to the body, I wanted to use it as a cutting fabric and to model it around the silhouette. I tailored it, stitched it, assembled it. With the Coppini company in Italy, I led infinite and innovative research to succeed in producing soft and fluffy boiled wools that give reliefs, layers and depth to the garments.

O.S. – You sculpted the 1980s according to a new feminine model that spread massively onto the street. All the women were wearing long leggings, sexy dresses, rounded jackets that looked like the designs coming out of the Rue de Bellechasse, then from the Rue du Parc-Royal, next to the Picasso Museum, where you moved in 1984, and installed in a small seventeenth century hôtel particulier, your atelier, shop, and living space. In 1982, the New York department store Bergdorf Goodman invited you to hold a show there. In 1985, from the hands of Grace Jones, host of the awards ceremony, you received two Fashion Oscars on the stage of the Paris Opera. That same year, Jean-Louis Froment, your friend and a long-time admirer of your work, invited you to present a retrospective runway show within a contemporary art museum known for its highly selective program, the CAPC of Bordeaux. What are your thoughts and feelings looking back on that seminal decade?

A.A. – I have never followed fashion. It is women who have dictated my actions. It is necessary to know the academy of their bodies in order to know what they want before they know themselves. As the years passed, I have followed the teachings of their silhouette. The shoulder is essential, the waist primordial. The arch of the back and the backside are capital. The breasts, you can always make them look great. The neck, if it is short, needs to be flattered by a high collar and small shoulder pads. In 1987, I decided to break with the imposed system of seasonal runway shows to concentrate on the clothes, not the passing fashion trends. I like clothes that stay beautiful and eternal, that are not betrayed by details, ornaments, or colors that age them prematurely. Those are the designs that are the simplest yet the most difficult to create. I have created clothes in my mind that I have esteemed to be finished almost ten years after beginning the first toiles. Certain jackets, I am correcting them endlessly, to the great despair of my closest collaborators. There are garments that are made to never be produced. The research is more important. Naomi Campbell, Farida Khelfa, Linda Spierings, Veronica Webb, Stephanie Seymour, Marie-Sophie Wilson – I am grateful to them all for accompanying me through lengthy sessions of poses, fittings and research.

O.S. – You have said before: “the past is clear, the future is yet to be revealed”.15 You are one of the only, probably the only couturier to nurture a peaceful and respectful relationship with the history of fashion and its rich heritage. Now at the head of your own Foundation, you have long since acquired a collection of archive garments, from all eras, that would put a number of fashion museums to shame. From where did it come, this desire to preserve the memory of your predecessors and contemporaries?

A.A. – Having a great love of and passion for the techniques of cut and the wide range of possibilities that they provide to our craft, I have always believed that it is one’s duty to confront oneself with the virtuosities of other masters of fashion. When the Balenciaga fashion house closed in 1968, I acquired the cardboard tailor’s dummy of Farah Diba that had been conserved in the ateliers. I also took away dustbin bags full of dresses from which I thought I might make use of the zip, the fabric, or take apart a sleeve. But when I got home and looked at them, I was stunned by their beauty and by the hand that had created them and seemed present in the dresses still. It was impossible for me to dream of touching these clothes. To intervene in any way on these examples of equilibrium would have been sacrilege, and it appeared to me as a matter of urgency to rescue others. Since many years, I have been buying and receiving the dresses, the coats, the jackets that testify to the great history of fashion. It has become for me somewhat of a matter of state to preserve them, a mark of solidarity towards those who, before me, have had the pleasure and the exigency of the scissors. It is my way of paying homage to all of the craft and the ideas that these garments manifest. In 1984, responding to an initiative of Yvonne Deslandres and for an article in the magazine Jardin des Modes16, I demonstrated the procedure, which until then nobody had been able to fathom, of how to twist the fabric and dress on to the body a gown by Madeleine Vionnet preserved in the collections of the Musée des Arts de la Mode. Since then, I think I have in my own humble way contributed to the recognition of a great couturier, who had a great love of bias cut and who has developed and provided us with an infinite number of ways to apply the technique, from the most simple to the most complex. My knowledge of technique has been an instrument of analysis and rehabilitation. When I was in New York in 1982, for the runway show organized by Bergdorf Goodman, I enjoyed visiting the collections both on display and in storage of the museums Fashion Institute of Technology and the Brooklyn Museum. There I discovered the work of Charles James, who I now consider to be the greatest of all the American couturiers. His sumptuous gowns are examples of architecture and of science. I have since purchased a number of his unique and exceptional creations. The work of contemporary designers also captures my attention. Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, Vivienne Westwood, Yohji Yamamoto and Junya Watanabe create skillful work of a high level, which is why I have also preserved some of their garments in my collection. Although our styles, especially when it comes to the Japanese designers, are very different , we share a community of spirit and values.

O.S. – Your name is synonymous with a number of legendary dresses: the cut-out dress (also known as the bandage dress), the zip dress, the skater skirt and dress, the knit sheath dress with Iberian accents. All of them icons of fashion history and plumb lines that punctuate your path as a couturier. Is it possible to isolate, as we can with other designers, periods dominated by particular stylistic influences? Is your work in any way segmented according to certain decades or seasons?

A.A. – I do not believe that I have cast aside a single one of the ideas that I have pursued since the beginning. I feel rather more that I have placed them in an evolution. The technical knowledge that has always deeply interested me has enabled me to drive ideas forward, to take them down other roads and create new leads, each time with a greater exactitude and refinement. I am the artisan of my own knowledge. Every day I feel that I am an apprentice, that I am learning. I created the cut-out or bandage dress in 1983 after seeing the Egyptian mummies and discovering the careful and painstaking technique used to embalm them. The bodies compressed by methodically placed bandages directly influenced the creation of that dress, which paradoxically allowed complete freedom of movement. The Spring-Summer 1990 collection was dedicated almost exclusively to the technique that I had perfected and that, on the runway, sculpted the majestic bodies of Naomi Campbell or Linda Evangelista. In versions both long and short, in black, white or bronze green, those cut-out dresses are an anatomical manifest, and were copied enormously afterwards. More recently, in the Haute Couture collections of Autumn-Winter 2003-2004, I think I took the idea of lacing up the body in many new directions. In 1982, I had to create dresses in chiffon in a very particular way. Because I didn’t have enough fabric, I came up with the idea of joining together panels of bright colors that I then veiled over with black chiffon. This principal of masking, of toning down a color by a smoky veil, reached a culmination in the dress of 2003 which fanned out in different hues hidden under a very fine chiffon which acted as a shadow over the garment. I think every one of my dresses contains the pedigree of a design that came before it, whether it be from two seasons ago or ten years ago. That is what makes people say that there is an Alaïa philosophy, an Alaïa practice, rather than a fashion trend. The handsewn white shirts that women wore under their clothes in centuries past and those of the men, with stiff collars, have always inspired me. That would make a very interesting exhibition to put together, on the theme of shirts from the eighteenth century to present day. Every single one of my collections contains at least one, more often many white shirts. I have elongated the panels to transform them into dresses with upturned folds imitating origami hens. Others I have shortened transforming them into bolero jackets. I like the white of the cotton, its freshness, it flatness. I also like to dilute it in barely-visible hues that recall the sweet scent of summer and the starch. It is most probably linked to my souvenirs of the nuns of Notre-Dame de Sion, their cornets that were so very white, just like their skin and whose grace fascinated me. The polar opposite of white, black is also omnipresent in my collections. Depending on the material to which it lends itself, it takes on different qualities, and satisfies the requirements of modeling, of sculpture, as no other color does.

O.S. – You are known for your work, but also for your sense of hospitality and your warm welcome – you sometimes finish stitching a dress over dinner. At your table at Rue de la Verrerie, where you set up your home and ateliers in 1990, one can be seated next to artists, designers, famous people from the world of fashion, models and actresses, but also the assistants who work at the Maison Alaïa. All of the people that are a part of your daily life have their place beside you in an eclectic mix the likes of which doesn’t really exist anymore in Paris. Dressed in your Chinese suit, people say you have 300 identical sets, you always seem to be the same person that you were when you arrived in the French capital: eager to meet new people, passionate about your craft. What rewards are important in your eyes?

A.A. – Over the course of my career, many Ministers of Culture have wanted to decorate me with honors and titles. To them all, with much kindness and sincerity, I have invariably replied that I have already received the greatest recompense the day that I received French citizenship. In 1989, on the occasion of the celebrations of the bicentennial anniversary of the French Revolution, I had the honor of creating the dress that the singer Jessye Norman would wear in the parade directed by Jean-Paul Goude. Using the French flag, I created the blue-white-red dress of this country that welcomed me so warmly. Jessye Norman performed the Marseillaise wearing that gown, which was more intangible than real, that I nonetheless consider to be the strong testimony of my accomplished realization of being a Parisian couturier.

Epilogue —Since many years, Azzedine Alaïa has been showing collections that are impossible to differentiate as Haute Couture or ready-to-wear. Refined, timeless, they are of Haute Couture that is ready to be worn. A week later than the other runway shows, he continues to invite to his Maison to see his clothes both friends and professionals. His collections are models of execution but also the expression of a style that has become a plumb line running through the history of contemporary fashion. At the close of the runway presentation, Alaïa refuses to come out and take reverence, considering that the work he presents speaks for him and itself. In the large kitchen, Rue de la Verrerie, he holds an open table. Around it come together every evening artists, gallerists, actors, models, pop stars and assistants in a spontaneous assembly that we no longer see anywhere else. Insatiable when it comes to fashion, Alaïa also is very well versed on design that he collects in quantity. He is also inexhaustible concerning cats and dogs that populate his daily life, on the upper floors, and for whom he has an overflowing affection. We sometimes hear him talk about Sidi Bou Saïd where he has bought a house, still undergoing renovation. We suspect it always will be. Probably the idea of going there is more important than actually going. Alaïa doesn’t like to leave often on trips, but when he does get away, he finds himself not wanting to return. His atelier does not in any way resemble those of other contemporary designers who turn it into a showroom of their creation. In Alaïa’s atelier reigns a reassuring, abundant disorder. The table on which he works is a manifest of the knowledge he has accumulated, where books are piled high; he cajoles them, speaks to them, asks them to be so kind as to wait patiently until the day that he has sufficient time to spend with them. But his commitment never weakens. Neither does his passion for his craft. He says that he is every day an apprentice, every day learning. We cannot imagine Alaïa ever stopping working, just as we cannot imagine an artist retiring from their art. On the other hand, he seems very untouched and unfatigued by the stigma of a life of success. Neither the sentiment of ownership, nor the notoriety have succeeded in diverting him from his appetite for creation. “I’m only passing through life”, he softly asserts…

Olivier Saillard, Paris, 2013

1 – Michel Cressole, “Deux solitaires à la recherche de la mode retrouvée. À la recherche du plaisir perdu de la mode”,
Libération, October 13th-14th 1979, p.13.
2 – Cited by Lise Sarfati, Fashion Magazine : Austin Texas, n° 4 September 2008.
3 – Cited by Gilles Decamps and Michel Cressole, Alaïa, “Le petit homme qu’aimaient les femmes”,
Paris Match, December 1988, p.106.
4 – Idem.
5 – The historical records of the Maison Dior state that Monsieur Azzedine Alaïa was there
between the 26th and the 29th of June, 1956..
6 – “Et Alaïa créa la femme”, Elle, October 14th 1991, p.112-117.
7 – Marcel Carné, 1938.
8 – Marcel Carné, 1942.
9 – Dominique Bernard-Deschamps, 1940.
10 – Quoted in « Azzedine Alaïa », Vogue, August 1985, p. 264.
11 – The Autumn-Winter 1984-1985 collection is a particularly strong tribute to Greta Garbo.
12 – For example, for Grace Jones in the James Bond film, A View to Kill (John Glen, 1985), or for Jeanne Moreau
in The Old Lady Who Walked in the Sea (Laurent Heynemann, 1991).
13 – See Vogue, L’Officiel de la Mode, or Elle.
14 – See Lucienne Mardore, “Azzedine Alaïa : Découvre son style neuf, brillant et embellissant”,
Marie Claire, no. 347, July 1981, p.124.
15 – Quoted by Richard Gianorio and Nicole Picart, “Le prince Alaïa ”, Madame Figaro, March 7th 2009, p. 179.
16 – Dominique Vellay, « Une leçon de drapé signée Alaïa », Jardin des Modes, April 1984, p. 42-43.